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“Father of Muskoka” honoured by Gravenhurst Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee

Two historical panels have been unveiled at Cockburn Square at the Muskoka Wharf in Gravenhurst honouring the man who historian and author Richard Tatley calls the “father of Muskoka.”

The panels, unveiled Wednesday, are thanks to the work of the Gravenhurst Municipal Heritage Committee to honour Alexander Peter Cockburn. The panels promote the steamboat era, in which Cockburn played an important role, as well as the square at the Wharf which bears his name.  

Michael Wayling, Chair of the heritage committee, explained that Cockburn first visited Muskoka in 1865 and soon after moved to Gravenhurst where he established himself as a businessman and politician. On top of operating a general store, Cockburn served as MP and MPP for Muskoka and during that time he pressured the government to improve rail and water links to the area. He said that Cockburn also published pamphlets describing the natural beauty of the area and started a steamship business in the north and south areas of the district. “A booming resort industry developed in the Muskoka region that has continued to this present time,” Wayling said. “That makes it easily understood why he is often referred to as the father of Muskoka.”

“This committee is incredible for what they’ve done for this community to memorialize so many of our heritage sites in town,” Mayor of Gravenhurst Paul Kelly said. Two centuries-old wheelhouses were designated as heritage properties in May while the iconic Gravenhurst arch received the same treatment in July. “We’ve been very, very lucky in the Town of Gravenhurst to have a very active heritage committee,” Kelly continued. “This is just another great example of the work they do to preserve the history of the Town of Gravenhurst.”

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Tatley, who also sits on the committee, says Cockburn deserves a lot of credit for promoting the tourism industry locally. “He was, apparently, the first man to sense Muskoka’s possibilities for recreation,” he said. “You have to remember that back in the 1860s it wasn’t fashionable for city people to go off to the wilderness for a summer holiday. City people who went on holiday in those days went down to a fashionable place by the lake like Coburg or Port Stanley where there was a nice beach.”

According to Tatley, who is set to publish an autobiography on Cockburn later this year, says his “life’s work” was to promote Muskoka “in every possible way.” 

However, when Cockburn died in 1905 at the age of 68, Tatley says he was “more or less forgotten.” He was a part of the heritage committee when the gazebo at the Muskoka Wharf was named after A.P. Cockburn. He hopes that, along with the panels that now sit directly beside the gazebo, will teach more about Cockburn’s legacy.

“As a local historian and a longtime admirer of Alexander Peter Cockburn, who did so much for Muskoka, I’ve been scheming for a long time to see if we could get something, somewhere in Muskoka, for a man who, in effect, was the foundation of everything that we are today,” Tatley said.

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