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May 10, 2023

Dorset From the Air, 2022

By Guy Scott

Dorset is a small community at the northwest corner of Haliburton County with a big history. Dorset is a split community (like Kinmount): half in Haliburton County; half in Muskoka District. The village grew up at the point where the Bobcaygeon Colonization Road crossed the Hollow River where it flowed into the Lake of Bays. Actually Dorset was a port with regular steamboat connections to Baysville, on the west end of the huge Lake of Bays, and hence connections to Huntsville on the Muskoka River. Dorset’s first settler was Francis Harvey, a trader who dealt with the local native community on Bigwin Island. The Bobcaygeon Road arrived in 1863, and a bridge was built across the narrows at Dorset. Until the Lake of Bays dam was built at Baysville, the river was quite shallow and could be forded. The dam raised the water level and made a bridge necessary. The Bobcaygeon Road was planned to extend beyond Dorset all the way to North Bay, but it never was completed. After pushing the road through to Dwight on the Oxtongue River, it was decided not to continue.

The land was too rocky and totally unsuited to farming. Dorset was designed to be a lumber town. Zachariah Cole settled at what was originally called Cedar Narrows. He operated a hotel and store to cater to local lumbermen. In 1879, he renamed his settlement Colebridge after himself. When a Post Office was granted in 1883, it was found there was already an Ontario town by that name and the name Dorset was adopted. The surrounding township was called Sherborne, after a town in Dorsetshire, England; thus the name.

By the 1880s, lumbering was in full swing in the area and north to Algonquin Park, Dorset became the depot for the local lumbermen. Timber could be sent west to Huntsville or south to the Kawartha Lakes because Dorset was strategically located at the height of land between two great watersheds. The village boomed as never before as major traffic came up the Bobcaygeon Road or across the Lake of Bays. Some of the biggest lumber companies in Ontario used Dorset as a depot, including Mossom Boyd, Mickle and Dyment, Shiers and especially the Gilmours from Trenton.

The village contained 4 churches, a school, several stores and a number of large boarding houses for the lumbermen. In 1864, a general store was opened at the corner of the Bobcaygeon Road bridge. It continued to operate under the name Robinson’s General Store, which was voted the ‘best country store in Canada.’ After 15 additions it covered 15,000 square feet and was billed as a tourist attraction itself.

The big hill north of Dorset commanded a view for many miles around and became a famous forest tower site for the Department of Lands & Forests. After the fire tower was cancelled in favour of airplane patrols, the Dorset Tower was kept open as a tourist attraction. The top of the tower reveals a wonderful panorama of the rugged Canadian Shield.

By the early 1900s, the era of the lumber barons was over and lumbering operations in the area declined. Dorset seemed doomed to join the list of ghost towns of Ontario. But tourism replaced the white pine as the chief draw, especially with the growing popularity of Algonquin Park. In the 1930s, the Government of Ontario replaced the nasty stretch of the Bobcaygeon Road with Highway #35, and tourists began to fill the area. Besides the large number cottagers on the local lakes, it became a gateway to the growing popularity of the famous Algonquin Park.

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