SS Keewatin returns home to Port McNicoll
June 23, 2012 - Andrew Philips
PORT MCNICOLL, ONT.—An Edwardian-era passenger steamship launched before the Titanic has finally come home and Gary Valcheff couldn’t be happier.
Valcheff worked aboard the SS Keewatin as a busboy in the 1960s when the luxury vessel plied the Great Lakes, ferrying well-to-do passengers between Port McNicoll near Midland and Port Arthur (now part of Thunder Bay) on Lake Superior.
“I just feel chills when I see it,” said Valcheff, who was aboard a boat that accompanied the 106-metre, 3,800-tonne vessel on its final journey home. “It’s so imposing.”
The ship, which had been docked for decades in Michigan, arrived back in its home port with the aid of tugboats under sunny skies Saturday afternoon to much fanfare and the cheers of close to a thousand area residents.
Brothers Karl and Bruce Wright also worked on the ship, an experience they continue to treasure.
“I had the ship’s flags at home for 45 years after it was decommissioned,” said Karl Wright, referring to the Red Ensign and Union Jack that again adorn the ship’s stern and bow. “I had been waiting for this moment to donate them back.”
“The Kee,” as many around the region affectionately know her, was once the crown jewel in the Canadian Pacific Railway’s mighty Great Lakes steamship fleet, a rail-to-water, deluxe travel system the corporation operated during the first half of the 20th century that saw guests and freight arrive by train from Toronto.
Built in Scotland, the vessel was launched on July 6, 1907, five years before the Titanic. It was retired in 1966 after spending almost 60 seasons transporting passengers.
The ship’s repatriation came about after Skyline International Development Inc. announced a purchase agreement with Michigan entrepreneur R.J. Peterson, who actually saved the Keewatin from the scrap heap when he bought it in 1967 for $37,000, $2,000 more than it would have sold for scrap.
“We’ve always believed in celebrating history,” Skyline CEO Michael Sneyd said while aboard a boat that was one of close to 300 other pleasure craft surrounding the majestic ship on its final voyage through the clear Georgian Bay waters.
“When we found out the Keewatin was available we knew we had to find a way to make it the heart of the project.”
The project in question consists of a major shoreline development to complement Skyline’s holdings that also include Horseshoe and Deerhurst resorts as well as Toronto’s King Edward Hotel. The company plans to use part of the ship to stage events like weddings and special corporate meetings with another portion serving as a maritime museum.
“Port McNicoll, in our view, is really the gateway to the 30,000 Islands and Georgian Bay, which I think is home to the best boating in Ontario,” Sneyd said, adding the company hopes the development will revitalize Port McNicoll and restore it to its former glory.
That’s something Tay Township Mayor Scott Warnock hopes the Keewatin’s return creates.“It’s the one major link between the glory days of Port McNicoll,” said Warnock, pointing out many doubted the ship would actually come back. “We hope this creates a vibrancy here again.”
The Keewatin’s sister ship, the Assiniboia, was also set to be preserved as an attraction, but burned in 1971 and was scrapped.
For its part, Skyline also plans to add antique rail cars and a rebuilt train station near the Keewatin while also creating extensive gardens to reflect the way the area looked in its glory days.
Added former Keewatin crew member Jim Lewis: “I never thought I’d see the Keewatin back where it belongs again. It’s just wonderful.”