The SS Keewatin began her service in the Canadian Pacific Railroad Great Lakes Steamship fleet in 1907. Built in Glasgow Scotland on the Clyde by the same culture and Edwardian tradition as the RMS Titanic, built in Belfast Northern Ireland and five years older than the Titanic herself, the Keewatin was designed with comfort, class and beauty in mind as she transported passengers and freight on a two and a half day journey across the Great Lakes from Port McNicoll to Fort William and Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) Ontario.
Keewatin was one of five ships owned by Canadian Pacific. The Assiniboia ( sister twin), Alberta, Manitoba, and Athabasca . Began in 1886 this line of ships populated the west and were specifically responsible for the economic development of Alberta and Saskatchewan that brought them into Confederation in 1905 by providing vast numbers of immigrants plus equipment and supplies and carrying millions of tons of grain to market in the east on their downward trips.
Thanks in part to improvement in shipping technology throughout the 1950s, companies opted to ship their goods via train, plane and truck rather than relying upon ships for transport. Also markets in the Orient diverted much of the Canadian grain to west coast ports. The three older ships were scrapped and Keewatin with her sister Assiniboia began to focus more upon tourist passenger transport as well as carrying still substantial grain loads at 1600 tons per trip each.
However in 1949, strict regulations were imposed on wooden cabin steamships on the Great Lakes following the SS Noronic fire disaster in Toronto, which took the lives of over a hundred tourists. Like many passenger ships of that era on the Great Lakes, the Keewatin operated under fire codes and rules imposed for wooden cabin steamships. Doomed by her wooden cabins and superstructure and with passengers opting for more reliable and faster modes of travel, Keewatin was laid up and retired on November 28, 1965 at Port McNicoll, finished forever and waiting to be scrapped..
In 1967 the Kee was saved from an ignoble end when R J Peterson of Douglas, Michigan, purchased her. Scrap dealers were preparing to render her parts for melting and antiques. A marina owner and Great Lakes Historian, Mr. Peterson borrowed the funds, bought the ship and the SS KEEWATIN was towed by tug to Lake Kalamazoo, actually a wide turn in the Kalamazoo River where it empties into Lake Michigan. There she was established as a Maritime Museum and was lovingly cared for by The Petersons for 45 years. In August of 2011, with the financial assistance of Port McNicoll developer Gil Blutrich, the Friends of Keewatin had the opportunity to purchase Keewatin from an aging Peterson and with a camera crew in tow spent 10 months digging her out of the little lake in Michigan. In June of 2012, the “Kee” made her triumphant return to Port McNicoll to the delight of thousands of waiting fans.
The Keewatin now stands not only as the last remaining Great Lakes Passenger liner, but as the last of the Edwardian built passenger liner steamships in the world. Representative of a bygone era and an attention to craftsmanship and opulence we won’t soon see again, the “Kee” is a true symbol of growth and development in North America and a treasured piece of Canadian history.