Submitted by ‘Friends of Keewatin’
Five years older than the R.M.S. Titanic and the sole survivor of the great Edwardian steamship era, the S.S. Keewatin was built in 1907 by Scotland’s Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company.
It crossed the Atlantic later that year to join the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) fleet of steamships, including Keewatin’s sister ship, the S.S. Assiniboia, to serve Canada’s upper Great Lakes.
POWERFUL SYMBOL OF NATION BUILDING
“Keewatin” means “Blizzard of the North” in Cree.
In addition to holding great historical importance, the ship is also a symbol of Industrial Revolution innovations and an era of massive immigration to settle western Canada.
Able to accommodate 220 passengers plus 86 officers and crew, the Keewatin could reach a speed of 14 knots with its smooth, low-vibration, quadruple-expansion reciprocating steam engine. The Scotch boiler design allowed hot flue gases (exhaust gases) to pass through tubes in a tank of water and used multiple separate furnaces for more efficient operation. A single screw propeller – which transmitted power from rotational motion to thrust – had fixed blades rotating around a horizontal axis or propeller shaft.
‘CHICAGO OF THE NORTH’
Beginning in the fall of 1908, the ship transported passengers, mail and cargo between Lake Ontario port cities Owen Sound and Fort William (now, along with Port Arthur, known as Thunder Bay).
Late in 1911, when the grain elevator at Owen Sound was destroyed in a fire, CPR moved the Keewatin to Port McNicoll, near Midland, Ont.
The Port McNicoll terminal flourished and became known as “Chicago of the North,” where cargo from the U.S. midwest transferred for destinations east and west. Port Arthur was an essential link in moving grain and other cargo from western Canada. Newly built grain elevators at Port McNicoll stored wheat bound for the port of Montréal.
It was also a busy hub for passengers: initially, immigrants who sailed CPR ships across the ocean boarded trains at Halifax or Québec City and would continue their voyage west to build new lives in Canada’s then-youngest provinces, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Following these large waves of immigration, CPR turned to leisure travellers, who enjoyed the ship’s luxury service while they refreshed their spirits in the natural beauty of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior. Meals comparable to any fine hotel were served in the Edwardian dining room. The Flower Pot Lounge boasted a grand piano and provided an inviting space for relaxing and entertainment. As the times dictated, a similarly appointed lounge was designated just for the ladies. Common areas displayed the work of early Canadian artists and craftspeople. All 107 cabins – across two decks – boasted hot and cold running water.
A CENTURY-PLUS OF REINVENTION
Despite being retired and condemned to the scrap yards in 1965, the Keewatin was set for further transformation.
Upon hearing of the Keewatin’s fate, U.S. ship enthusiast RJ Peterson brought her to Michigan’s Lake Kalamazoo, where – advertised as a “mini-Titanic” – the ship served as a maritime museum for more than 40 years.
In 2012, the Friends of the Keewatin – a registered Canadian charity officially known as the RJ and Diane Peterson Keewatin Foundation – brought the ship back to her Port McNicoll home. While the ship’s future in Port McNicoll remains precarious, planning for further restoration and maintenance continues. It’s being led by the Friends of the Keewatin and a group of dedicated volunteers inspired by the goal of returning their beloved “Kee” to its original glory and keeping her where her history lives. The ship is now 95 per cent restored.
SHARING THE STORY, SECURING THE FUTURE
To share the Keewatin’s story and raise funds to allow the foundation to continue its work, the ship now serves as a museum, welcoming tens of thousands of visitors during summer.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the museum to close for the remainder of 2020, the charitable organization will see funding through proceeds from the sale of Keewatin collectibles.
Earlier this year, the Royal Canadian Mint issued a $30 proof coin struck in 99.99 per cent silver and designed by Matt Conacher. It features a starboard-bow view of the S.S. Keewatin on the reverse and an obverse view of the port stern alongside a framed effigy of Queen Elizabeth II by Susanna Blunt.
Also this year, in partnership with the Friends of Keewatin, CI Publishing – a division of Toronto printing company Colour Innovations – issued two informative collectible albums featuring authentic artifacts from the actual ship.
The “special” edition features a 60-page hardcover book including a detailed compendium Steel & Steam by K. Corey Keeble, Royal Ontario Museum curator emeritus; pieces of wood and rope from the ship’s original lifeboat ladders; a custom metal replica lifeboat plaque; along with posters, postcards and menus.
The “deluxe” edition adds two DVDs plus authentic circa 1960s luggage tag and menu covers.
Both versions are limited-edition runs and include a certificate of authenticity.
A portion of proceeds from the sale of these collectibles will support the Friends of Keewatin’s efforts and the preservation of the S.S. Keewatin.
To learn more about the S.S. Keewatin, visit sskeewatin.com.
The ‘Friends of the Keewatin,’ officially known as the RJ and Diane Peterson Keewatin Foundation, is a registered Canadian charity.