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A Great Lakes legend turns 100!
June 26, 2007 - Douglas, Mich

Canada wants the Keewatin back, but for now it rests, elegantly, on Lake Michigan

Hundredth birthdays are a big deal whether they're for people or Great Lakes passenger ships. Just ask Toronto entrepreneur Eric Conroy.

If all goes as planned, on July 6 he and some other prominent Canadians he's persuaded to join him will converge on this quiet Lake Michigan resort town to celebrate the centennial of the launch of the former Canadian Pacific Railway steamer Keewatin, which for generations transported travelers in Edwardian-era elegance between Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay and Fort William (now part of Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior.

Keewatin Steamer
"I just feel a part of it," says Conroy of the trim, white, much-beloved 106-metre ship, which he worked on as a waiter in the 1960s and has been visiting for the past 10 years, sometimes acting as a tour guide.

The vessel, the sole survivor of a once sizable number of classic Great Lakes cruise ships, has been a privately operated floating museum permanently moored here since 1968, three years after its withdrawal from passenger service. To raise consciousness among Canadians about the Keewatin, Conroy, who publishes The Magazine, a popular monthly for teens, says he's talked a select group of his compatriots into attending the rechristening of the steamer on the 100th anniversary of its launch in Glasgow, Scotland.

They include Ontario Minister of Tourism Jim Bradley, country singer Albert Hall, who'll perform a song he's written about the Keewatin, and Toronto developer Gil Blutrich, who wants to make the ship the centre piece of his ambitious project to redevelop Port McNicoll. What they will see is a centenarian that has aged gracefully. "When you go on board, it looks exactly like the day I left it," Conroy said in a phone interview. He wasn't kidding.

Take one of the Keewatin Maritime Museum's guided tours and you find a ship that seems ready to depart on yet another day-and-a-half voyage across two Great Lakes. Champagne bottles stand on bedside tables in the deluxe staterooms, period-piece desks await letter writers in the ladies' lounge, and in the 120-seat, walnut-paneled dining room, all the tables are set with Canadian Pacific silverware and china.

The ship's exterior looks just as it did to those who once arrived at Port McNicoll by the special boat train from Toronto. A smart-looking dark green band still encircles the hull, and the steamer's enormous, 78-metre stack still sports the distinctive red and white checkerboard CP insignia. A nearly identical sister ship, the Assiniboia, also carried passengers for 57 years under CP colours, but soon after retirement it was destroyed by fire. The Keewatin has escaped demise because of its owner, R.J. Peterson, who, Conroy says, "had a vision that no else did."

Although both Port McNicoll and Fort William are said to have spurned CP's offer to sell them the ship for a dollar in the 1960s, Peterson, the owner of two marinas here, paid about $42,000 for the vessel itself and another few thousand for the steamship's furnishings, and has used his own funds and revenues from the museum to maintain the ship.

Ironically, officials in Thunder Bay have recently expressed interest to Peterson in bringing the ship back there as a tourist attraction. Meanwhile, Blutrich says he wants to help establish a charitable foundation that would receive private and public donations to preserve this "fine, fine piece of Canadian history" at Port McNicoll.

For his part, in early June Peterson, now 80, took the first step toward creating his own foundation for the same purpose. "It's just possible," he says, the ship "might be better off where it's at."

Asked his preference for the Keewatin's final resting spot, Conroy answers carefully. "I have an allegiance to R.J. Peterson at this point," he says but then adds, "If it goes anywhere, I'd like to see it go to Port McNicoll."

From the Toronto Star

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