Muskoka Boathouses – History & Things to Consider

Boathouse & cottage on Lake Joseph, Muskoka

Boathouses - Iconic Muskoka Landmarks


The history of boathouses in Muskoka is a rich and fascinating one, closely intertwined with the development of the region as a summer destination for Canada's wealthy elite. From the earliest days of cottage life to the present day, the boathouse has remained an iconic symbol of the Muskoka lifestyle.

The first cottages in Muskoka were built in the late 19th century, primarily by wealthy families from Toronto and other nearby cities looking for a summer escape. These early cottages were often rustic and utilitarian, with no indoor plumbing or electricity, but they provided a welcome respite from the heat and noise of the city.

As the popularity of Muskoka grew, so too did the size and complexity of the cottages being built. By the turn of the 20th century, many of these properties were more like small estates, with multiple buildings and amenities designed to accommodate large groups of family and friends. In the early days of boathouse construction, the buildings were primarily used to store boats and other watercraft. However, over time, their role expanded to include other functions, such as guest accommodations, recreation areas, and even dining rooms. Many of the grandest boathouses in Muskoka were equipped with luxurious amenities like stone fireplaces, polished hardwood floors, and expansive decks that offered stunning views of the surrounding lake.

One of the key features of these early cottages was the boathouse. Originally built to provide storage and protection for the family's boats, the boathouse soon evolved into something much more elaborate. In many cases, boathouses were built on a grand scale, with multiple stories, living quarters, and even ballrooms for entertaining guests.

The design of the boathouse also evolved over time, reflecting changing tastes and architectural styles. In the early days, boathouses were often simple structures made of wood, with a basic gable roof and a single slip for a boat. As the years went by, however, boathouses became more elaborate, with features like turrets, balconies, and ornate carvings.

The construction of boathouses in Muskoka was also closely tied to the region's boat-building industry. Many of the early builders of boathouses were also skilled boat builders, and they brought a high level of craftsmanship to their work. In many cases, the boats and the boathouse were designed as a single entity, with the boat slip integrated into the structure of the boathouse itself. Some fine examples can still be found on Lake Joseph and Rosseau.

Lake Rosseau cottage, Muskoka Ontario

One of the most famous examples of the Muskoka style boathouse is the Royal Muskoka Hotel boathouse, built in the early 1900s. The boathouse, which could accommodate up to 100 boats at a time, was an essential part of the hotel's appeal, providing guests with easy access to the lake and all its recreational opportunities. Today, the boathouse is gone, but its legacy lives on in the memories of those who visited it in its heyday.

New Boathouse Rules

The Muskoka style boat house has long been a cherished feature of the cottage life in Ontario, and for many, it is an iconic symbol of this unique region. However, recent legal disputes have made building these structures much more difficult, potentially changing the landscape of cottage country as we know it.

In particular, a recent ruling in the case of Glaspell v Ontario has caused significant concern for boathouse builders and property owners across the province. The case centered around a dispute over a 1000 square foot floating boathouse on a small lake in the Kawarthas. The court was asked to clarify several key questions about the construction and use of boathouses and docks on Ontario's lakes and rivers. The court ultimately ruled that the Ontario Building Code Act, 1992 applies to structures built on, over, in, or under Ontario lakes, and that municipalities have the jurisdiction to enact and apply by-laws to these structures. Additionally, boathouses and docks now require approval at both the municipal and provincial levels, creating a potential bottleneck of applications for review and approval. For many property owners, this ruling has significant implications, particularly for those looking to build new boat houses or docks. In addition to purchasing or leasing lakefront property from the Province of Ontario, multiple permits may now be required, depending on the location.

Despite these challenges, there are still opportunities to build and enjoy these iconic structures. For those looking for recommendations for builders and contractors in Muskoka and Parry Sound, we're here to help. Just contact us ans we would be happy to connect you with someone who know the rules and regulations on your specific lake.

As always, it's essential to do your due diligence before purchasing a waterfront property. Not all lakes allow boathouses, and different areas of the same lake may have different by-laws.

The bottom line is this: If you’re planning a boathouse build or renovation that has a crib over 15 square meters, is on protected water (or land) or is more than one storey high be sure to inquire with both the municipality and province about what permits may be needed.

Muskoka cottage & boathouse


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