Bringing the Keewatin Back To Canada

Keewatin with lead tug Wendy Anne at Mackinaw City.

By  Kevin Griffin

In June of 2012, I was privileged to be invited to join the s.s. Keewatin for her tow from Mackinaw City, Michigan, to her old home port of Port McNicoll, Ontario. The Keewatin is not only the last  Canadian Pacific passenger ship, but also the world’s last surviving Edwardian passenger liner. My connection with her is that at the age of seventeen, in the summer before I entered university, I landed my first real job working as a waiter on her sister ship Assiniboia.

The Assiniboia and Keewatin were built on the Clyde, by Fairfields of Govan, in 1907. The 3,856-ton ships were 350 feet long, could carry 288 passengers and 2,400 tons of cargo, and had a crew of 86. They had to be cut in two to be brought through the old St Lawrence and Welland Canal locks and entered service in 1908 on Canadian Pacific’s Great Lakes Steamship Service, each ship sailing weekly on a 1,100-mile round voyage from Owen Sound via Sault Ste Marie to the Lakehead at Port Arthur and Fort William, now Thunder Bay, and back. The new ships joined the Alberta, Athabaska and Manitoba, increasing the frequency of service from three sailings weekly to five. In the spring of 1912, Canadian Pacific moved its Georgian Bay terminal to Port McNicoll, 75 miles to the east, where there was less gradient and the distance to Montreal was only 358 miles on a direct rail line that avoided Toronto.

Although best known as passenger ships, the Keewatin and Assiniboia also carried cargo below decks. Their 147,000 cu ft of cargo space was accessed through sideports and consisted of an open ‘tweendeck that was used mainly for carrying cars and three cargo holds that were used to carry general cargo westbound and bagged flour eastbound. Cheaper lake and rail freight rates made this service very popular, so much so that Canadian Pacific often had to route cars all-rail at its own expense when backlogs occurred.

The Canadian Pacific Great Lakes fleet at Port McNicoll on May 4, 1912 – s.s. Keewatin, s.s. Manitoba and in the background s.s. Assiniboia flanked by s.s. Alberta and s.s. Athabasca, Canadian Pacific elevator to the right.

The new terminal at Port McNicoll had a mile-long dock with a 750-foot freight shed and 800-foot flour shed, each served by covered twin tracks. Ships coming from the Lakehead would discharge their flour and then shift to the freight shed to load outbound cargo before finally moving to the passenger berth, where the boat train would arrive from Toronto, 78 miles south.

With five ships on the run, Canadian Pacific could handle 300,000 tons of flour in a season. This product traditionally took the lake and rail route, and was loaded into railcars at Port McNicoll for export, not only over Montreal and Saint John, but also via Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. The same cars that brought general cargo were loaded out with export flour. Although millions of tons of cargo moved over Port McNicoll over many decades, the large sheds have long since disappeared.

Across the harbour from the passenger and cargo docks was a 6.5 million bushel grain elevator, larger than any in Montreal. Long before the Seaway, and even before the Welland Canal locks were expanded in 1932, this elevator discharged shipload after shipload of wheat coming from the west. It could load 150 cars a day and two grain trains a day was the norm. This lake and rail routing, like that for flour, had been designed with export in mind and as much as 60 million bushels a year left Port McNicoll for loading to ocean ships at Montreal and Saint John, as well as at US ports. By 1990, when it closed, Port McNicoll elevator had handled 1.5 billion bushels, enough to fill 1,250 deep sea maxi-lakers today. The Georgian Bay elevators may be gone but the trade is still there, much of it now loaded directly into deep sea ships at the Lakehead.

s.s. Assiniboia at Port McNicoll with the 6.5 million bushel Canadian Pacific elevator on the other side of the harbour

But back to the passenger trade and why I was invited to join the Keewatin. By the time I joined, the ships were 58 years old, the freshwater of the lakes and long winter lay-ups having added substantially to their lifespans. Waiters were paid $240 a month plus overtime, meals and berth were included and tips were an added bonus. My letter of employment said I would need “black shoes, white shirts, black bow tie, navy blue trousers and old clothing for work in port. Jackets are supplied and the navy trousers can be purchased.” The jackets were blue serge with brass buttons and could be very warm on a hot summer’s day.

As soon as the boat train arrived from Toronto at 3 pm, our passengers would board ship while the waiters cleared the train of their luggage, as well as fresh sheets, towels and uniforms from the Royal York laundry in Toronto (in earlier days there had been a laundry right at Port McNicoll). The ship then sailed fifteen minutes later, promptly at 3:15! Canadian Pacific offered silver service on the lakes, with a full setting of silverware, while meat and fish dishes, vegetables and potatoes were all served separately. As waiters we were not allowed to write down orders nor to rest our trays on our shoulders. Two nights and five meals later, at the Lakehead, some of our passengers caught trains towards Vancouver and points west before we moved to our cargo berth, while our cruise passengers were accommodated ashore for the night.

