Titanic-era steamship SS Keewatin open for public tours at new home in Kingston

SS Keewatin Kingston
The SS Keewatin arriving at the docks of the Great Lakes Museum in Kingston Ont.

After months of restoration and a long journey, an Edwardian-era steamship is now open to the public at its new home at the Great Lakes Museum in Kingston, where the museum says it will become a major attraction “for many years to come.”

One of the last remaining passenger steamships of its kind, the SS Keewatin launched in 1907, five years before the RMS Titanic. Built in Scotland, the luxury liner was one of just six built for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Great Lakes steamship service. 

The Keewatin 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.

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Eager participants line up for the SS Keewatin tour. Photo by the Great Lakes Museum.

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 then became known as the Keewatin Maritime Museum from 1968 until its relocation in 2012 from the U.S. to Port McNicoll. It sailed into its new home in Kingston in October, where a lengthy cleaning, preservation and restoration process began.

Now, with the ship open for museum tours, guests can view the grand staircase, tea lounge, ballroom, scrolled balustrade and 100-plus state rooms, which have been staged with donated period costumes, artifacts and decor. An engine room tour will become available in the coming weeks.

“It’s really something special,” said Michelle Clarabut, programs and communications manager at the museum. “We talk about so many of these stories in our exhibits and programs, but to now be able to step aboard and experience how you would have traveled 100 years ago … It’s just so special.”

Tours of the 116-year-old ship began May 13 and Clarabut said the museum has already seen plenty of walk-ins and sold-out tours. The experience allows guests to “come aboard and imagine themselves as a passenger,” Clarabut said, for a 75-minute tour of the spaces that have been staged in the different time periods of the ship’s operation.

“The ladies drawing room and lounge will soon be finished restoration and be a part of the tour, too,” said Clarabut. “But so far, it’s going quite well. Everybody is loving going back in time.”

To keep up with what Clarabut expects to be a busy season, tour guides and summer staff have been hired, but she said there have also been many volunteers.

The passenger tour of the SS Keewatin allows guests to go back in time. Photo by the Great Lakes Museum.

Due to the delicate nature of the restorations, staff members monitor tours to ensure they do not cause any damage.

“Every day we make sure we’re assessing it to keep in mind the condition of the space,” she said. “It’s not just a building, it’s also an artifact in and of itself.”

For Clarabut, the most exciting part of welcoming the Keewatin to the museum has been the unexpected historical and personal connections. 

“We’re getting visitors who have a family connection, a parent who worked on it or sailed on it and they’ve come to see it themselves,” she explained. “Someone had a photograph of her mother there and the staff was able to find the location and take a new one and recreate it.

“These connections that are coming out have been so special and all of our staff are happy for that learning experience as well.”

The whole team has been learning, she added, to truly appreciate the Keewatin’s legacy.

“It’s been a journey,” she said. “It’s not just a ship; it’s Canadian heritage and the only one like it and because of that we have a responsibility and owe it to its previous steward to ensure its preservation and access.”

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