Today’s post comes from Lisa Roach, Chief Naturalist at Bon Echo Provincial Park.
Did you know that some of your favorite provincial parks, like Bon Echo, Sandbanks, Presqu’ile and Algonquin, have hosted summer vacations for nature lovers since the turn of the century?
At the end of the 19th century, pioneer society was changing. Increased prosperity led to growing interest in summer resorts and leisure activities. The people of Ontario used their own nature for recreation, just as we do today.
Resorts became a popular gathering place for the well-to-do, such as Lakeshore Lodge (Sandbanks) or Bartlett Lodge (Algonquin).
More than 100 years ago, Bon Echo Provincial Park became home to the quintessential summer recreational destination: the Bon Echo Inn.
Building a nature-lwithdrawal of overs
Dr. Weston Price and his wife Florence were on their honeymoon in the Bon Echo area in 1899.
They fell in love with the area and decided to build an inn in front of Mazinaw Rock.
The couple imagined it as a healthy, comfortable and respectful refuge, where nature lovers could escape the summer heat of the cities. Dr. Price felt that Bon Echo inspired the mind and rejuvenated the body, some of the reasons people still go there today.
The Prices purchased lakefront property on Lake Mazinaw and had an architect design a resort like those found in the United States.
Can you imagine how difficult it would be to get lumber, nails, and other supplies to build a resort in 1900 and 1901?
The Bon Echo Inn opened its doors in the summer of 1901. It was a three-story structure with 50 beds and terraces around it, with a magnificent view of Mazinaw Rock.
Surrounding the inn were five shoreline cabins, tent platforms, a boathouse, a windmill, a 30-foot water tower, and a dock on either side of a narrow canal that connected the top. and lower Mazinaw Lake.
As with many other 19th century resorts, the inn had religious connotations. No liquor was allowed on the premises and visitors were expected to attend Sunday services in the dining room.
Are we there yet?
Most of the visitors to the Bon Echo Inn came from the United States, and getting to the hotel was no easy task.
Getting to Bon Echo in the early 20th century involved traveling by train, horse and buggy (later by car), and then by boat.
One left Montreal or Toronto by train in the morning and got off at the Kaladar train station around 2 pm. In 1906, a return train ticket from Toronto to Kaladar cost $5.75.
Inn staff would be waiting to take guests in horse-drawn carriages up a rough, rocky road to the south end of Mazinaw Lake. Guests were transferred to a boat for a 9.5 km ride across the lake to the inn’s dock.
The boats used to transport people to the inn were called Wanderer and Tuttle. Sounds familiar? The Wanderer is still the name of a tour boat that operates out of Bon Echo.
The guests would arrive at the inn around four in the afternoon, just in time for tea.
Exploring the inn
The ground floor had a dining room, living room, hall, living room and kitchen. The top two floors had bedrooms.
Rustic decor was everywhere, with furniture and ceiling beams made from birch posts without the birch bark.
Gardens supplied some of the guests’ food, while local farms supplied milk, eggs, vegetables, cheese and meat. The fruit came from local orchards. A large bell was used to call guests to dinner.
In 1906, staying at the inn cost between $9 and $15 a week, and that included all meals! This may seem cheap to us today, but at the turn of the century these rates restricted the inn’s clientele to wealthy guests.
Guests loved swimming and fishing in the waters of Mazinaw Lake, or renting rowboats, canoes, or small boats with inboard motors. They often relaxed on the terrace of the inn, taking in the stunning view.
The ladder used to climb Mazinaw Rock
More adventurous guests can walk across a wooden footbridge that crosses the Narrows, the narrow canal near the inn.
The footbridge led to a wooden and iron staircase that ascended the face of Mazinaw Rock. As you can see, this was not for the faint of heart.
Part of the old staircase can still be seen today on the Cliff Top Trail.
In 1910, the Prices sold the inn to Flora MacDonald Denison for approximately $12,000.
On their next visit to Bon Echo, guests would find major changes to the inn they knew and loved.
A place for artists and thinkers.
Flora was an author and admirer of the American poet Walt Whitman. Flora dedicated herself to women’s causes, especially the right to vote.
Under Flora’s ownership, the inn opened for the 1911 season with several changes.
A brochure from the time said: “Bon Echo should be a place of joyful pleasure for the young, as well as a place of rest and tranquility for the elderly and a safe place for children. Music, dancing and games, land and water contests and exploratory excursions will be encouraged. Professors, artists and lecturers with liberal minds will be invited to express their best and most noble expressions.”
An inscription carved in 1920 commemorating Flora’s love for Walt Whitman.
The tone of the new inn was intellectual, but not stuffy, and alcohol was permitted. As a visitor, she could attend a lecture on Walt Whitman or be part of a discussion on the suffrage movement with Charlotte Perkins Gilman, American author and lecturer on social reform. Charlotte was a friend of Flora.
You could listen to a band play at dances, attend a seance, or enjoy a poetry reading. Outdoor activities included tennis and croquet courts.
Guests can rent a boat for the day for a leisurely tour of Mazinaw Lake or enjoy a clifftop picnic.
Children who visited the inn had their own dining room and a chef specialized in children’s meals.
After Flora’s death in 1921, her son Merrill and his wife Muriel took over the inn in the spring of 1922. Merrill was a well-known author and playwright in Canada and the United States.
He expanded the resort with a few more cabins, including one called Dollywood, now the Visitor Center.
In the fall of 1927, construction began on a nine-hole golf course, designed by famed golf course designer Stanley Thompson. Merrill also added an equestrian center with horses and ponies, and several tennis and badminton courts.
The inn was now much more artistic than progressive. Merrill was a member of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto and was associated with Group of Seven artists such as AJ Casson, Arthur Lismer, Franklin Carmichael and AY Jackson.
Merrill commissioned artists to make promotional materials for the inn. Several of them stayed at the inn or in one of the cabins while they worked. Other artists such as FM Bell-Smith and Charles Comfort also visited the site to paint.
Since Merrill was a playwright, the theater played an important role in the life of the inn under his direction. An open-air theater was built on the beach below the inn.
If you liked drama, you, other guests, and some of the staff would meet about three times a week to come up with an idea for a play, such as an incident on a fishing trip.
The group would give it dramatic shape, get some actors and present it in costume in the open-air theater. There would be two or three presentations per night.
The disappearance of the inn.
The Bon Echo Inn and other early resorts fell on hard times in the late 1920s.
The inn closed in 1928 and Merrill suffered from a lack of capital after 1929, shortly before the Great Depression.
In September 1936, lightning struck the Bon Echo Inn. The entire building was consumed by flames within 1 or 2 hours, and the Bon Echo Inn was no more.
Cabin on the hill
Today, all that remains are three buildings from the Bon Eho Inn era: Dollywood (now the Visitor Center), Greystones (now the Friends of Bon Echo cafe and gift shop), and Cabin on the Hill.
The inn and remaining buildings are recognized by the Ontario Heritage Trust as being of provincial significance for the well-known artists who painted and drew here, and for the ideals of Flora. A plaque between Dollywood and Greystones commemorates her importance.
Next time you’re in Bon Echo, check out these buildings and where the inn used to be.
Close your eyes and imagine you were there during the heyday of one of Ontario’s first resorts, the Bon Echo Inn.