The Early Days – Bala

Article by J. Patrick Boyer

 In 1866 Thomas Burgess from Scotland and his family travelled up the primitive Muskoka Colonization Road to Gravenhurst, and boarded A.P. Cockburn’s just-launched steamship Wenonah. Enraptured by forested shores and pristine waterways crossing to Lake Muskoka’s unsurveyed southwest shore where Musquosh Falls (now known as Musquash Falls) drained the lake over a rocky ridge downriver to Georgian Bay, they became increasingly intent about creating a settlement in the breathtaking land they had heard so much about. The Burgesses had only before seen such splendour at Bala Lake in Wales, also a stunning freshwater glacial lake in serene wilderness.

Thomas and his wife, their children and in-laws went ashore to an abandoned logging camp and occupied the lumbermen’s shanty. A government dam at the falls controlled the lake level. Thomas set about building a sawmill on the river’s mill stream, producing lumber for their house and general store. The family caught pickerel and bass up to 16 pounds and hunted game in the flourishing woods.

Cockburn’s steamship delivered household supplies, items the Burgesses ordered for their store, and livestock to begin “bush-farming” with sheep and cattle grazing and chickens pecking wherever they could find feed. The Burgesses dubbed the wee place their own Bala. Other settlers arrived, most from Great Britain. In 1868, Ontario offered free Muskoka farmland. The homesteader trickle became a flood.

By 1872, Thomas Burgess’s application to be postmaster and his suggested place name “Bala” were both approved. A rite of passage for a pioneer community, landing a post office enabled communications and put the community on the map. That year, opening the Musquosh Road between Bala and Gravenhurst was another leap forward.

Schooling the children got underway in 1875. The Burgesses offered their home until a log schoolhouse was built, with Mrs. Henry Guy as Bala’s first teacher. She and husband Henry, from England, first operated a boarding house, then claimed 200 acres on nearby Acton Island to farm.

 When Thomas Burgess was elected reeve of Medora and Wood’s combined townships, with Bala its hub, his businesses included a general store, bake shop, blacksmith shop, and supply boat to cottagers. Henry Guy became Medora-Wood’s first municipal clerk.

In 1881, Protestant Mohawks led from Quebec by Chief Louis Sahanatien arrived to escape persecution under the Catholics. Thomas assisted with transport downstream through 12 arduous miles of rocky forest to the shore of Gibson Township’s Black Lake where, without the supplies Ottawa promised to re-establish themselves. They struggled like homesteading pioneers to establish Wahta First Nation on their purchased land.

Arriving from England the next year, Ephraim and Rose Anna Sutton cleared a lakeside farm, then launched Camp Sutton for American fishermen and others. With Bala sprouting horse livery operations, boating services, and more people, the couple added the Swastika Hotel and another general store to the community.

 Church life got underway in 1892 when Presbyterian Burgess donated land on which a tidy white church for Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans arose the following year.

By 1907 Canadian Northern Ontario Railway (CNOR) and rival Canadian Pacific Railway both reached Bala, making it Muskoka’s most accessible tourist centre with scenic beauty and recreational opportunities. Each operated busy stations, with CNOR even adding a second for summer, delivering thousands of visitors to waiting steamships, transforming Bala into such a lively place the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) opened its first Ontario detachment and Canada Customs began in-land clearance service for American vacationers.

 Bala boomed providing all the services its burgeoning tourist trade demanded. In 1914, with population enough for municipal incorporation, Bala skipped the village stage to become Canada’s smallest town – its proud mayor was Dr. Alfred Burgess, son of the community’s visionary founders.