Keewatin crusade may not be as credible as claimed

The S.S. Keewatin docked in Port McNicoll, where it has rested since 2012. Volunteers are hard at work, making sure the ship is ready to set sale as soon as the ice departs. Submitted photo.

The SS Keewatin is coming to Kingston, though not without a bit of drama. But really, what else would one expect of a Titanic-era steamship?

The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes (MMGL), along with local media, received an open letter on Thursday, Mar. 23, 2023, addressed “To the Wonderful People of Kingston, Ontario, From your friends and neighbors [sic] in Port McNicoll,” sent by a group that calls itself “Keep Keewatin Home.”

Among other things, the letter accuses the MMGL of “working headlong to deprive us of our most loved historic possession” and states that MMGL has “signaled [sic] its intention to appropriate a 116-year-old historical vessel from the small Ontario community from which it once sailed, and whose residents have lovingly restored and maintained it over the last decade.” The letter even goes so far as to call the move “an abhorrent act — the unjust appropriation of cultural and heritage property.”

Part of readying ‘the Kee’ includes securing the display materials it now houses. Here, volunteers from Friends of Keewatin are securing glass cases full of model ships on board the ship. Submitted photo.

Eric Conroy is the past president and past director of the RJ and Diane Peterson Keewatin Foundation, colloquially known as “Friends of Keewatin,” a group based in Port McNicoll that has maintained and provided care for the Keewatin since 2011. Conroy, who actually served aboard Keewatin in the 1960s, said the problem with the claims made by Keep Keewatin Home in the letter is that they simply aren’t true.

Conroy, who was literally aboard the SS Keewatin while he spoke on the phone, said that a large contingent of volunteers in Port McNicoll are busily getting the ship ready for what is hoped to be its final journey through the Great Lakes. As for the ship coming to Kingston, he said, “We’re all very happy about it. It wouldn’t have lasted 10 years up here, and now it is going to last for at least a hundred years in Kingston.”

The Keewatin has escaped an ignoble end before. Of more than 3,800 passenger steamships built in the UK between 1900 and 1920, only Keewatin survives: every other ship has been burned, blown up, sunk, or scrapped.

Built five years before HMS Titanic and to similar standards but on a smaller scale, the Keewatin and her sister ships of the Canadian Pacific Upper Great Lakes Fleet transported both people and cargo between Port McNicoll and Port Arthur (now combined with Fort William as Thunder Bay) between 1912 and 1965, and was maintained to a high standard as a cruise ship.

The Keewatin was laid up and retired on November 28, 1965, at Port McNicoll and was waiting to be scrapped when R.J. Peterson of Douglas, Michigan, purchased it in 1967. He’d read that it was one of the last of its kind, so he borrowed the funds and dragged the ship to a shallow lake on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. There, he put the ship on display as a “mini Titanic,” and for 45 years visitors came.

The beautiful old dining room, fitted with original chairs, tables, and Canadian Pacific tableware, needed to be packed and covered for the trip to Kingston. Submitted photo.

In August of 2011, with the financial assistance of Port McNicoll developer Gil Blutrich, founder and president of Skyline International Development, the Friends of Keewatin had the opportunity to purchase the “Kee,” as some call her, from an aging Peterson, and spent 10 months digging the ship out of the little lake in Michigan.

The ship returned to Port McNicoll in June of 2012, with Conroy as captain and a crew of eight aboard, where it was meant to become the literal flagship of a Skyline property development. But that development never… developed.

Since that time, Conroy explained, Skyline has been sold twice to companies with Chinese ties. “They’re going to dig the place up and put housing in here. So, I don’t know where Keewatin would have gone.” And he has looked: Conroy and Friends of Keewatin have been working for the last few years to find a suitable new home for the ship, but he says they could not find a spot in the Georgian Bay area.

“It’s a very expensive ship to maintain,” said Conroy. “The problem that we had up here is we couldn’t get enough people to generate the income, right? Our best year, and then we did really well, was 10,000 people [in 2018 before she was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic]. Now, for Midland and area, that’s a hell of a number of people — but compare that to the number of people that come to Kingston in the summertime… Imagine what she can do in downtown Kingston.”

“So anyway, we’re quite pleased about it,” Conroy said.

Members of Friends of Keewatin volunteers posed for Kingstonist while taking a well-deserved break in the club building onsite Tuesday, Apr. 4, 2023. Submitted photo.

