Killarney Mountain Lodge history
By Maurice East
Not many years ago, fifty to be precise, Killarney Mountain Lodge and the village of Killarney itself wereisolated on the north coast of Georgian Bay on the edge of an impenetrable wilderness. Sudbury, the nearest metropolis, was eighty miles distant. The only access to Killarney was by boat from Little Current on Manitoulin Island, twenty two miles away, or over the ice in the winter with horse and sleigh. In summer or winter a shopping trip to Little Current in adverse weather was a risky proposition. Old timers, now long gone, told hair-raising tales of battling mountainous November seas and horses crashing through thin ice and drowning in the early winter. When travel was impossible the Killarney folks had to survive on short rations.
The Fruehauf Trailer Corporation of Detroit created Killarney Mountain Lodge in the early 1950s. They solved the shopping problem with amphibious aircraft and a fleet of large seaworthy boats. Their operation expanded rapidly. Eventually they accommodated 90 persons per week over an eight- week season. Their visitors were all trucking customers and company executives. In the fall of 1961 Fruehauf listed the lodge for sale. I purchased the property from Fruehauf and opened the lodge as a public resort in the spring of 1962.
On the face of it, launching a tourist resort in an area that most people in Ontario had never heard of had all the earmarks of mission impossible. However, a fortuitous development accompanied the formal opening of the lodge that spring. A 42-mile (68 kilometre)wilderness road that had been abuilding for several years finally connected Killarney to the outside world. The Ontario Minister of Highways cut the ribbon in June 1962 and declared Highway 637 officially open.
Convincing the public that Killarney was accessible and worth the trip was another matter. For many years,my wife Annabelle and I carried out an extensive promotional campaign including participation in travel and sports shows in Ontario and the USA. So many people stopped at our booth during the shows to inquire about the whereabouts of Killarney, we created a giveaway pin that posed the question, “Where the hell is Killarney?”
There were two other developments that helped put us on the map. First was the creation in 1964 of Killarney Provincial Park. It immediately became known as the crown jewel of Ontario Parks. It was classified as a Wilderness Park and the spectacular white quartzite mountains and the myriad azure lakes, large and small, were soon recognized by the public for their unique grandeur. It is unlike any other region in Ontario.
The second critical development was my discovery and application of an old Madison Avenue advertising concept, namely a Unique Selling Proposition. For a while we wondered what we could promote that was unique. Finally, it dawned on us that we were surrounded by the many unique attributes of the Killarney region: Georgian Bay itself and the north shore, the breathtaking panorama of white mountains and pristine lakes, the wilderness hiking and boating opportunities, the abundance of birds and wild creatures, the array of geological history announced everywhere by the red granite rockscapes, and perhaps most significant of all, the convincing statement Killarney makes to the world that preserving our natural environment is a practical long-term policy, that beauty and serenity are essential resources for a balanced life.
The establishment of the Park forestalled the development of a mining operation in the center of what the Ontario Society of Artists consider the most beautiful lake in Ontario. OSA Lake, as it is now called, is nestled between two quartzite ridges. With an array of pristine islands the setting seems to have been conceived by a landscape artist. The lake wasnamed to honour the efforts of the OSA and the Group of Seven to persuade the Ontario government to quash the mining scheme. A few years later, loggers invaded the north quadrant of the Park until the government put a stop to it. Not long ago mining interests proposed quarrying Casson Peak, a mini mountain between Fraser Bay and Baie Fine. A campaign by local preservationists to scuttle the plan was successful. We were outspoken in our support of these last two efforts to pressure the Ontario government to cancel programs that would have eaten the heart out of one of Canada’s most outstanding areas.
Suffice it to say that our ongoing Unique Selling Proposition policies have been not only the basis of our advertising philosophy but have also formed the skeleton of our outdoor adventure program. Excursions by boat, paddle, sail and trail to hidden corners of Georgian Bay and the Park are feature attractions. Our unique selling proposition boasts experiences that are truly unique.
During our 50 years in Killarney, Annabelle and I have frequently contributed to municipal affairs in one way or another. We have both served on municipal committees and I spent one term as a member of the municipal Council. Persuading the Council and the Ontario government that a municipal airport would be a significant tourist attraction set the stage for a decades long volunteer commitment. The greatest challenge was the matter of funding the million dollars plus undertaking. After many false starts and dashed hopes the Ministry of Transportation and the newly formed Ministry of Northern Development and Mines financed the construction of the airport under a provincial program that has supported the development of airports in northern Ontario.
For the next 20 years I served as the de facto airport manager. We installed a fuel system and eventually a system of reflector lighting on the runway for night operations. Summertime traffic was often busy and exciting. Sometimes we ran out of parking space and resorted to parking aircraft along the taxiway and even on the shoulders of the runway. My lifetime in aviation, which started in WWII, led us to establish an air charter and sightseeing business at the Killarney airport. For several years we operated two aircraft, including a multi engine plane for VIP cross-border flights to the USA.After 60 years of flying it was finally time to bow out. We shut down the commercial aviation operation about six years ago and eventually turned the management of the airport over to the Municipal Council.
In the early 1970s we procured a quarter section of vacant land just outside the village and set up an ancillary tourist operation, Killarney Outfitters. My son, Ted, manages this very complex business, renting canoes, kayaks and outfitting equipment to campers, canoe trippers and kayak venturers exploring the Park and Georgian Bay. We now boast a fleet of over 100 Kevlar canoes and 80 expedition kayaks. A significant part of this business is the preparation of “complete outfitting” whereby we equip patrons with everything they need for a multi-day expedition including a detailed meal plan and appropriate foods. This aspect of the operation now caters to overseas adventure seekers.
Time marches on, however. Killarney Mountain Lodge remains as our main focus. Our property is ripe for development and more expansion. We will probably pass the reins to someone who shares the same energy and ambitions that motivated us 50 years ago. Meanwhile, we have expended all available time and capital in maintaining our premises and offering top-quality food and comfort.