A haunting countryside

ONTARIO - VANISHED COMMUNITIES, FOUND CULTURE

A haunting countryside

Come fall, cottage country can feel like a ghost town. Then there’s the real thing – the silent ruins of once-bustling local bergs. Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva, the authors of Ghost Towns of Muskoka, dish on the best places to seek out the past

The very term “ghost town” suggests something haunting. It implies a community reduced to forlorn buildings and silent ruins, a community that is a mere shadow (or spectre) of what it once was. You almost expect to encounter the spirits of long-dead residents. Perhaps that’s why ghost-town tours in the American west are particularly popular in the lead-up to Halloween. People venture from far and wide to explore forgotten mining camps and vanished villages. And most do find spirits – at least the spirit of the communities in question.

But you don’t have to go so far afield. For those who have a passion for history, Muskoka – today known as a summer playground, but formerly a harsh frontier region of bush farms and logging camps – is rich with ghost-town heritage. Scattered across cottage country are many extinct communities, each with a unique story to tell.

While researching our book, we explored eleven of the region’s lost villages. Two of the most memorable: Germania and Falkenburg. Germania was a farming hamlet that, as the name implies, was settled by people of Germanic origin and slowly perished during the 20th century. Falkenburg Junction had a more sudden demise. When the railway came through, the residents moved their community trackside. Herewith, our picks for the best spots to get a feel for these ghost towns, and a glimpse of Ontario’s past.

GERMANIA

GERMANIA SCHOOLHOUSE

Unaltered pioneer-era schoolhouses are surprisingly rare in Ontario; most were torn down when one-room schools went out of style, or were converted into private homes so as to be all but unrecognizable today. That makes this weathered structure particularly appealing: Built in 1888 for $405, it was the schoolhouse for as many as 43 students a year, with lessons originally taught in German (the primary language at home). Teachers rarely stayed more than a year or two and the school closed in 1960. The building was eventually left to the elements. Plus, of course, travellers seeking good ghost-town photos.

GILBERT LUTHERAN CHURCH

In 1876, the villagers of Germania decided to build a church: William Gilbert donated a parcel of land, Herman Weissmuller provided lumber from his sawmill, and the entire community came to erect the structure. The interior is little changed from that time. It’s still heated by an old wood stove, the pews are original and the mouse-proof pump organ donated in 1921 remains. There are even services in summertime. But it’s best to see this rustic church in the fall – the leaves frame the hewn-log building, which unlike many in Ontario is not covered with veneer.

GILBERT HOME

A connection to founding families is the holy grail of ghost-town hunting. It provides an intimate link to the community’s earliest years. Thus the thrill of this site: William Gilbert and his wife hailed from Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany, and were among the first settlers in Germania. Together they carved a prosperous farm out of the imposing Muskoka wilderness, complete with a fine dairy herd and many hectares of oats and beans.

FALKENBURG

FALKENBURG CEMETERY AND CHURCH When Matthias Moore subdivided his land into town lots in 1874, he made sure to dedicate one plot to a church and graveyard. St. George’s Anglican Church has since been moved. But the cemetery remains. And among the weathered and leaning markers are those of Moore himself, his wife Susan, and many of their descendants. Their gravestones are eerily symbolic of the fate of the community they called home.

MOORE HOME/POST OFFICE This historic building hasn’t delivered mail in more than 100 years. But it still delivers a good yarn. Moved to Matthias Moore’s home in 1871, the post office was robbed a year later. The masked desperado levelled a pistol at Moore’s wife, demanding all the cash, money orders and stamps – then he vaulted onto a “getaway horse” and beat a hasty escape. The bandit was never caught, and in 1894 the post office was closed after more than 30 years in operation. The Moore family continued to live in the home, though, and it remains a private residence.

SAWMILL It wasn’t the soil that attracted people to Muskoka, it was the trees that sprung from it. By the mid-19th century, lumber companies were pressuring the government to open the wilderness up to settlement. The hamlets that sprang up across the region were wholly dependent on the logging industry, and Falkenburg was no different. Matthias Moore built the first sawmill here, a steam-powered operation, in 1872. It burned to the ground in 1914, but a second was built by his grandson. It remained in operation until 1927, when the lumber industry died out in the area. You can see the sawmill’s sagging remains by the millpond.

BARN There’s something about a derelict, decaying building that appeals to our expectations of what a ghost town should be: moody, somehow haunting, a reflection of past tragedy. In the case of this barn, these expectations are particularly appropriate. The barn represents the site of the Orange Hall and the Wellington Hotel; both met a spectacular end. In 1889, a fire broke out in the nearby blacksmith shop. Burning embers were carried by the wind, and despite the best efforts of the community, flames were soon consuming the hotel and hall. Within a few hours, all that remained were blackened timbers. Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva are the authors of Ghost Towns of Muskoka (Dundern Press).

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

Muskoka is a two-hour drive from Toronto (Highway 400 north to Barrie, then Highway 11), or three hours from Ottawa (via Highway 60). To get to the crossroads in Germania, aim for Snowcrest Road. In Falkenburg, the original community was located on Moore Road.

WHERE TO STAY

INN AT THE FALLS 1 Dominion St., Bracebridge; 877-645-9212; www.innatthefalls.net. Rooms in this former home of a prominent 19th century judge range from $90 to $170 a night and include continental breakfast.

DEERHURST RESORT

1235 Deerhurst Dr., Huntsville; 800-461-4393; www.deerhurstresort.com. The 410 rooms and suites here start at $169 a night.

WHAT TO DO

MUSKOKA HERITAGE PLACE

80 Brunel Rd., Huntsville; 705-789-7576; www.muskokaheritageplace.org. A pioneer village with 14 restored buildings, horse-drawn wagon rides and the Portage Flyer – a century old steam train that in years past served the world’s shortest rail-line. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for children (train rides not included).

ALGONQUIN PARK

www.algonquinpark.on.ca. This 7,700-square-kilometre park must surely rank as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The best way to experience it is by leaving your car and setting off into the untouched interior Deerhurst resort can arrange for guided hikes or canoe trips). Also be sure to visit the Algonquin Logging Museum, which traces the history of the industry in the area.

ROSSEAU FALLS South of Highway 141 along Rosseau Road 3. A photographer’s dream, this waterfall is most enchanting in October, when brilliant autumn colours are reflected in the water rushing over the rocks.