History of the Bala Falls
Burgess Island has provided a portage past the Bala Falls for First Nation travellers, Courier de Bois with fur-laden birch bark canoes, early explorer David Thompson, and more recently summer camps like YMCA Camp Pine Crest and recreational canoe trippers on their own personal voyages of exploration and discovery.
One of the oldest buildings in Bala and the first building on the island was erected by Sam Hurling late in the 19th century. He operated a Boat Livery renting canoes and rowing skiffs and also an Ice Cream Parlour. When surveyors arrived to determine the route for the railway they discovered that Sam’s building was sitting on the railroad right of way. Sam moved the building out of the way to the spot it presently occupies.
The boat business was sold to the following owners over the years: John Hamill, George Adams, W. “Mack” Cunningham, Tom Purkis and Jennifer Purkis.
The only other building on the island is the old stone church erected in 1926.
Burgess Memorial Church, 1035 Bala Falls Road, Bala
This stone church sits on an island surrounded by falls. Named for Bala’s founder, Thomas W. Burgess, it was constructed in 1926 of stones supplied by congregation members, some of whom were from the United States. This site was the first in the township to be designated under the Ontario Heritage Act.
It is presently owned by Yoke Chan who has made extensive repairs the past few years.
David Thompson, Explorer/Geographer
(April 30, 1770 – February 10, 1857)
from The Muskoka Sun, Thursday, August 2, 2007, by Jack Hutton (posted with permission).
Aug. 13, 1837 — on the shores of what will come to be known as the Moon River, not far below the future settlement of Bala Falls, rain falls steadily as a small group of men struggle to put up an aging tent not far from where they have pulled their canoes onto the shore. Their exhausted leader is 67 and looks in worse shape than the tent. He is half blind with no sight in his right eye. He limps. Deep lines in his weather-beaten ruddy face betray a lifetime of exposure to the outdoors. His hair is cut square across, just above his eyebrows. A blunt nose completes the portrait of an odd-looking guy.
Today, we have good reason to remember that odd-looking guy. His name was David Thompson. In his lifetime, he surveyed and mapped more than 1.5 million square miles in western Canada and parts of the United States. He discovered the headwaters of the Mississippi. He was the first white man — perhaps even the first man — to travel the length of the Columbia River. Some have called David Thompson the world’s finest land geographer, not only in his lifetime, but in the entire history of the world.
This month marks the 170th anniversary of Thompson canoeing through Muskoka. If you are reading this on a dock, Thompson may have passed by within waving distance. He paddled almost right by where my wife Linda and I live on Bala Bay. In 1837, that was the only way he and his party could get around the future Bala Park Island. After that, the exact route gets hazy.
Location: In the parking lot, H-Way 169, Bala
THE PRECAMBRIAN SHIELD
The surrounding rock formation is among the oldest of the Earth’s crust. Formed between one and two billion years ago, it is part of the Precambrian Shield, which occupies two-thirds of the surface area of Ontario. Unsuited to agriculture, the Shield impeded early settlement, yet it contained the economic potential from which much of Ontario‘s wealth is derived. Beneath its surface lies the greater part of the province’s mineral resources, while on it grows most of its timber and pulpwood. Thousands of lakes were carved in the Shield by the ice-sheets of the last glacial period and these, with its forests, offer unparalleled facilities for vacationers and sportsmen.
Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario
Location: In Bala, in a park north of the north bridge on the west side of County Road 169
FOUNDING OF BALA 1868
Thomas W. Burgess, Bala’s first settler, brought his family here to “Musquosh Falls” in 1868, probably aboard the steamer “Wenonah”. Burgess opened a sawmill and store to serve the pioneers attracted by Muskoka’s free land grants. A post-office named after Bala in Wales and with Burgess as postmaster, was established by 1872. That year the Musquosh Road linked Bala with Gravenhurst and by the 1880’s the settlement was benefiting from a growing tourist trade. Railways reached Bala by 1907 and it became one of Muskoka’s most accessible tourist resorts. When it was incorporated as a town in 1914, Dr. A.M. Burgess, a son of the community’s founder, became the first mayor.
Erected by the Archeological and Historic Sites Board,
This pioneer generating station on the Muskoka River provided electric power to Bala, Port Carling, MacTier and surrounding districts. Completed in 1917, it was built and operated by the Bala Electric Light and Power Company. In the 1880s a timber dam and waterwheel were built at this site to supply motive power for a sawmill which operated until 1910. The electric power plant was purchased by Ontario Hydro in 1929 and designated Bala Generating Station No. 1. The development, with a capacity of 245 kilowatts was retired from service in 1957.
ERECTED BY ONTARIO HYDRO
Location: Near the Govt. Wharf, H-Way 117, Baysville
EXPLORERS OF MUSKOKA
Following the War of 1812 expeditions traversed the wilderness between Lakes Simcoe and Muskoka and the Ottawa River, seeking a route across Upper Canada less open to attack than by the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario. In 1819 Lieut. J.P. Catty, R.E., crossed by way of Balsam and Kashagawigamog Lakes and the York and Madawaska Rivers. Lieut. Henry Briscoe, R.E., and Ensign Durnford, R.E., ascended the Muskoka in 1826, proceeding via Lake of Bays, Lake Opeongo and the Petawawa. Other expeditions through Muskoka were led by Alexander Shirreff, 1829, Lieut. J. Carthew, R.N., and Lieut. F.H. Baddeley, R.E., 1835: and David Thompson, 1837.
Archaeological and Historic Sites Board of Ontario