Our August 16 summer outing to SS Keewatin at Port McNicol, was wet but wonderful. Yes it rained, but the rich history of this passenger ship that once sailed between Port Arthur / Fort William (now Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior and Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) in Ontario, Canada provided astounding insight to travel on the great lakes in a bygone era. She carried passengers between these ports for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Great Lakes Steamship Service. The Keewatin also carried packaged freight goods for the railway at these ports.
Built by Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company in Scotland as Hull No. 453, the Keewatin was launched 6 July 1907 and entered service in the following year. She ran continuously for almost 60 seasons, being retired in 1966. The Keewatin is the last and only surviving turn-of-the-century style overnight passenger streamship of many that provided service on Great Lakes.
We arranged for a 2 hour group tour that took us to all parts of the ship. The upper deck tour took 90 minutes and our well informed guide, Susan, took us through the two main decks to see the dining room, kitchens, ladies smoking lounge, the crew quarters, state rooms, the Flower Pot Lounge, bar and the ballroom. The Keewatin was built 10 years before the Titanic, but the staircase going from the promenade purser’s area to the upper deck was built by the same carpenter and was copied for the Titanic but on a grander scale.
We took an additional 30 minutes to descend below the waterline to the grain holds, coal bunkers, Scotch Boilers and a working 3200 horsepower quadruple expansion steam engine similar to what was on the Titanic and the last one in the world in existence.
We learned how the crew functioned, and how passengers traveled in luxury in those days. If you were privileged to afford a stateroom you had a private bath with a flush toilet. Lesser folks had the ubiquitous chamber pot which was part of the task of the 3 stewardesses to routinely empty as well as put fresh sheets on each of the 144 passenger beds on a daily basis. All meals were attended with formal attire, even breakfast. And because the rooms were small stewards were constantly going below deck to get passengers’ steamer trunks so wardrobe could be selected for each meal. They were hopping all day long and it was well known that big tippers got their trunks in priority.
The SS Keewatin is truly magnificent inside. One feels transported back in time walking though it. Hearing how the crew worked and seeing their accommodations, they had a hard life!
In the last twenty years of her working life, like many passenger ships of that era on the Great Lakes, the Keewatin and sister ship SS Assiniboia operated under stringent regulations imposed for wooden cabin steamships following the Noronic disaster in 1949. That was a similar ship that caught fire and burned while on the docks in Toronto with large loss of life. Doomed by their wooden cabins and superstructure, these overnight cruisers lasted through the decline of the passenger trade on the lakes in the post-war years. As passengers opted for more reliable and faster modes of travel, the Keewatin and her sister ship were withdrawn from the passenger trade in 1965, Assiniboia continuing in freight–only service until September 1967. The Keewatin was acquired by RJ Peterson of Douglas, Michigan and moved there for historic preservation in 1967, where she was a museum ship across the river from the summer retreat Saugatuck, Michigan. In June of 2012 she was sold to Canadian developer Skyline Investments and sailed back to Port McNicoll, Ontario that had been her home since 1912. She is run by a volunteer organization is again open to the public as an Historic Destination.
After our visit to the Keewatin we went over to nearby Midland for a mid-afternoon lunch at The Boathouse Eatery before returning to Toronto. All in all, – a most educational day!