The Assiniboia left Port McNicoll on Saturdays and the Keewatin on Wednesdays and the two met at Sault Ste Marie every Sunday. The cost of a round trip “Inland Sea” cruise was $100 per person in an outside cabin or $90 in an inside, with the fare including passage Port McNicoll-Fort William and return, berth and meals aboard ship and hotel room and meals in Fort William. These cruises, which were offered twice weekly, lasted five nights, one of which was spent ashore.

This photo by National Post photographer Darren Calabrese shows off the interiors of the magnificent Clyde-built Keewatin to good effect, but the fact that these bulkheads were made of wood was what ended the ships’ careers.

Unfortunately, the passenger service was closed at the end of my first season, bringing to an end a prime source of summer employment for many university students. But I was lucky to have been able to experience it. The old ships had fallen victim to tough new fire regulations and Canada Steamship Lines’ Saguenay ships Richelieu, Tadoussac and St Lawrence were retired at the same time. The Keewatin completed her last voyage in December 1965, but the Assiniboia, having been converted in 1954 to burn oil fuel instead of coal, got a reprieve, carrying on in cargo-only service for two more seasons.

Meanwhile, a gentleman by the name of Roland Peterson, who owned the Tower Marina in Douglas, Michigan, near Saugatuck, had taken an interest in the Keewatin. Having seen photos of her and her Edwardian interiors in a book, he thought her worthy of preservation. Finding that she had already been sold to Marine Salvage in Port Colborne, he bought her for $2,000 more than they had paid Canadian Pacific. He then purchased the two ships’ passenger fittings from Canadian Pacific, loaded them onto the Keewatin and had her towed from Port McNicoll to Douglas, where she arrived on June 27, 1967. For forty-five years Peterson and his wife Diane lovingly maintained the Keewatin as a floating museum. My old Assiniboia, meanwhile, was sold in 1968 to owners in Philadelphia for conversion into a floating restaurant, but burned in November 1969 before she could be converted.

I had not seen the Keewatin since Sunday, August 22, 1965, as the two ships met at Sault Ste Marie. But on Tuesday, June 19, 2012, together with four others, I boarded the now 105-year-old ship some 50 miles away, at Mackinaw City, where she had been tied up after the first leg of her tow from Douglas. Eric Conroy, project manager for the repatriation and rejuvenation of the ship, and the source of my invitation, headed up the riding crew. Eric and I had both been 17-year-old waiters, he on Keewatin and I on Assiniboia. Along with Eric were his “first mate” Al Russell, warehousing director for Thomson Terminals in Toronto, Josh Killham, our social media expert, and Cameron McCleery, cameraman from Fulford-Brown Inc, who would record the ship’s last voyage for an hour-long television documentary. And although we had a US master in command of our US-flag tug, and didn’t believe we needed a pilot, at the last minute we were joined by Great Lakes pilot Kevin Noseworthy.

The Keewatin riding crew, cameraman Cameron McCleery, Josh Killham, Kevin Griffin, Eric Conroy and Al Russell, with Great Lakes pilot Kevin Noseworthy.

Our instructions were simple: “Remember the rules. No alcohol, smoking or boring jokes. As each of you will be registered as a crew member with the Coast Guard, Captain [Matthew] Fogg [of lead tug Wendy Anne] will provide you with a watch sheet that will outline your tasks while on the voyage.” As the ship’s lifeboats had been removed for the tow, the US Coast Guard required each of us to have a $300 survival suit and to wear our life jackets “at all times during the voyage,” which was expected to last four days. Further instructions read: “Bring a sleeping bag or buy one in Mackinaw. Port-o-potties are toilets, water comes in bottles to drink or from a bucket on a long rope.” Honestly, it was not as bad as it sounds, but there was a bucket on a long rope – and there was a technique for filling it while under way. Although cold-water showers offered a frigid wakeup, I was thankful that the Great Lakes are freshwater! And we didn’t need to wear our lifejackets to bed!

As well as the riding crew and pilot, we had four crewmembers from Fogg Towing & Marine LLC of Beaver Island, Michigan – Dennis, Ryan, Bob and Jonathan – whose tugs Wendy Anne and American Girl had been contracted to tow the Keewatin back from Douglas to Port McNicoll. Each of us had signed a letter of indemnity in case anything went wrong so it was good to know that we had two tugs with us as well as the promise of an escort from the Canadian Coast Guard. Fogg Towing engineer Dennis had managed to get all the lights, windlasses and winches working again, and would become a hero later in the voyage when, using an air compressor, he would get the Keewatin’s quadruple expansion steam reciprocating engine and her single screw turning once again, albeit very slowly.