However, Conroy expressed frustration with Keep Keewatin Home, particularly the leader of the campaign, Dan Travers, who Conroy said, “came here when the ship was closed down because of COVID… He never worked with Friends of Keewatin; he never worked on the ship. He never had anything to do with it.”

This is where things get sketchy, according to Conroy: “So, [Travers] started this campaign to get people to give him five dollars to sign up to be a supporter of the Keewatin. It sounded like he was part of the Friends of Keewatin, which he isn’t.”

“The Friends of Keewatin, as a group, have met and decided that the best place for her is Kingston,” Conroy emphasized. “That’s why they’re all here right now… working on the ship… putting everything together to send it to Kingston, all being done by volunteer labour. So, to say that the town is against [it is] such nonsense.”

Friends of Keewatin volunteers working on attaching the wooden bumpers that will protect Keewatin as it makes its way into the Welland Canal automated lock system. Submitted photo.

Conroy has his suspicions about why Travers would oppose the move so vocally, but he said he cannot prove them. However, he said, “[Travers has] only lived here for a couple of years, but he’s a great PR guy. Obviously. He seems to know how to get the story out there. He was on CBC… claiming that [Port McNicoll] has pictures of the ship everywhere, and everybody’s gonna miss it. That’s not true… Nothing that he says is true.”

As for the idea that moving the ship to the MMGL is somehow cultural appropriation, Conroy scoffed, “The people want the ship preserved…This is Canada! It’s a piece of Canadian history…. and the dock where it’s going is in Kingston. [Sir] John A. Macdonald, he had that dry dock put in, and when he was Prime Minister, [he] gave the money to Canadian Pacific Railway to start the steamship line. So ,it’s definitely connected. It’s a Canadian museum, and it covers [history] for all the Great Lakes… You can’t cover the whole of the Great Lakes from anywhere else.”

“The ship has passed everything she had to pass with Transport Canada,” Conroy detailed, “so we’re all set. We’re just waiting for the ice to go out, and then it’s going to a shipyard in Welland, where the people in Kingston raised $2 million to do all kinds of cosmetic work… that it really badly needs. She should show up in Kingston hopefully before the end of September, but it could be into October. It’ll be towed directly across Lake Ontario to Kingston and put in the dry dock.” 

Again, Conroy stated, with excitement in his voice, “The volunteers are doing it. The people from Port McNicoll are doing it themselves. And the reason they are doing it is that it will last for over 100 years where it’s going. It will not last that long here. There’s no big money behind it. There’s no government foundation behind it. There’s nothing behind it… The people in Kingston are getting a gem, certainly. But the people from Port McNicoll are even happier because it’s going to save their ship forever.”

In response to the Keep Kiwatin Home campaign’s letter, MMGL released a statement which reads in part, “The Museum was approached as a home for the Keewatin and responded as part of our mandate and responsibility for Canadian cultural heritage property relating to the Great Lakes. We have not ‘appropriated’ the ship – we have accepted a donation after being approached as a potential home for the vessel. In addition, to qualify to receive the Keewatin, we had to go through a gruelling review process by the Canadian Conservation Institute to demonstrate we had the expertise and resources to preserve the ship, a review process no one in the Port McNicoll area has successfully completed.”  

A Map from an old newspaper clipping shows how Port McNicoll was an important part of Canadian history and the movement west in the early 20th Century. The Keewatin and its sister-ships carried people and goods westward. Photo via Facebook.

MMGL spokesperson Phil Gaudreau said the Keep Keewatin Home campaign, though vocal, hasn’t created much stir. “We’ve had a small number of questions come in regarding the Keep Keewatin Home campaign. By small, I mean one. In speaking to the local politicians, at last check, they, too, had received a small number of emails.”

Kingstonist has reached out to Keep Keewatin Home, however, representatives were not able accommodate an interview before time of publication. An interview is scheduled in the coming days, and further coverage of this matter will follow.

2 thoughts on “Keewatin crusade may not be as credible as claimed

  • Congratulations, Michelle. Good investigative reporting.

  • For the Marine Museum to have accepted this ship and found the support to maintain her as an example of the ships that served the communities on the Great Lakes is a magnificent achievement and justifies the years of effort and dedication spent by scores of supporters and volunteers over past decades to keep this priceless jewel serving Kingston on our waterfront.

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