SS Keewatin: Bring Her On Home

SS Keewatin Image - Courtesy Sean Conroy

Fellow Woody Boater Sean Conroy shared this great story of “SS Keewatin” – The 105 year old wooden steamship that’s been close to his family for almost 50 years now, and his brothers journey to get her back home to Port McNicoll, Ontario. This story was originally written by Sean for Classicboat Magazine, the Toronto Chapter ACBS quarterly publication. Our friend Kathy Rhodes, Editor of Classicboat Magazine, received permission from Sean Conroy to also share his story with Woody Boater. (Thanks Kathy!)

At 350 ft, this boat is slightly larger than we usually report on here at Woody Boater, and that’s what makes the story so cool…

SS Keewatin: Bring Her on Home
By Sean Conroy

In 1964 and 1965 I was but a toddler while my family spent the summer camping at Little Lake Park in Midland, Ontario. My eldest brother, a teenager at the time, found an opportunity to escape the traditional family vacation for a summer job adventure he would never forget.


The Canadian Pacific Edwardian Steamers, “SS Keewatin” and “SS Assiniboia” were based out of Port McNicoll, but a stone’s throw from Midland. These beautiful ships were built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Govan, Scotland and launched in 1907. At 350’ in length, 43’ 3” in beam and with a displacement of 3,856 tons, they were powered by “scotch” coal boilers that fed quadruple expansion engines producing 3300 HP to a cruise speed of 14 knots and a top speed of 16 knots.


“Keewatin” and “Assiniboia” had a wooden superstructure with four decks in total, eight watertight compartments and a double bottom. “Keewatin” took her sea trials in the river Clyde (alongside the RMS Lusitania) and then sailed to North America where she was split in two (at Quebec City). She was towed to the great lakes for reassembly as her sister “Assiniboia” preceded her.

“Keewatin” entered service in 1908. She carried 288 passengers and 86 crew as well as packaged freight goods and grain on her regular 2 ½ day run from Port McNicholl to Fort William and Port Arthur for close to sixty seasons.

1929 Great Lakes Steamship Brochure

These sisters were the pinnacle of luxury travel boasting a grand staircase, ladies and men’s lounges, public galleries and a large luxurious dining salon. The ships featured electric lighting and running water. There were 105 luxury staterooms (later 112) on two decks and seven deluxe suites which offered private baths. The dining salon featured walnut walls and mahogany side pieces. The floor was surfaced in an intricate herringbone parquet pattern fashioned from several exotic woods. Gold leaf adorned the trim around the dining salon as did most of the public areas.

The Men’s Lounge featured hand carved oak paneling. Amidships a vaulted ceiling provided a bright and airy public area between the main deck and the promenade deck. This lifted ceiling was surrounded by stained glass windows hand crafted in Italy. Luxury was not all that was considered, as the cutting edge of technology featured a Marconi Room exactly like the famous steamer Titanic had. Later the “Keewatin” and “Assiniboia” were amongst the first ships on the Great Lakes fitted with radar.


My father worked for the Cunard Steamship Line as a Sales representative, and one might assume he orchestrated this rare opportunity for his eldest son to work on a steamship for the summer. But it didn’t work out that way. In his own enigmatic way and through his uncanny ability, charm, and people skills, my eldest brother Eric landed a job as a waiter on these ships. There’s much more to this teenage waiter story than you might think, and it has been published in my brother’s book A Steak in the Drawer, but, for my purpose here you must know that the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) discontinued the passenger service of these ships with the departure of SS Assiniboia from Port McNicholl on November 28, 1965.

Thereafter the sisters ran one more season strictly as freighters and retired in 1966. The CPR sold them shortly afterwards. The “SS Assiniboia” was to become a floating restaurant but was consumed by fire during the refit and pronounced a total loss. The “SS Keewatin” was sold to be broken up for scrap. My brother Eric shifted his summer job efforts to being a cross-Canada tour bus guide as the “Keewatin” faded into history.

Vintage SS Keewatkin Postcard

Fast forward to the early 1990s, and the teenage waiter (my brother Eric) had moved on to become a high school teacher, promotions salesman, advertising executive, restaurant owner, founder of a chain of automotive stores, General Manager of the Canadian National Exhibition, public affairs consultant, founder of the largest children’s magazine in Canada and a 29-year volunteer selling sponsorships for Toronto’s Santa Claus Parade.