The ten of us had a choice of 112 staterooms but most chose outside cabins off the Main Saloon on the Promenade Deck. This was not far from the Dining Room, which became our headquarters. The berths were comfortable, we had power outlets that enabled us to recharge our 21st Century laptops, phones and cameras and the bedside lamps still worked after forty-five years!

Leaving Mackinaw City on Tuesday evening at 5:30, off Mackinac Island we passed the mini cruise ship Grande Mariner, carrying 100 tourists south to Chicago and the 1,000-footer Stewart J Cort, headed for Burns Harbor with another cargo of iron ore. After that, we saw no traffic other than a plane that flew over us in Lake Huron on Wednesday to take some aerial photographs that they e-mailed back to us on board. Two days out, at about 7:30 on Thursday evening, the Keewatin literally sailed out of the sunset into Georgian Bay while a flotilla of small craft and dive boats came out from Tobermory to welcome us.

For our meals, we had each agreed to throw $70 into a kitty and when our appointed chef did not show, Al and Josh had been nominated as cooks and sent into Mackinaw City to do the shopping. The menu was simple. In addition to pizza on the first night out, a crock-pot enabled our stand-in chefs to produce three respectable dinners – chicken jambalaya, beef vegetable stew and chilli con carne. On the fourth night, as we were at anchor in Georgian Bay preparing the ship for our entry into Port McNicoll the following morning, we managed to sneak ashore for steaks and hot showers (and a few beers). This we did in a borrowed 37-foot Boston Whaler 370 Outrage with triple 300-horsepower Mercury Verado outboard engines – a $400,000 millionaire’s toy that took us away from our 5-knot tow at over 40 knots!

Luckily for us, the voyage was mostly uneventful. Other than a cracking thunderstorm just before leaving Mackinaw City, the weather was good and the old girl seemed anxious to get home. With her fine Clyde-built lines, she kept creeping up on the lead tug, so much so that we reached our appointed anchorage outside Port McNicoll about seven hours early. Averaging about 5.1 knots (her usual service speed had been 14 knots), we arrived on the night of the 21st, which gave us two nights at anchor before taking the ship into port for 1:30 pm on Saturday, June 23. The year was important, as it had been 100 years since the Keewatin had first arrived in Port McNicoll, and the date and time as it would be 45 years to the hour since she had been towed away to Douglas.

Eric Conroy and Kevin Griffin on the bridge as Keewatin passes Port McNicoll marina at about 1:30 on June 23, 2012, 45 years to the hour since she had left.

When Saturday finally arrived, we were escorted towards Port McNicoll by hundreds of small craft, whistling and tooting, led by the tour boats Miss Midland and Georgian Queen carrying those lucky enough to get on board and the media on the Prescotont, a once Canadian Pacific tug converted into a yacht. Our escort CCGS Cape Hurd deployed her zodiacs as a security screen. As we sailed into port, a crowd of 7,000 lined the docks of this little village of about 1,200, and we were welcomed by a brass band, a swing band, bagpipes and the 200-strong Port McNicoll Choir, not to mention a helicopter flying overhead to capture our arrival on film. The Keewatin was back in her home port, one she had served for more than half a century before going off for safekeeping in Michigan.


The Keewatin has been purchased by Skyline International Development Inc, owners of the King Edward, Pantages and Cosmopolitan Hotels in Toronto, the Deerhurst and Horseshoe resorts in Ontario and the Cleveland Arcade and Hyatt Regency in Ohio. Skyline is planning a $1 billion ten-year investment that will transform Port McNicoll into a new resort community set on 800 acres of shoreline land. As well as 1,400 new homes and cottages and a new yacht club, boutiques and restaurants will bring the old Canadian Pacific town back to life again.

Ownership of the Keewatin is to be vested in a not for profit corporation called the Diane and R J Peterson Great Lakes Foundation & Keewatin Museum, while a volunteer organization called The Friends of Keewatin is working to raise funds for her rejuvenation. She will become the centrepiece of a new waterfront park, and will featurie vintage passenger railcars alongside, an on board museum and a community events centre in her ‘tweendeck.

Today nothing remains of the once-substantial Canadian Pacific shipping fleet. Its last passenger ship, the Vancouver-based Princess Patricia (another ship on which the author worked while at university) left service in 1981. The CP Bermuda bulk fleet was sold off in 1988 and the last of its tankers in 1989. The BC railcar ferries were sold to Seaspan International in 1998 and, finally, the CP Ships container ship fleet was merged into Hapag-Lloyd in October 2005. The Keewatin, which re-opened in May 2013, is the sole reminder of a shipping legacy that lasted for almost 125 years.

See links below for photo logs of the voyage (please note that you can also double click on any of the images above to get an enlargement –  have a look particularly at Darren Calabrese’s interior shot):

Flickr set of the Keewatin voyage.

More s.s. Keewatin photos.

To know more about the future of the s.s. Keewatin see Eric Conroy’s blog here.

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