This is an attraction that is uniquely Ontario—it can’t be found anywhere else on the planet. And, like all good stories, it is inspired by the foresight, determination, and resourcefulness of one special person.
The story is that of the S.S. Keewatin, the last remaining Edwardian-era steamship to ply the waters of the Great Lakes, and the last such ship in existence in the world. Built in Scotland in 1907 for the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Keewatin was part passenger ship and part cargo ship, taking settlers, often new immigrants, on a two-and-a-half day journey from Owen Sound and Port McNicoll to the railhead in Port Arthur/Fort William. On the return voyage, the Keewatin was filled with western wheat bound for Ontario mills. The story of this ship is the story of Canadian history: the settlement of the west, the railways, immigration. Exciting stuff.
The Keewatin and sister ship the Assiniboine were the first ships on the Great Lakes to be radar-equipped, and were the most elegant on the Great Lakes, having been designed in the British style of the Titanic and Luisitania—picture a smaller version of the more famous ships. Over the decades they hauled hundreds of thousands of passengers and millions of tons of cargo. As rail and later highway transportation improved in northern Ontario, demand for ship transport declined.
We are all indebted to American RJ Peterson, who saved the Keewatin from the scrapyard and tended to her for 45 years. Between the unbeatable spirit of Eric Conroy, “Captain Ric,” and the financial assistance of developer Gil Blutrich, the Friends of Keewatin had the opportunity to purchase Keewatin, and spent 10 months digging the ship out of her Lake Michigan resting place. With a film crew aboard, the ship was towed back to her home port, where a huge flotilla of local boats met her. Just get a local to tell you about that day—it’ll send shivers up your spine. And don’t miss the inspiring film on the voyage, it is for sale in the gift shop.
During the tourist season, daily tours of the ship are offered; an Upper Deck tour and a supplementary Engine Room tour. Both tours are conducted by volunteers (there are over 150 people involved in this labour of love) and are highly recommended. You may be fortunate enough to be toured by a local resident who actually worked on the ship since the Keewatin provided summer employment to many local students; the stories we heard during a tour were well told, humorous, and provided a vivid insight into a lost era.
Tour guides point out, with pride, that everything you see—the furnishings, uniforms, menus, the linens, stained glass windows, the Canadian Pacific china—is 100% authentic and original to the Keewatin. No “to period” history lesson here—the ship is just as it looked when it carried about 288 passengers and 88 crew. The Keewatin predates the Titanic by five years, and some of the design features of the Titanic, such as the Grand Staircase, were based on the Keewatin, but created on the Titanic on much larger scale. The Upper Deck tour includes the dining room set out for a formal dinner, ladies and men’s lounges, state rooms, crew quarters, bar, ballroom, the wheelhouse, Captain’s quarters, and the purser’s office.
We were very fortunate to have the Engine Room tour with Captain Conroy himself, the author and finisher of the SS Keewatin’s return to Port McNicholl. Aside from the interesting tour, it was a moving moment to be in the presence of an “ordinary” Ontarian who has made an extraordinary contribution to our society.
The Engine Room tour comprises the grain holds, coal bunkers, and enormous dry steam Scotch boilers that power the vessel. The 3200 horsepower quadruple expansion steam engine is identical to the one used on the Titanic—and the only one of its kind left in the world. The tour by Conroy is filled enough of the technical details, diagrams, and hands-on familiarity that will make this a must-do for anyone with a mechanic bent. Local engineers—some of them well into their 80s—volunteered to refurbish and restore the engines and boilers, and what a job they have done. Everything in the engine room is in working order and immaculate.
There are big plans for the SS Keewatin as it becomes the centrepiece for waterfront development in Port McNicoll. The plans include a yacht club, and a restaurant that will operate in several refurbished CPR coaches.