“Last of the Red Hot Steamers”

By Richard Bissell

Drawings by Tomi Ungerer


I like the water and almost everything that floats on it except the grapefruit rinds in New York Harbour, and even they provide a splash of colour. I even like cabin cruisers just so long as I don’t have to sleep in the cabin up in the bow, and you know the one the one I mean. Sailboats are nice, and so are tin canoes with Kamp Kumback lettered on them. Houseboats are fine: rafts are perfect; leaky rowboats are OK with me.

But best of all and hardest to find is a real, old fashioned passenger steamer with an art-glass clerestory in the dining room and potted ferns and a Great Big Splendid Steam Engine and Coal Fired Boilers. If the engineers and firemen have thick Scottish accents, you score twenty extra points. If the Captain, also, gargles his announcements like Dundee marmalade, you have won the game.

That was KEEWATIN, boys. A winner on all counts. And we would soon be aboard her steaming away. After breakfast at the hotel we went down to look at here. “Well, she will never win any beauty prizes,” Frankie said. Neither will Ethel Merman,” I said. “Neither will Barbie Streisand. Neither would Edith Sitwell.”

We were at the Lakehead. They call it that because it’s at the head of Lake Superior; the town is Fort William, Ontario. It’s a long way to Tipperary from there, and even Toronto it’s 624 miles.

“Yes, but look at her shape,” Frankie said.

“What is the matter with her shape?”I said, bristling like a porcupine in town for the day from Kashishbog Lake.

“Nothing except it reminds me of Edith Sitwell.” “Just wait,” I said. “Someday you will be fifty nine years old and….”     “Not if I keep following you around,” she said.  “Wait until you get aboard,” I said, “We’ll have to call out the fearless Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the other end, to get you off that ship”

This Greyhound of the Great lakes used to run continuously in the ice free months between Port McNicoll Ontario on Lake Huron and the twin ports of Fort William-Port Arthur, Ontario on Lake Superior. The twin ports are on Thunder Bay and near nothing except  Kakabeka  Falls and some Indians. Roughly at midpoint on this wet run lies famed Sault St. Marie or Saint Mary’s jump ( how about hop?), where the Soo Locks, the busiest locks in the world, connect Lake Huron and Lake Superior, the biggest body of fresh air in the world. Stop pretending you know where all these places are and go look them up on the map. Actually you will not find Port McNicoll on most maps because it is really not a place, it’s just a dock; look for Midland and Penetanguishene at the south end of Georgian bay, below Parry Sound. Port McNicoll is right nearby. (Penetanguishene is an Indian word meaning “If I can get out of the house I’ll see you after dinner down at the Moose Club)

This trip could be taken from either end as a round trip cruise; or one way as deluxe transport from either end; and you can also board or disembark in the middle at Sault St. Marie. All of these delightful combinations were available, but whatever you did, you hated to get off when the steward came to your coziest of all possible staterooms for your bag.

As Dana Thomas Bowen said in his LORE OF THE LAKES ” There is no finer trip anywhere in the world than between these ports on one of these staunch steamers, a distance of five hundred and fourty two miles over enchanting lake and river route.” You could take your car at reasonable rates. I once made the voyage eastward with a car, four children, a white bull terrier, and two guinea pigs in an empty beer case. The crew cared for the dog on the car deck and fed her gourmet scraps from the dining saloon such as steamed British Columbia salmon with egg sauce, grilled loin steak Bordelaise and sand tarts; the pigs enjoyed life in my stateroom and squeaked approval of the Savoy greens, Piccadilly salad and other cavy-type fodder smuggled from the grand dining saloon under the very nose of the Chief Steward.

Although Fort William and Port Arthur are proud of their sparkling shop windows and deluxe civic improvements, there is a delightful provincial feeling here. I am sensitive to a certain kind of brick dwelling house-do you know the kind I mean?-that tells you are in Canada. They are to be seen in Markham and Revelstoke and Gananoque, and here they are, too, with there porches reminding one of Bastable children and curling tams and McIntosh’s toffee and Black Cat Cigarettes. There is a rowing club here that buys its oars from E Ayling and Sons, Limited Embankment, London S.W.15 England. There are schoolgirls named Pamela carrying book bags in Stuart plaid. Ontario is populated by Canadians. Everybody seems to like Canadians because as Mordecai Richler says “They are nicer than Americans but not as snobby as British”. And they do love gardens, especially around railroad stations and firehouses, two locales commonly destitute, in our country, of lovingly tended masses of zahlreichen bunten Blumen and zinnias of embarrassing  magnitude.

The Canadian national and Canadian Pacific Railways vie with each other in the matter of glorious depot architecture replete with towers, battlements and granite coigns; sumptuous streamliners rolling on rails of velvet arrive from Montreal and depart from Medicine Hat, Kamloops and Chilliwack. Nearby is the great Nipigon, and over the hill a few portages is Lake of the Woods and Muskeg bay. Fort William and Port Arthur, the twin ports are a frontier. And on South Cumberland Street, Finns loiter wearing thick wool pants and suspenders and scotch caps, in from back woods or from off the lakes. Three blocks away is the Dragon Room, a klassy joint indeed, where sophisticated patter songs are peddled with the Wor Shu Opp.

