The SS Keewatin, the last surviving Canadian Pacific steamship in the world, is coming home to Canada, more than 100 years after it was launched in 1907 at the height of the Edwardian era.
The elegant ship, with its oak and mahogany dining room and stained-glass windows, ferried passengers and freight from Georgian Bay to Lake Superior for more than 50 years, until it was decommissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1965.
The Keewatin will be towed from its berth as a floating museum in Douglas, Mich. to become the centrepiece of developer Gil Blutrich’s revitalization of 11 kilometres of shoreline that once belonged to the CPR in Port McNicoll, Ont.
“Just about everybody in the community has some connection to the ship, because they or somebody in their families worked on it, or cruised on it,” said Scott Warnock, the mayor of Tay Township. He considers the return of the ship a “win-win” for the area.
The goal is to repatriate a rare piece of Canadian heritage and add a third tourist attraction to the southern Georgian Bay area, which already boasts the martyrs shrine at Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons and the Wye Marsh. If all goes well, the Keewatin – which was built in Scotland four years before the Titanic made its maiden and final voyage across the Atlantic – is scheduled to arrive in Port McNicoll in June, 2012. The 106-metre, 3,800-ton vessel will be moored beside a replica of the old Canadian Pacific railway station and open to the public.
“It will be like visiting the Titanic, except above water,” said Mr. Blutrich, whose company owns a number of hotels, including Deerhurst Resort and the King Edward Hotel.
The Keewatin was one of six steamships built by the Canadian Pacific Railway between 1883 and 1907 to bring western wheat across the Great Lakes to eastern markets, and to ferry European immigrants in the opposite direction to their new homes on the prairies.
Forget glamour, these were working ships. It was only after the introduction of modern transportation and freight-handling modes in the 1930s and 1940s that the steamships – those that had survived storms and shipwrecks – enjoyed a second and more leisurely life as cruise ships.
Their glory days sailing between Port McNicoll and Thunder Bay on Lake Superior were short-lived, with cars, cottages and airplanes putting an end to lake cruising. By the mid-1960s, only the Keewatin and her sister ship the SS Assiniboia remained.
The CPR offered to sell the ships to Thunder Bay and Port McNicoll for a dollar apiece, but there were no takers. That’s when two American enthusiasts jumped in. The Assiniboia was going to be reincarnated as a floating restaurant on the Eastern Seaboard until a mishap with a welder’s torch led to its fiery demise in 1970.
The Keewatin had a happier fate. R.J. and Diane Peterson bought the ship and all its furnishings including china and silver flatware for about $40,000 from CPR and a Hamilton scrap metal yard in 1966, and towed it to their marina on the Kalamazoo River in Douglas, Mich. They refurbished the ship and operated it as a floating museum. Five years ago, fundraiser, non-profit organizer and history buff Eric Conroy, who had worked on the Keewatin as a summer job back in the 1960s, helped organize a Canadian-American 100th anniversary celebration for the ship in Michigan. He was a key player in the repatriation negotiations to bring the Keewatin back to Canada.
The homecoming won’t be smooth sailing. In the 45 years since the Petersons moored the Keewatin in their marina, silt has caused the water level to rise in the Kalamazoo. Mr. Blutrich may have bought his precious piece of Canadian heritage, but before he can give it pride of place in his new development in Port McNicoll, the river has to be dredged. Once that costly task is completed, tentatively set for June, 2012, the Keewatin will be towed to the mouth of Lake Michigan. That’s where the grand old lady of the Great Lakes will be ceremoniously handed over from Mr. Peterson, her American rescuer, to Mr. Blutrich, her new owner, on the first leg of her homecoming voyage.