Edwardian-era luxury liner soon to call Kingston its home as a tourist attraction

The SS Keewatin will go on display in 2024 as the museum’s main attraction and the only ship in its 350-foot drydock. Photo provided

One of the world’s last grand Edwardian passenger steamships will make a triumphant arrival at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston later this year and become a boon to the local tourism scene, officials hope.  

The SS Keewatin, launched in 1907, just five years before the RMS Titanic, was built for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Great Lakes steamship service as a luxury liner and features a grand staircase, scrolled balustrade, women’s tea lounge, ballroom and more.

“It’s like a movie set,” says Chris West, chair of the marine museum board. “The dining salon is absolutely magnificent; it has all its original china and silverware and glassware. It’s kind of astonishing that so much could have lasted that long and been preserved that long.”

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Many of the ship’s 100-plus state rooms have been staged with donated period costumes and pieces of furniture under the stewardship of the R.J. Peterson Foundation in Port McNicoll, Ont.

In 1907, the SS Keewatin was dismantled into two halves to get through the Welland Canal. Photo provided

Commemorated on a Royal Canadian Mint coin in 2020, the 116-year-old ship has a wealth of stories to tell.

Built in Scotland, the Keewatin sailed across the North Atlantic to Canada. When she arrived in Quebec, it became clear that the approximately 350-foot ship was too long to fit through the Welland Canal connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. So, the ship, which was built with overlapping steel plates held by rivets, was dismantled into two halves so it could pass one piece at a time through the locks. It was then reassembled before continuing its journey.

The Kee, as the ship is affectionately known, plied the Upper Great Lakes for 57 years from Port Arthur/Fort William (now Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior to Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay, ferrying people and goods. The ship, one of just six built for Canadian Pacific, was retired in 1965 as one of the last turn-of-the-century overnight passenger ships of the Great Lakes. Its sister ship was scrapped in 1970 following a fire.

In January 1967, Keewatin was bought by Michigan entrepreneur Roland J. Peterson Sr. The ship was known as the Keewatin Maritime Museum from 1968 until its relocation in 2012 to Port McNicoll. 

Earlier this month, the marine museum in Kingston announced it had acquired the ship from Skyline Investments in Toronto.

“We’re pleased to donate this historic and treasured passenger ship to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes to ensure its continued long-term preservation,” says Blake Lyon, CEO of Skyline. 

Skyline purchased the ship for $1 million in 2011, Lyon says.

“Then (we) spent a few million dollars more getting it out of the mud, dredging the Kalamazoo River where it was docked, to get it back to Lake Michigan, and then towed it all the way up and around to Port McNicoll,” he adds.

The purchase started as a marketing ploy for Skyline, he explains. The company had acquired a large tract of land for development in Port McNicoll and thought to create a story around it with the acquisition of the Keewatin. In 2016, when Lyon joined Skyline, a shift in the company’s mandate led to the sale of the land to another developer who had no interest in the Keewatin.

Skyline immediately started looking for a suitable home but wanted to ensure the historic ship’s legacy.

“So, Skyline worked with the R.J. Peterson Foundation in Port McNicoll and we spent about $150,000 on legal (fees) with the lawyers here in Toronto to help them work through the process of getting approvals through (Canadian Heritage),” says Lyon.

The effort ultimately failed as the foundation’s application was rejected by the federal government and so Skyline began looking elsewhere. Eventually, they identified the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes. This was just before the pandemic, says Lyon, and, three years later, with all the Canadian Heritage approvals now in place, the ship is set to grace the museum’s dry dock for posterity.

“Our museum manager is a former marine surveyor, which is a big advantage for us, so he spent days and days surveying the ship and wrote a report that went into the hundreds of pages on every aspect of the ship,” says West.

The venerable ship will be towed out of Port McNicoll as soon as the ice melts to Heddle Shipyards in Hamilton this spring for much-needed repairs.

“There has been some deferred maintenance over the past 12 years and a lot of volunteer labour has gone into maintaining and staging the ship and some dollars mainly from Skyline. We have to make up for all that deferred maintenance and that’s why it’s going into the shipyard,” explains West.

The museum has already raised the estimated $2 million required to complete the repairs and is looking forward to welcoming the Keewatin to Kingston by the fall.

“We haven’t mapped out the details of this yet, but I envisage a small armada of big boats and small boats and everything in between will be invited to come out on that day and welcome the SS Keewatin to Kingston,” West tells EOBJ.

Taking on a ship of that age and size is not for the faint of heart. While the museum is confident that it has the expertise and that the ship will attract a lot of visitors, it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain on an annual basis, estimates West.

“With a ship like that you just start painting at one end of it in a season and then, as soon as you get to the other end, you turn around and go the other way. There’s no end to that kind of thing, but the revenue potential is significant,” says West.

The ship will go on display in 2024 as the museum’s main attraction and the only ship in its 350-foot drydock. 

“That’s another story,” chuckles Lyon at Skyline.  

It seems there was a bit of pushback from the folks at Port McNicoll who were still fighting to hang onto the ship that once called their deep-water port home. Lyon was sent the wrong measurements and told Keewatin wouldn’t fit in Kingston’s drydock.

“We actually had to send somebody up there independently to do a proper measurement and it just fits within four feet,” laughs Lyon.

According to West, there is still a lot of work to be done before the ship can be displayed to the public. It’s not just a matter of repairing the ship, but also of unearthing information about the vessel’s voyages and adventures.

“One of the things that we’re very keen to get our hands on are the ship’s logs and the archives associated with the ship, which we’re hoping are still with (Canadian Pacific),” says West. “We don’t know where the SS Keewatin was in 1913 during the ‘Big Blow’ (the Great Lakes storm of 1913). It would be really fun and insightful to find out where she found her way during that storm or was she caught in it,” he adds.

The ship has served as a floating set for a number of maritime-related documentaries and television shows and docudramas, including CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries.

“It’s like a movie set,” says Chris West, chair of the marine museum board. Photo provided

For Skyline, it’s a financial relief to divest of the Kee and the company will get a tax receipt once the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board completes its appraisal.  

“We have a lot of history with the ship so it’s become fairly personal and we wanted it to go to someone that could look after it. Kingston is an amazing location for the Keewatin to receive maximum exposure. They have the expertise and Queen’s (University) engineering department has even done some cool drawings where they’ve created this canopy system that can go over the top of the ship itself,” says Lyon.

Keen to engage the public’s imagination around the acquisition, the museum will be sharing more information about the Keewatin’s arrival and ways that Kingston and area residents can help welcome the Kee to Kingston once repairs are completed. 

In the meantime, the museum has launched marmuseum.ca/ss-keewatin to share information about the ship with fans. 

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