The “Keewatin” never far from mind, Eric commissioned a scale model of the “SS Keewatin” as he attributed much of whom he had become, and a significant part his life accomplishments to his experiences gained and lessons learned on board this ship. During research for the model, it was discovered that the “Keewatin” had actually escaped the scrap yard destruction orders and had been existing since 1967 as a floating museum on the Kalamazoo River at the small town of Douglas, Michigan. She had been purchased from the scrappers by marina owner and historian, RJ Peterson. Eric reunited with his old ship, “Keewatin”, and annually volunteered for museum duty, giving tours and regaling visitors with sea stories as one of the last surviving (and the youngest) crew members. During these years Eric became quite close with the “Keewatin’s” owners Mr. and Mrs. Peterson.

By utilizing the very same qualities that landed him his first job as a waiter, and combining them with an entrepreneur’s career worth of experience, a new chapter in “Keewatin’s” life is currently being written. Eric has been instrumental in creating a deal between the Petersons and Gil Blutrich of Skyline Investments to purchase the surviving luxury liner and bring her home to a now re-developing Port McNicholl. In September 2011 the deal was penned. Gil has worked through his development company to secure permits and zoning as well as covering many of the details to ensure the grand ship’s homecoming.

The “Keewatin” will be owned by a charitable foundation along with a mooring site and a three acre park in the town of Port McNicholl almost on the spot where she tied up to collect and disembark passengers. Tay Township has welcomed back the ship that once was the lifeblood of the town to stand sentinel and witness the resurgence. The “Keewatin” will reopen in her permanent home as a major feature of a modern deep water marina, and there are many ideas to integrate this attraction to be a living part of the exciting new development of the resurging Port McNicholl community.

Image Courtesy www.sskeewatin.com

I was fortunate enough in the fall of 2011 to accompany the Marine Surveyor while inspecting “Keewatin”. I crawled over every square inch of the ship exploring all areas, and I must say I felt like a kid. I held the light while the surveyor crawled through the double bottom cavity, and it was bone dry. I believe the remark was “better shape than a lot of current lake freighters” or words to the effect. The steering has been lubricated annually as has the silent engine. The original boilers have been cut up and removed save for a cross-sectioned portion to demonstrate how they worked. We inspected the windlass and the hull.

Overall the “Keewatin” is “ship shape and Bristol fashion” as far as the trip home is concerned. However, there is other areas of the ship that require restoration that will be forthcoming. The new arrangements should provide for “Keewatin’s” repair, restoration, and maintenance over another 100 years onward.


The actual move from Douglas, Michigan is no easy task. When “Keewatin” arrived in 1967 the Army Corps of Engineers had just dredged the Kalamazoo River to a depth of 18 feet which was deep enough for the liner to traverse. Apparently that was the last time the river was dredged and as of 2011 the average depth is closer to 5 feet with some spots only 2 feet deep. The mild winter helped crews get the big boat floating once again freeing her from the silt that had built up around her. This spring has seen the dredges clear a channel where the ship can be turned around and towed to the entrance of Lake Michigan.

The journey home will take several days and happen in two phases. Attached to tug boats both fore and aft, the “Keewatin” will make her way from Douglas, Michigan to the Mackinaw City ferry docks. Here she will wait for a few days for inspections, customs, and the like to clear before the second leg of the journey. The trip up Lake Michigan will be exposed to westerly winds and be difficult with no breaks and but a few areas available for safe haven. The second leg will be planned to have the ship arrive at Port McNicholl at her scheduled time. (You can click on the map / image below to enlarge it)

Image Courtesy of www.sskeewatin.com

I joke with my brother that my first boat restoration was a 22 ft Greavette and he has chosen a 350 ft Edwardian Steamer. But then again he has always set his sights high. “SS Keewatin” is scheduled to return to Port McNicholl at 3 p.m. on June 23, 2012. It’s an exciting story for such a grand Lady of the Great Lakes. I would urge all those interested in marine history and steam powered ships to follow this story as it unfolds over the next few months and maybe even plan to greet her at the pier on the 23rd.

If you see “Captain Rick”, well… that’s the teenage waiter. He has retired from his business to devote his time and energy to “Keewatin”. I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to show you his ship or spin a tale and maybe, just maybe, tell you how he went from waiter to Captain.

Co-incidentally my latest restoration, an 18 ft Greavette should be getting wet after a four-year refit… must be something in the blood.

You can find more on the SS Keewatin at: www.sskeewatin.com
And even more at Eric’s (Captain Rick) blog: http://drone-on.com/
There are also a number of interesting YouTube videos on the above website, or you can check them out by simply entering SS KEEWATIN on YouTube.

