116-year-old S.S. Keewatin finds a new retirement home in Kingston

The S.S. Keewatin docks at its new home at the Great Lakes Museum in Kingston. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Kingston’s shoreline was a scene from the history books as the Edwardian-era steamship called S.S. Keewatin floated serenely into its new home at the Great Lakes Museum to the applause of the eagerly-waiting throngs.

Crowds chatted excitedly around the old dry dock on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, as S.S. Keewatin, one of only three Edwardian steamships left in the world, was manoeuvred into place by a Doornekamp Tug Boat, duck boat, ropes, and winches. At 116 years old, the Keewatin is five years older than the Titanic and certainly saw far more successful years on the water than the doomed “unsinkable” ship. Much of the design of the Keewatin was duplicated by the Titanic’s designers, only on a larger scale.

Many members of “Friends of Keewatin” could be found in the crowd welcoming the ship, in what was a bittersweet moment for the group. The “Friends of Keewatin” is the popular name for The RJ and Diane Peterson Keewatin Foundation, named for the Michigan couple who saved the S.S. Keewatin from the wreckers in 1967. Between 2012 and 2019 the Friends leased the S.S. Keewatin along with the dock and bay at which it resided, and operated the ship as a museum in its home port of Port McNicoll, Ontario.

Susan Rudy was among the “Friends of Keewatin,” wearing her S.S. Keewatin crew jacket and Canadian Pacific Steamships cap. Her husband Peter Rudy died in 2019, she said, at the age of 91. He was an exceptional model-builder, and many examples of his work are displayed in museums and public buildings, including seven aboard the Keewatin. A solid supporter of the S.S. Keewatin in Port McNicoll, Peter kept the ship’s short-wave radio alive and could often be found typing out messages from the wireless room on the Keewatin.

“He spent his final 11 years volunteering with her, which really rejuvenated him,” explained Rudy with a tear in her eye.

She said she was extremely happy that the “Kee,” as the ship’s friends call it, would be well looked after in its new home.

Susan Rudy (right) was among the Friends of Keewatin, wearing her S.S. Keewatin crew jacket and Canadian Pacific Steamships cap. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Built in Govan, Scotland, and launched July 6, 1907, the vessel sailed on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, docking at Lévis, Quebec. There, the ship had to be halved, because the canals below Lake Erie, specifically the Welland Canal, could not handle ships as long as Keewatin. The ship was reassembled at Buffalo, New York, where she resumed her voyage to begin service at Owen Sound, Ontario.

Originally designed to complete the link in the Canadian Pacific Railway’s continental route, S.S. Keewatin used to haul people and cargo across Lake Superior from Fort William (current-day Thunder Bay) and Port McNicoll, a small port town in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, on behalf of the original owner, Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. It remained in service from Oct. 7, 1908, until Nov 29, 1965 when the Trans-Canada Highway was completed, essentially eliminating the need for this service. 

Also in the crowd of onlookers was Doug Cunningham of Bath. His family had a cottage in the Huronia area, where they summered when he was growing up. He was hired as a young man aboard the “Kee.”

“I started as a cabin watch and became a waiter, and a night steward… on both ships, the Assiniboia and the Keewatin,” he said.

Eric Conroy (left), the former President and CEO of “Friends of Keewatin,” bumped into Doug Cunningham of Bath on the Kingston dock. The two were delighted to discover they had worked on the S.S. Keewatin as waiters at the same time in the 1960s. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

“I would go around and do all the fire points and so forth, plus serving sandwiches to the crew at night,” Cunningham explained. “The next year I became a waiter, so I was in the dining room. The funny thing about the dining room was we had to memorize everything. There were three main dishes on the menu each time, plus the desserts and the appetizers, and we kids had to remember this. We had an in-door and an out-door and we had to carry the trays left-handed… more people are right-handed, but it had to be left-handed because of the way the doors [worked], so it was quite physical and mentally demanding.”

