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Published 03 October 2011

The Settlement of the Severn and Muskoka Road, Canada West [Ontario] 1859
By Rick Roberts, Global Genealogy

When settlement of the southern-most townships of present day Ontario was nearing completion, roads were built to encourage pioneers to take land grants in the "back" townships. The settlement roads were built under the guidance of, and administered by the Superintendent of Colonization Roads. "Road" is a generous description of what were often muddy, stoney, rutted strips of narrow clearing winding through the formidable virgin forests of the province. I recall a contemporary painting of one of those roads that depicts sixty to eightly foot tall trees crowding the sides of a narrow gloomy road with just a thin strip of sky above. The artist may have exercised artistic license in his portrayal, or not.

One of those rustic tracks was the Severn and Muskoka Settlement Road. It was started in 1858 at Washago and "completed" to Bracebridge by 1861. Land Agent Richard Jose Oliver was responsible for settling the area by attracting those with the pioneer spirit and five dollars to apply for land grants of 100 acres in the new townships. The following image is a scan of a 1859 advertising poster that he used to attract industrious settlers:

In 1861, two years after the above poster was used to advertise lots on the Severn and Muskoka Settlement Road, J. W. Bridgland, who served as the Superintendent of Colonization Roads, describes his personal experiences with the difficult traveling conditions he encountered:
    ... the Severn River is crossed by a Wooden bridge, supported by log crib piers and three sets of King posts - the Piers are weak and ill founded - the King posts and brace beams too ponderous for the foundation - the result is shown in the swerved and sunken condition of the Bridge. The Abutments are likewise very poor - The approaches are not carried out far enough to admit of an easy ascent so that in its present condition a short abrupt hill with a mud hole at its base has to be overcome from each side in order to ascend the bridge - The road from the Severn bridge for about two miles or more is in a wretched state - Bad mud holes, bad roots, and bad stones abound - indeed nothing but positive ingenuity, or invention, - offspring of necessity, avails a traveler to conquer certain impediments of the above nature.. . . Occasionally from the end of this defective part there are rough portions but the greater part of the remainder of the road to the falls [the falls on the Muskoka River, South Branch] is in a very tolerable condition.
Imagine the challenges faced by the pioneer families who braved mosquitos, black flies, deer & horse flies, while carrying all of their worldly possessions by ox cart, other conveyance, and even on their backs, while traversing the Muskoka Road on their way to the piece of Canadian bush that was to be their new home.

The importance of the history of the Severn and Muskoka Road is recognized today with a commemorative plaque which stands in a forested picnic area off the west side of Highway 11 about ten kilometers south of the intersection of Highway 11 and County Road 169 in Gravenhurst which is south of the Kilworth/Kahshe Lake exit, immediately south of the Kahshe River bridge.

Photo used with permission from the website
Transcription of the Muskoka Road plaque:
    During the 1850's and 1860's the government attempted to open up the districts lying north of the settled townships by means of "Colonization Roads". Free land was offered to persons who would settle along the route, clear a stated acreage and help maintain the road. In 1858 construction began on a road from Washago to the interior of Muskoka. R.J. Oliver was appointed the government land agent at the Severn Bridge and directed the progress of the settlement. The road was completed to the site of Bracebridge by 1861 and the adjacent bushland formed into the townships of Morrison, Muskoka, Draper and Macaulay.
Local genealogy societies are a gold mine of information and contacts:
    If your ancestors were among those who braved the wilderness to clear land along the Severn and Muskoka Road, you will benefit from joining The Muskoka Parry Sound Genealogy Group. It is a non-profit genealogy club for those with an interest in the Muskoka and Parry Sound Districts of Ontario. For those who are local, the group meets alternately between the towns of Huntsville and Bracebridge. For those at a distance, their inexpensive annual membership gives you access to an enthusiastic group with a huge collective knowledge of the area and its families. Where can you get this much value for so little?

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