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.

p1030479These 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 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.

Fast forward to the early 1990s, and the teenage waiter had moved on to become a high school teacher, promotions salesman, advertisingp1030479 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 utilising 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.

p1030487I 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 thep1030512 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.

I joke with my brother that my first boat restoration was a 22’Greavette and he has chosen a 350’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’ 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: www.drone-on.com