MacTier celebrates a century thanks to the railway
Published: July 10, 2008
Source: The Muskokan

MacTier, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, was a late bloomer.

When most of Muskoka had already been settled for a generation or more, MacTier was just emerging unto the world. And unlike so many communities in Muskoka, MacTier was not built upon the dreams of land hungry homesteaders or the aspirations of lumber companies eager to exploit the forests of the region.

Instead, MacTier owes its very existence to the railroads. Without steam trains and their periodic need for servicing and refueling, MacTier wouldn’t exist today.

The community lies within a region that was isolated by geography from the rest of Muskoka. This meant that the area was all but ignored throughout the 19th century.

It was the Canadian Pacific Railway which first brought attention to the region in the early 1900s. CP Rail was famed for its transcontinental line, but it also maintained thousands of miles of secondary tracks that spread out into every corner of the nation.

In 1905, work began on a line to extend due north from Toronto to join the transcontinental line near Sudbury, thereby linking Canada’s largest city with its most important railway. Three years later, in 1908, the line was complete.

A divisional point, a place intended to serve both trains and work crews, was established exactly halfway between Toronto and Sudbury. This became known as Muskoka Station.

Muskoka Station was a vital railway facility. Here steam engines were taken off for maintenance at a roundhouse, coal could be secured from extensive warehouse facilities, and a ready supply of water was available from large tanks. Work crews, maintenance staff, and administrative employees were accommodated in boarding houses lining the tracks.

Soon a village began to develop around the bustling railway yards.

The first evidence of an emerging community was the opening of a general store by Hugh Anderson, formerly a CPR conductor. Anderson arrived in Muskoka Station on November 10 with $662 worth of stock. He immediately cleared an area measuring 12 by 16 feet of snow, trees and debris and, on his own, raised a building. It was a primitive structure — little more than a rough lumber shell with tarpaper on the outside and white building paper on the inside — but when it opened on November 16, 1908 it served notice that Muskoka Station was bound to grow.

Anderson had aspirations for himself and Muskoka Station. Initially, villagers would have to trek to Foot’s Bay on Lake Joseph to get their mail; an inconvenience that few appreciated, especially in light of the fact that mail-carrying trains passed through town on a daily basis. Ever ambitious, always enterprising, Anderson used his connections with grocery wholesalers in Toronto to get him an audience with officials at the Post Office Department and he made a pitch for Muskoka Station’s own post office.

The government bureaucrats were swayed by Anderson’s eloquent arguments and in 1909 the young village got its post office, with Anderson himself, naturally enough, serving as postmaster.

It wasn’t long before the Post Office Department began to regret the decision. Mail addressed to the village of Muskoka Wharf routinely ended up at Muskoka Station, and vice versa, resulting in headaches for postal employees. To rectify the situation, Muskoka Station was renamed MacTier in honour of A.D. MacTier, the general superintendant of the CPR’s Eastern Division.

Another prominent early inhabitant who left a mark on MacTier’s history was Charles Robert Clerk, an Anglican priest who arrived tending to the spiritual needs of the labourers laying the CPR’s tracks. After the line had been completed and the labourers moved on, Clerk elected to remain and administer to the permanent railway employees of Muskoka Station.

Initially, services were held in the railway boarding house, but later a log chapel was built for the tiny congregation. Clerk was tireless in bringing God to the people of this wild and untamed region, and it was through his efforts that funds were raised for All Saint’s Church. Unfortunately, he didn’t live long enough to see the church built, dying a year earlier in 1911.

In 1918, MacTier’s first school opened on the location where the temporary library currently stands. A year later, Freeman Township was incorporated as a municipality with MacTier as its principle hamlet. The influence of the railway in local affairs is best seen in the makeup of the first township council: the first reeve was a railway conductor, and all of the councillors were railway employees.

In fact, the railway maintained a strong presence in the community for nearly another half century. By the 1950s, however, the CPR began to scale back its operations in MacTier. The roundhouse, workshops and station were closed and torn down. CPR’s pullout signalled the end of a proud era. No longer a railway town, MacTier would have to discover a new identity for itself.

MacTier had already slowly begun to diversify its economy, with logging taking on importance and with the advent of the Mollard cranberry marsh, Ontario’s first, in 1947. But it was only after the railway’s pullout that a concerted effort to transform the town took place.

It was a difficult, often painful transition, but today MacTier is a vibrant community and a beloved recreational centre that bursts to life anew every May with the coming of cottage season.

Nevertheless, an appreciation of its rich railway past remains apparent even today. Here more so than almost anywhere in Muskoka, railway heritage is embraced.

You don’t have to look long and hard to see this pride on display. Immediately upon entering you notice a sign that proclaims this to be the former location of Muskoka Station. Elsewhere, in Arbour Park, you’ll find the distinctive “yellow caboose” museum maintained by heritage-minded citizens. A new library, designed to look like the old railway station, is currently under construction.

A weekend of special events celebrating the community’s 100th anniversary and its railway history is scheduled to run from August 1 to 3.

Trains may no longer stop at MacTier, but they continue to run through the community’s consciousness.