Mark Clairmont | MuskokaTODAY.com

GRAVENHURST — Call it civic pride with a ride.

As far as neighbourhood improvements go, few have the history of the Ditchburn Bay Boathouse Association.

Affectionately known around town as the “Tin Boathouses,” the 50+ boat owners who treasure the “original Muskoka Wharf” off Steamship Bay Road celebrated their nautical and transportation hub history here this week with a new Ditchburn Bay Heritage Garden they made happen.

A stone’s throw from the glossy, decade-old usurper of the same name, these seasonal residents are proud of their 145-year heritage that dates back at least to 1875 officially.

And likely earlier.

Tuesday after 15 years as an association and unofficial caretaker of the Lake Muskoka waterfront landmark, they erected a small sign to commemorate their place in local lore.

The intersection of where trains steamed pioneers into Muskoka and steamships couriered them up the lakes 50 miles to the farthest port — Port Cockburn — said Muskoka Discovery Centre historian Mary Storey in her remarks.

Humble enough, the simple sign is fittingly made of wood, the lifeblood that filled Ditchburn Bay with log booms more than a century ago and arguably made the town what it is today.

The archival photo prominent in its centre setting (with room for more to surround it) famously shows the Original Wharf with a train, train station and ships.

Storey’s brief history of its opening day (and more photos) elsewhere here in MuskokaTODAY.com tells this incredible story more succinctly.

It’s a story worth celebrating — like having two popes.

This sunny July 28 was, agreed most of the “48” on hand not unlike a day in the 19th century when it would be bustling with people.

Mayor Paul Kelly, who cut a ribbon to open the garden — a small patch of groomed grass the size of a couple large coal carts — remarked that it was the town’s first official public gathering since COVID-19.

A few wore masks and while social distancing was on everyone’s minds safety came second.

The festive mood and agreeable weather — bright blue sky, breath-taking white clouds — overcame corona and the only shadows were from a blazing sun.

Boathouse owner Jamie Aitken, the Ditchburn association president who MC’d the 30-minute gathering next to where Herb Ditchburn’s boat-building factory was at the site of the present-day Marriot Hotel, called this a momentous day.

His wife, Susan, even wrote a poem marking the occasion — “as they would have in the day.”

All who raised a cold ginger-ale in toast agreed it was deserving, if overdue recognition, thanks to the owners, the preservers of their own history.

Storey said the locale was the jumping-off point for Muskoka, the “beginning of the tourism boom” in Muskoka that still sustains the district in many key ways.

In 1875 trains would come up from Toronto each day to meet the three ships that would dock by noon and leave at 3 p.m. with passengers and cargo of livestock to travel north west to small resorts, communities, villages and island retreats.

Around this Muskoka Steamships port grew a global lumbering trade, international boatbuilding reputation and railway hub that was the envy of the rest of Muskoka and eventually spawned a unique distinct financial, cultural important Central Ontario district.

In 2020 the Original Wharf has seen better days, but thanks to the Ditchburn association and its “unofficial mayor” Ken Bowins and long-time owners like Terry and Susan Stevenson, Greg Knapp and Larry Green among dozens of others (including some renters), the future looks brighter than it has in decades.

To them it’s more than a boat slip. It’s a community. A neighbourhood like Cheers.

It may even rightly resurrect a forgotten bid to spruce them up with facade improvement grants from the town.

Once you couldn’t give them away, but now the cherished tin cans are prized possessions, most mere covered docks for modern boat day-trippers, while a few others are spiffed up behind closed doors or in Aitken’s case a with more cottage feel without the creature comforts.

For now, a few flowers and some more photos will have to suffice.

Local historians like Storey, Richard Tatley and Colin Old and Eileen Godfrey of the Gravenhurst Archives who were on hand will work to make nubs like this one more prominent and proud features of the Gateway to Muskoka.

A re-branding of a rich past.

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