SS Keewatin brings multiple tourism options as a museum attraction in Kingston, officials say

SS Keewatin Kingston
The SS Keewatin arrives at the docks of the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston, Ont. Photo by the marine museum.

One of the last remaining passenger steamships of the Edwardian era has docked in its new home at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in what Tourism Kingston CEO Megan Knott calls an “incredibly exciting legacy project.”

The SS Keewatin launched in 1907, just five years before the RMS Titanic, and boasts a grand staircase, tea lounge, ballroom, scrolled balustrade and 100-plus state rooms, many of which will be staged with donated period costumes and decor as the ship enters a new phase of its life as a museum attraction. 

At 116 years old, the ship represents Kingston’s “juxtaposition of old and new,” Knott told OBJ in an interview, and brings a multitude of tourism opportunities to the city.

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The Keewatin, which is expected to open for visitors in the spring, brings opportunity “for every sector we work in,” Knott said, from leisure and business tourism, to film, culinary, music and the travel trade. 

Knott said visitors to Kingston can tour and explore the “iconic” ship and learn about the Great Lakes at the marine museum. “It’s also an exciting opportunity to be able to have a year-round product, which is challenging in some locations, but this is something that can be done all year,” she added. “It’s ideal.”

As well, the Keewatin could serve as a filming location and an attraction for Kingston’s entertainment industry, she added. With interior decor that appears frozen in time, Knott said there’s a “huge opportunity” to film and host events in the space. 

“Films have used it previously and there’s opportunity to continue with those particular series or films or anything related to this type of backdrop or atmosphere,” said Knott, referring to the fact that 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.

“There’s also potential as an event space or venue. We work in business events and there’s always opportunity for culinary events, small meeting spaces and the possibility of that small, unique space.”

At its new home, the ship could potentially influence travel trade from the cruise ships that use the St. Lawrence River, she continued, adding to the contrast between history and modernity.

“We’re a community that represents that juxtaposition really well. We’re historical in architecture and we often share those stories, but we’re also a city of innovation and growth,” said Knott. “It’s important to see that it’s something the Keewatin represents as well.

“As large ships come in, if you’re coming from the Ottawa and Montreal corridor or through the Windsor and Toronto corridor, you’re going to go right past (the Keewatin). It shows that juxtaposition between new and old,” she said. “There’s discussion of the city looking at potentially facilitating a larger deep-water dock because it would be great in the future to see a large ship parked beside this Titanic-era old ship.”

The steamship was greeted upon its arrival in Kingston by an enthusiastic community, Knott said, and Tourism Kingston is already seeing interest from people hoping to visit the ship.

Built in Scotland, the luxury liner is one of just six built for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Great Lakes steamship service. The Kee, as it is affectionately known, originally sailed across the North Atlantic and arrived in Quebec. However, 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.

For 57 years, the ship travelled the Upper Great Lakes from Port/Arthur/Fort William (now Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior to Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay.

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.

“It’s such an innovative tourism experience for each sector, anchored by these historic experiences that the Kee will offer,” Knott said. “Next to something like a Titanic, which obviously is inaccessible, this is really the next best thing in terms of going on something historic. 

“I don’t know if photos or videos do it justice. It’s different from modern cruise ships and you feel a bit of a presence with the ship itself that sparks your interest in what’s inside,” she continued. 

“It’s far different than a cruise ship and a real story that will bring people from all over to see it.”

The marine museum announced in March that it had acquired the ship from Skyline Investments in Toronto.

The ship will go on display in 2024 as the museum’s main attraction and the only ship in its 350-foot drydock. As the Keewatin prepares to welcome visitors aboard, the museum has launched to share information about the ship with fans. 

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