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The Port McNicoll yacht club is part of Skyline International Development's vision of the area as a luxury waterfront resort community. (Skyline International Development/Skyline International Development)
The Port McNicoll yacht club is part of Skyline International Development's vision of the area as a luxury waterfront resort community. (Skyline International Development/Skyline International Development)

Georgian Bay's 'lost port' gets a new face Add to ...

There were plenty of picture-perfect locations beckoning to Marie and Cam Bonner when they considered where to build their dream home on the water, but they chose one where they’re also helping to resurrect a unique and historical maritime centre.

The huge deep-water harbour on which Port McNicoll sits at the southern tip of Georgian Bay, a few minutes’ drive from the town of Midland, is a place that some once said was destined to become the “Chicago of the North.” Tonnes of rail and ship freight passed through the port annually; thousands of new Canadians, and then wealthy cruise passengers, trod its boardwalk.

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The trains stopped running and the ships stopped sailing in the mid-1960s and Port McNicoll settled back as a sleepy little country village, waiting for rediscovery. The last remaining steamship, the 106-metre Keewatin, sailed away to become a museum in Douglas, Mich.

Now the “lost port” has been rediscovered. The Bonners represent the new face of Port McNicoll, the start of Skyline International Development Inc.’s efforts to reinvent it as a luxury waterfront resort community.

The Bonners love the fact that not only are the Georgian Bay sunrises stunning, but Skyline president and founder Gil Blutrich is intent on creating a heritage park at dockside that will interpret for visitors this little-known facet of Canada’s maritime history.

A few hours before he spoke to The Globe & Mail, Cam Bonner had attended the sod-turning ceremony for a yacht club that will open next year and be a key component in Skyline’s 10-year plan. There he met Eric Conroy, who as a teenager in the 1960s spent two summers working aboard the Canadian Pacific steamer, Keewatin.

A few years ago, Mr. Conroy began working with Mr. Blutrich to return the last remaining CP steamship from Michigan and install it in its former home port. If all goes well, that will finally happen next June.

Mr. Blutrich also intends to build a model of the old railway station and bring in an old CP locomotive and some rail cars. He’ll rebuild the English gardens that once grew there and, through a not-for-profit organization headed by Mr. Conroy, recreate the full Port McNicoll experience, from rail to sail. He hopes to have everything in place by 2013.

The Keewatin can no longer be sailed as a passenger ship because while its hull is “as good as new,” says Mr. Conroy, its wooden interior construction doesn’t meet modern fire standards.

It will be permanently docked at Port McNicoll and set up just as it was for its final voyage. Visitors will poke around its luxurious staterooms, admire its rich oak and mahogany panelling and brass fittings, and eat in the dining room where passengers once enjoyed white-glove service while sailing between Port McNicoll and Port Arthur on Lake Superior.

Mr. Blutrich hopes to even use the same china and silverware that remained with the ship all these years.

Adding to the full maritime community experience for residents and visitors will be a walking trail, along which recovered nautical artifacts will be placed – including an anchor, a lifeboat, a propeller and a ship’s wheel – with plaques to interpret the story of its past.

Eventually, there are to be about 1,400 residential units at Skyline’s Port McNicoll village – including detached bungalows, townhomes and holiday units – a town centre that incorporates the yacht club and marina, a hotel and commercial, civic, cultural and recreation facilities, specialty shops, cafés, restaurants and entertainment outlets.

In total, the Skyline project will consist of 700 acres purchased from CP. About half will be retained as wetland.

“My vision is to create a vibrant small port town that will be modern, but will respect the past,” explains Mr. Blutrich.

In the first phase of the project Skyline sold more than 50 waterfront lots – starting at $450,000 – on which buyers build their own homes. Designs must be approved by Skyline’s architectural team and fit in with the turn-of-the-20th-century maritime feel.

The Bonners were among the first buyers and began building their 2,700-square-foot home in May. They moved in this fall. Mr. Bonner says he likes the “down-east, oceanfront character” of the design, the 100 feet of land to the water’s edge and the fact that while they enjoy plenty of space, the vacant-land condo ownership style means they don’t have to maintain the property beyond their home’s walls.

The retired couple moved from an 18-acre property in Horseshoe Valley near Barrie. They considered waterfront options in Muskoka “too busy,” he says, and condo apartments and townhomes “too confining.”

Most of the handful of neighbours they have so far are seasonal or second-home owners but Harley Nakelsky, director of sales and marketing for Skyline, says they expect that eventually there will be an even split between permanent and second-home dwellers.

Mr. Nakelsky says while details are not final, the next phase of the project, to be released in the spring, will include some lower-priced waterfront lots and townhouses, some to be built by Skyline and some by other developers.

While the economic downturn led to some buyers of lots delaying construction plans, Mr. Nakelsky says many plan to build in 2012. “Some said they were waiting for the yacht club,” he says.

Mr. Blutrich says the heritage park isn’t what will “make or break” the development but for Mr. Bonner it’s a welcome added value to their experience.

“I think it’s just fantastic that we get the Keewatin back,” he says. He says a Toronto aunt once travelled on the ship and regaled him and his wife with her recollections. “We’ll be living next to a heritage park. It will be fun for me to be part of that.”

The Edwardian-class steamship, with an engine nearly identical to that of the much larger and Belfast-built Titanic, was built in Greenock, Scotland and sailed across the Atlantic in September, 1907. It had to be separated into two sections for the voyage up the Welland Canal and was reattached at Buffalo before continuing on to Owen Sound.

That was its home port until 1912 when the Port McNicoll facility was completed as CP’s eastern terminus. The Keewatin and other CP ships transported thousands of immigrants to Port Arthur, the entry to the Canadian West, then hauled tonnes of Canadian wheat back on the return voyage.

In the 1920s, the ship was refitted as a luxury cruise liner and began a four-decade career transporting vacationers intent on a second-to-none cruise experience.

“I believe a nation and a society can’t build without respect for history,” Mr. Blutrich says of his heritage park plan. “We’re going to keep this ship for the next generation to enjoy.”

Skyline owns several resort properties, including the nearby Horseshoe Resort, the Deerhurst in Muskoka and several hotels in Toronto, including the King Edward. Mr. Blutrich believes a significant selling point for Port McNicoll is Skyline’s Skylife membership program that offers members unlimited activities such as golf and skiing, discounts on spa services and accommodation at other Skyline properties around the world.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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