Sunday 6 October 2013

Packet Freight/Passenger Ship KEEWATIN

It was like a vision from the past or a magnificent beauty that one might only see in an old oil paintings at a museum, or computer generated for a silver screen classic. Here before me sitting high up forward and proudly displaying her original Canadian Pacific 'checkerboard square' logo on her stack and bow flag, was the former Great Lakes packet freight/passenger ship, KEEWATIN. When launched in 1907 in Govan, Scotland, the 336 foot former liner was truly built to last and when I saw her a couple weeks ago tied off along the wall in the quiet little community of Port McNicholl, which is located on Georgian Bay's Severn Sound, she appeared ready to get under way for another passage to the Lakehead and back, like she had done for 53 years. When she started service there in 1912, Port McNicoll was then dubbed the 'Chicago of the North'. It was a 'super port' that was created to transfer Canadian Pacific Railway passengers via a new rail line from Toronto, onto one of five railway owned passenger ships like the KEEWATIN that daily would leave for the two and a half day passage to Canadian Pacific's westbound continental trains in Port Arthur/Fort William (Thunder Bay today).
The combined railway and passenger ship service remained a viable method for travellers and packaged goods to get from point A to B. However, with the introduction and then expansion of provincial roads and highways, improved train services due to the addition of new rail lines, and the flexibility and timely use of air travel, meant the end of the service made available by the KEEWATIN and her four sister ships, ASSINIABOIA, MANITOBA, ATHABASKA and ALBERTA in 1967. Also, the once thriving harbour town of Port McNicholl, practically died as the rail and ship jobs left. While all of her sisters were eventually scrapped, the KEEWATIN was towed to Douglas, Michigan where she became museum ship in 1968. While displaying her beauty and wooden craftsmenship throughout the ship for over 44 year at Douglas, the KEEWATIN was also used as a filming set for various TV shows & movies, and a stunt doubled for the LUSITANIA, YARMOUTH CASTLE, EMPRESS OF IRELAND and even the TITANIC.
In 2012, KEEWATIN returned to rest at the same dock she commenced hauling packaged freight and passengers from 100 years earlier in Port McNicholl which is where we found our first boat during our whirlwind tour to 'The Soo and Back'. In the photo above, you can hardly make out my better half Janie and Tanner the dog beside the glistening hull of the KEEWATIN. If you squint your eyes it appears much like the 'white-out' conditions one might experience during a 'Blizzard of the North', which incidentally is Cree for KEEWATIN. You read it here first!!....and if you want to read more the KEEWATIN and her Canadian Pacific fleetmate, be sure to check "Canadian fleets along the seaway " by the late Skip Gillam and Alfred Sagon-King. You'll be glad you did.

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