Special Invitation!
From the Friends of the Keewatin

Please join us on Saturday, June 23, 2012 at 3 p.m. to welcome home the Keewatin!

Sean Conroy


Thanks for sharing this heart warming story with us Sean, I can’t imagine what it would be like to pull up to Canadian Customs with a 350 ft 105 year-old boat and ask to cross the border! Please let us know when you re-launch your freshly restored Greavette.

Texx

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21 Responses to “SS Keewatin: Bring Her On Home”

  1. Greg Lewandowski says:

    Great story. Although I hate to see the Keewatin leaving Michigan, I am glad too see her going home. I hope she has a safe trip and will be following her progress on this great journey. I congratulate all involved in making this happen.

  2. RiverRat says:

    Wow. Douglas Michigan makes it to the WoodyBoater blog. I am going to miss the Keewatin. She has been next to the boat launch ramp at the end of Union Street for as long as I have known the area. The task of getting her out and all the dredging needed is a big subject as the Kalamazoo river is silting up limilting the potnetial size of boats in Kal lake. Great area and great people. Went to a wedding once on the Keewatin and would walk past her on the way out to the Red Dock.

  3. mark Edmonson says:

    Once again, the Great Lakes prove to be “Wooden Boat Heaven”

  4. m-fine says:

    I wonder what a new 5200 bottom would cost.

  5. Randy Rush-Captain Grumpy says:

    Thats a great story, hard to believe that monster is made of wood.

  6. Alex says:

    Jeeze, you nearly gave me a heart attack when I read the phrase “powered by scotch”!

    Unlike m-fine and Texx, I don’t wonder what a 5200 bottom would cost.

    I wonder WHY this boat doesn’t need one after 100 years, while a bunch of mine have needed them after much less time.

    Could it be a bed of silt is the elixir of bottom-youth? Or could it be the original Scottish-made bottom was embedded in scotch?

    Does anyone know when she’ll be arriving in Mackinac City? So close to Hessel. It would be neat to see her in person.

  7. floyd r turbo says:

    That’d be worth a trip to see her and the berthing area they have planned. Too bad they cut out her boilers, I’m envisioning beautiful big steam engines pounding away, what a sight that would be in the engine room. The pictures of the varnished wood accented stateroom are magnificent.

    Thankfully, there are people like Gil Blutrich, the Peterson’s and Captain Rick that have the time and vision as well as dollars to save a beautiful ship like this.

    • Al crisp says:

      It would be worth the drive from where ever you are for you could book a trip on the RMS Segwun one hour away at Gravenhurst to see the twin steam engines on a great cruise. They will even let you in the engine room and wheel house. It’s pretty laid back. AL

  8. Texx says:

    On behalf of Don Danenberg…

    The Keewatin does not have a wooden hull.

    It is riveted iron plates, just like the Titanic that was built in Scotland 5-years later.

    • Texx says:

      Thanks Don,

      I was wondering about that, from the photos (like the cover shot) it appeared to be iron.

      Sean must have meant that the internal superstructure was made from wood… and that’s why she has held together so well for 105 years.

    • m-fine says:

      Well, maybe they should drill out the rivets, soak the plates in CPES and re-bed them in 5200.

  9. Alex says:

    Damn!
    I knew I should have collected iron boats.

  10. scalertom says:

    I thought you would have a header for all the Woody Boater Mom’s.

  11. Sean says:

    Yes, her hull is Iron…Texx is exactly right!
    Superstructure refers to all built above her main deck. and in this case, the interior and cabins as well.
    One of the reasons her days were numbered was because of the great fire on the SS Noronic that took many lives. After that, all passenger ships were required to be built from steel.
    RMS Segwun is a great trip. Ive been on her for 23 consecutive seasons….but she’s nowhere near the size and grandeur of the Kee.

  12. Sean says:

    Oh,… That “stateroom” is the Captain’s quarters.

  13. nancy says:

    Does anyone know how I can get a photo of the Keewatin in the harbor in Michigan? I have a dear friend who found great pleasure by looking out of his window at this noble boat and I would love to frame a photo so that he can still look at it at least in some fashion. This would be a wonderful Christmas gift. Thanks in advance.

    • Texx says:

      Hi Nancy,

      I am not sure if there are any photos available of the SS Keewatin in Michigan but I have forwarded your request to Sean Conroy (the Author of the story) to inquire.

      Texx

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