Coincidentally, Cunningham bumped into Eric Conroy, the former President and CEO of “Friends of Keewatin,” on the Kingston dock. The two were delighted to discover they had worked on Keewatin as waiters at the same time in the 1960s, and exchanged stories, promising to catch up after the fanfare had died down a little.

S.S. Keewatin is 102.6 metres long, with a beam of 13.3 metres and a draught of 7.2 metres. In its heyday, it ran on a quadruple expansion steam engine with four coil-fired boilers and its maximum speed was 16 knots. It carried 288 passengers and 86 crew members.

A stern end view of the “Kee” shows the ship is nearly as long as the Marine Museum itself. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

After ending its runs across the Great Lakes in 1965, S.S. Keewatin passed several times to different owners, serving as a museum on Lake Michigan, and then returning to its home port of Port McNicoll in 2012. It was to be used as a museum and event centre. While at Port McNicoll, the ship was even used as a set for maritime-related movies and documentaries, and featured on an episode of CBC’s Murdoch Mysteries, called “Murdoch Ahoy!”

The crowd heard words of greeting from Chris West, the Chair of the Board of the Great Lakes Museum (formerly the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes).

“Today is a truly extraordinary day,” said West. “The end of the S.S. Keewatin’s voyage to Kingston marks the beginning of a new chapter in her life. And a new chapter for our museum. Typically here at the museum, we say we are in the business of preserving history. Today, we are making history.”

West celebrated the extensive restorative work that has already been done on the ship, and noted, “There’s much more to be done. And it is truly fitting that the work will continue here in our historic shipyard dry dock, so that the Keewatin is looking her best for the grand opening in May, and for years to come.”

Great Lakes Museum Chair Chris West celebrates the new arrival and welcomes the crowd to return for the grand opening in May 2024. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Next, Indigenous community member and former Great Lakes Museum employee Paul Carl addressed the gathered dignitaries and crowd.

“My aunties and uncles, and our grandmothers and grandfathers here, we acknowledge that this vessel came here to visit Mississauga Pointe similar to how the original Europeans, the immigrants to North America, or Turtle Island came… when they visited with the Mississaugas here hundreds of years ago.”

Indigenous community member and former Great Lakes Museum employee Paul Carl reminded the new caretakers to tell the ship’s “whole story” as an act of Truth and Reconciliation. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

“I was told that the name Keewatin means northwest wind… storm of the north, or the blizzard in the north, and that’s an Anishinaabemowin word… I also want to ask the staff, the board, the volunteers, and the Marine Museum to tell the whole story. For the original owners, CP Rail, also helped with the colonization and the opening of the west… I did speak to Chris and the staff here to say that they need to acknowledge the whole story, not just the good stuff, but also what the original owners did for this country that you call Canada and we call Turtle Island.”

The story of the S.S. Keewatin and its sister ships, the Great Lakes Museum website points out, features significantly in the history of Canada and Turtle Island: “It is vital that the ship, which is the last of its kind, be preserved for current and future generations. The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes has both the expertise and funding to be able to do this. In fact, we’ve raised several million dollars from our generous supporters to fund refurbishments, renovations, and towing of the Keewatin. The ship will be integrated into our extensive transportation collection covering the past two hundred years of Great Lakes history and we look forward to sharing the story of the Kee and the people who worked aboard, who took trips, and the many other facets of its important history.”

S.S. Keewatin will be “ship shape” and ready to welcome visitors in its new home in May 2024.

The Titanic-era Keewatin is guided into port by tugboats. Photo by Derek Complin.

4 thoughts on “116-year-old S.S. Keewatin finds a new retirement home in Kingston

  • A great story indeed. I am looking forward to visit the “Kee” next year.

  • I’ve been following this story for months. Pleased to see this article in the detail you have given it and I look forward to visiting this ship in the spring. I’m a descendent of a long line of ship builders and sailors from Glasgow (one generation away) and have felt an attachment to this ship’s history now here in Canada. Thank you.

  • We are impressed by the article detail and pictures, bravo!

Leave a Reply

You cannot copy content from this page, please share the link instead!