By Aaron Person
Segwun, in Algonquin, means springtime. Thus, the first sounding of the RMS Segwun’s steam whistle marks the arrival of spring on Lake Muskoka. Muskoka, approximately ninety minutes north of Toronto, is a glimmering network of channels and bays hidden within the forests of Ontario. It is much like Lake Minnetonka in this regard. Muskoka is also a mecca among antique and classic boat enthusiasts with annual shows and rendezvouses being among the region’s biggest summer highlights. Crowning above all other historic craft, however, is perhaps the most well-known icon of the Muskoka region: the RMS Segwun – a gleaming white passenger steamship approximately 125 feet long, three decks tall, with a red and black funnel atop her superstructure. She cuts through the water ever so gracefully, blowing her signature steam whistle for onlookers waving from shore, just as she has done for over 120 years.
Built as the side-wheeler Nipissing in 1887, the ship now known as Segwun was put into service as a packet boat that would bring people and goods to and from a number of landings all around the lake, making stops at resorts and private docks along the way – a service which essentially mirrored that of Minnehaha‘s. All connections to civilization were tied in the communities of Bracebridge and Gravenhurst, where summer tourists and lake residents alike would arrive by train from Toronto, Montreal, New York, Detroit, and beyond.
Nipissing provided this service until 1915. Then, after sitting idle for several years, she underwent a major overhaul which upgraded her to “modern” 1920s standards. This involved removing her paddle wheels, making room for two coal-burning compound engines that would propel a set of twin screws below her waterline. Once the conversion was completed, the vessel had become so radically changed that she was officially renamed Segwun. The vessel, as Segwun, would provide virtually the same service as before, but with the added bonus of being designated a Royal Mail Steamer, hence the prefix “RMS.” This meant that tourists and residents on the lake could drop their letters and postcards into an on-board mailbox and have it be sent anywhere in the world.
Segwun operated quite successfully under her RMS title for several decades, but by the end of the 1950s it seemed as if her fate had been sealed. Her running mates, of which there were several, had all been decommissioned one-by-one throughout that decade as roads and automobiles became ever more prevalent and convenient to use. Unlike the similar situation on Lake Minnetonka, the Muskoka steamships were not scuttled, but were rather laid up permanently to rot away and be scrapped. One vessel, Sagamo, the largest steamship ever to ply Lake Muskoka, burned in a blazing inferno while laid up at Gravenhurst. Segwun happened to be tied up adjacent to Sagamo when this occurred, but by some miracle was spared from the flame.
Having escaped such a close encounter with death, Segwun sat idle for several more years until she had fallen into such major disrepair that it seemed as though she would be scrapped. Refusing to see her die such a shameful death, a concerned group of Muskoka area residents organized a charity and began fundraising for a restoration that would allow Segwun to return to active service. This took plenty of time and effort, but by 1981 the job was done, and once again Segwun’s steam whistle could be heard bellowing across the lake. Springtime had returned.
Today Segwun, along with her new running mate Wenonah II (built 2002), operates out of Gravenhurst on an almost daily basis from May through October. While vacationing in the Toronto and Niagara Falls region, my family and I were fortunate enough to pay a short visit to Lake Muskoka and the RMS Segwun. Our voyage departed the pier on a lovely late summer afternoon – the sky was a radiant blue and a gentle breeze swept off the glistening water. We steamed through narrow channels and past countless islands along the way, blowing the steam whistle for onlookers waving from shore. The crew told us stories from the lake’s past and about many of the magnificent homes that we encountered along the way. They even gave my brother the honor of steering for a while. But the trip could not be complete without sending postcards back home, and Segwun, still wielding her RMS title, could not be a more unique place to do so – it is something that can only be done aboard three other ships in the world. So we filled out our postcards with tales from our vacation and dropped them in the ship’s mailbox to be sent to family back in Minnesota.
Like Minnehaha, the RMS Segwun provides an experience that is both special and unique. For one, she is the oldest steamship operating in North America and one of the last which still burn coal. The fact that she is a Royal Mail Steamer also makes her unique. But there is something about the fact that she has been so deeply cherished by the people of Lake Muskoka for so long, escaping death and ruin a few times over, that makes her so remarkably special. They embrace her as their regional icon and take pride in her graceful silhouette as she glides across the water, sounding her whistle to those on shore, just as she has done for over 120 years.