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Keewatin buyer would fund dredging, owner says
Sept 28, 2011 - Scott Sullivan

The S.S. Keewatin may sail from Douglas to Canada as soon as next spring, says owner R.J. Peterson.

But more than Kalamazoo Harbor silt could impede the way.

Peterson said at a press conference Monday he has signed an intent letter with the Canadian-funded R.J. and Diane Peterson Great Lakes and S.S. Keewatin Foundation (his contribution would be the boat) to move the 104-year-old, 350-foot-long Great Lakes steamship and maritime museum from Tower Marine, where it's been a community landmark since 1967, to Port McNicoll, Ontario.

What's in it for locals?

"Money to dredge the harbor," said Peterson, noting the waterway, last dredged comprehensively 65 years ago, is silt-choked to a point pleasure boaters are taking their business elsewhere.

The harbor, called the "lifeblood" and "economic engine" of the community in a 2006 report, might cost up to $45 million to dredge comprehensively, said that study.

A harbor committee comprised of Saugatuck, Douglas and Saugatuck Township representatives has met since 2008 hoping to implement study suggestions and recommends forming a harbor authority, but finding funding has not flowed smoothly.

Peterson said the foundation could make the boat fit for transit and dredge a 1,000-foot channel to where the river deepens for about $1 million.

He and Douglas are discussing the city acquiring Tower Marine and running it as a municipal marina, but have yet to agree on a price or terms.

"The harbor is running out of time," said Peterson, who will turn 85 on New Year's Eve. "So am I."

He said he and his wife, Diane, drew up a plan five years ago to preserve the Keewatin for future generations.

"It needs costly maintenance," he said. "We draw about 10,000 visitors to it each year, enough to keep up with maintenance but not to restore the ship to full glory."

Local funding was not sufficient to launch a foundation to restore the ship here, so he held discussions with representatives of Port McNicoll and Thunder Bay, also in Ontario.

Port McNicoll, on the southeastern tip of the Georgian Bay about 90 miles north of Toronto, was the vessel's home port when the Canadian Pacific Railway and Steamship Co. offered cruises aboard it from 1907 to 1965, said Peterson.

Thunder Bay, like Port McNicoll, had a rail station plus a dry dock and shipyard for maintenance.

"Both have historic links to the boat," said Peterson. "Douglas and Saugatuck don'tat least as a sailing vessel.

"Mom and Dad have a passion for the ship I don't have," said their son, Matt Peterson. "It would be easier to call Padnos (a Holland metal recycling firm) and scrap it.

"The best way to preserve the Keewatin is put it in the hands of people who have the love and money to do it right."

Foundation director Eric Conroy, a Toronto businessman, worked aboard the Keewatin during its final years as a cruise ship and published a reminiscence of that time, "A Steak in the Drawer," this summer.

He expects his planned lecture about the vessel Thursday, Oct. 6, in the Saugatuck Center for the Arts at 7 p.m. (see related story) to be lively.

"The Keewatin was part of a fleet that kept Canada together near the turn of the 19th century," said Conroy. "It will be royalty in our country.

"Port McNicoll is small (population 2,300) but money from all over Canada is behind this," he continued.

"Saugatuck, Douglas and R.J. saved the Keewatin from being scrapped. Now we have means to take care of it and help your community do what it needs badly: dredge the harbor. Plus you'll have space now for other large boats to come and dock there."

Peterson hopes to dredge, storing spoils on his 15-acre marina site, enough to turn the vessel around this fall.

The Keewatin drafts 16 to 18 feet, but removal of lifeboats, already done, and more could lessen the depth to 12 feet, he said.

Kalamazoo Lake is as shallow as two feet between the boat's current site and the point near Coral Gables to which the Army Corps of Engineers dredges on out through the river channel into Lake Michigan.

Peterson proposes pumping dredge spoils from there through a 16-inch pipe to Saugatuck Township-owned land east of Interstate 196 near the township dog park.

Dealing with PCB content in those spoils, the result of upstream pollution from paper mills years ago, will require problem-solving involving the Michigan Department of Natural Resources among others.

"I will be meeting with those officials in Lansing Oct. 5," said Peterson. "They have responsibility for this waterway.

"I think we can find a way."

The council of Tay Township, in which Port McNicoll lies, has not made a final decision about accepting the ship, said Conroy. The vote is expected Oct. 13.

Peterson believes local governments, which have not always been in sync with his plans or each other, will understand the benefits of his proposal when explained to them.

"Here is an opportunity to preserve the ship and our harbor," he said.

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