Ontario's Cottage Country: A Bit of History

July 2, 2019 | Sam

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As summer weather comes to Ontario, many people hit the road to "cottage country." You may have a favourite hotspot to enjoy the outdoors — but do you know how the region developed into what it is today?

Each area has its own unique history (including its Indigenous land status, as mapped on Native Land). Below are a few historical trends that laid the groundwork for the popularity of cottage country in Ontario, alongside images from Digital Archive Ontario.


The Fresh Air Cure

By the end of the 1800s, many believed that Ontario’s growing cities were unhealthy spaces. As John Michels writes in Permanent Weekend, “it was generally accepted that urban life was bad for the body” (page 36). For those who could afford it, a stay in the country was marketed as the perfect antidote. Books like Picturesque Canada: The Northern Lakes of Canada (digitized book available Digital Archive Ontario) helped families choose their destination.

Book cover with title and publishing information and an inset print of two people in a canoe on a lake and another image of a man pulling canoe from shore with caption reading on the shores of Lake Rosseau
Picturesque Canada book cover (left) and illustration from page 39 (right), 1879.


From Farming to Tourism

Another factor was the poor farming conditions in parts of Ontario. Under the Ontario Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868, land was given to (mainly white) settlers over the age of 18 to encourage them to farm northern Ontario. Often, the land was not suitable for Western agriculture, and in some regions farmers worked as hunting guides to supplement their incomes. These hunting camps tended to attract wealthier visitors from the city, and some of those visitors bought nearby land to build family cottages.

As successful hunting camps became more established, some built longer-lasting cabins or hotels. Windermere House on Lake Rousseau is one example of this trend.


A Changing Economy

Finally, a changing economy positioned some Ontario regions as particularly well suited for cottage country. The Rideau Canal is a good example. Originally built as a “military route to protect against American invasions” (Library and Archives Canada), the canal was used to transport goods and people once completed in 1832. By the early 1900s, however, transportation by railway was becoming much cheaper. Regions around the canal were re-imagined as ready-made vacation land, and by the mid 1900s private cottages were increasingly being built around the waterway.

Canoe paddling through the gates of a lock on the Rideau Canal.
Locking through at Chaffey's, 1930. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.


Hotel and lawn surrounded by green border.
Postcard of the Opinicon, situated near Rideau Canal, 1910.

Today, the “family cottage” looms large in our imagination when we think of cottage country. However, as we’ve seen, this wouldn’t have been the typical experience for early cottagers. As the Canadian economy expanded post- World War Two, and middle-class spending power strengthened (among other contributing factors), private cottages became more common.

If you're lucky enough to travel to cottage country, think of its long and rich history. If you're deterred by the traffic to get there, you can always search our Digital Archive Ontario to explore cottage country and beyond.