Fort William and Port Arthur ship the greatest grain tonnage of any port in the world. A harbour trip aboard the Mary Ethel is priced at $1.50 which includes skimming under the sterns of ships from all over the world and getting in on free jokes in the pilots lecture over the public address system. Sample: “Folks, I have to warn you, watch your heads. We have no sea gull insurance.” ( With such quips, it is said the guides at Stone Henge entertained Julius Caesar in 54 BC: Historians claim that is one reason his second invasion of Britain was his last.) There are twenty six giant grain elevators at  shoreside, with a capacity of 110,000,000 bushels, which makes this the greatest grain storage area in the world. If all elevators are filled at one time, they contain enough to make 25 loaves of bread for each person in North America. I don’t believe that but that is what the man said, because I wrote it down. There is also one grain elevator that holds 9,000,000 bushels and if old granny had that, she could heat up the kitchen range and make two and a half loaves for each person in North America, a good many of whom would complain that it was too yeasty or not yeasty enough or had too many air holes in it. Others  would cloak their chagrin with jests involving ” one half a loaf….”

They certainly have  a lot of Biggest things up here, and we are certainly not surprised to hear that one of the four huge paper mills produces the Widest Newsprint in the world. This newsprint is twenty eight feet wide, but nobody knows why.

“Say, that would make the Most Unwieldy Newspaper in the World” I said, but the tour director did not smile, as he is in charge of the jokes. “Corset ads fourteen feet high.  Yahoo!” chimed in a lad down from Saskatchewan University. “On our left, please note the steam dredge Mackellar” replied old sourpuss, indicating the Oldest Green Steam Dredge in the world with a Captain named Davis.

A final dash through the Wedgewood jungles, a last whirl amongst the Hudson bay blankets and splendid English woolens and its sailing day!

The Canadian Pacific dock in Fort William is located on the Kaministiquia River right where Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut  founded a trading post way back in 1687. This is a big name for a small river, a river well filled by the KEEWATIN, which lies at the wharf breathing gently through her old fashioned, tall single stack, which is buff coloured and marked with the red and white checkered insignia of the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company of Liverpool England. A first glimpse of her stack, above the rooftops or through the trees by these Canadian waters, trailing a little steam from its whistle, sets any pulse up a few revolutions. “For a great ship asks deep waters” and “the sweetest way to me, is a ship upon the sea, in the heel of the North East trade” or any trade.

Drive, then down to the pier, Drive right on to the pier. It is alive with that delightful hubbub and sharp excitement that always pervade the atmosphere when a ship is about to sail. Brass buttons!  White uniforms! Blue uniforms! Above leaning over the rails an Oriental cook surveys the boisterous scene as he plans to stuff the paleface infidels with Sweet and Sour Spare Ribs Ding Fun, Oven Fried Butter Crisp Chicken, Consommé au Sagou and Rose Radishes. Alert Lads in white jackets present themselves, grovel in attitudes of worship, and seize our hampers of fruit, panniers of goodies, bundles of duty free woolens, our guinea  pigs if we happen to have any: then pounce upon or steamer robes and bargain pots of jam and shawls and scarves and telescopes and books and lumpy parcels: if there is a baby lying around they dandle the baby and hustle it aboard while tickling its toes. All babies are crazy about the Canadian pacific Steamers.

No gangplank, not like one at Warner Bros., anyway. Actually we pop through a hole in the side of the ship and we land at once with a plunk directly into the age of Good King Edward the VII. Fairly splendid. Pursers office area heavily paneled , dark woods, highly polished. Purser himself heavily paneled in Blue Serge, issues warm welcome. Prime odor, tar, curry, paint, brass polish, pies baking off somewhere. Noble balustrades, pillars and bronze railings Green ships carpeting. Tripping through the Flower well, which is a bower of ferns and plants suspended in flight over a lounge, young master buttons leads us to our quarters.

“You win! You  Win! cries Frankie. “This is the most, the most-this is the cutest room I have ever been in!” The stateroom is white, immaculate and, well, cute is right. The curtained bunks are cute, the glass rack is cute, and the paneled door and big portholes are even cuter.  A deep-throated ballast from the whistle propels us on deck. Sure enough, we are under way, and after passing a large log raft in charge of a black tug, we are cleaving the icy blue waters of Thunder Bay and everybody on deck was either relaxing  to the point of total inertia or being gay and happy face just like in the travel folders.

“It’s the sleeping Giant!” Frankie said. and we stared in awe at the famous mountain range that gets its name from the fact that it resembles a mountain range. And hard by we passed near Silver Islet, that subaqueous silver bonanza where strong men, led by Bill Frue, fought Lake Superior to the death and won-until the Lake crept back and claimed her own. “There is still a fortune down there” I mussed.

“Stop that mussing.”Frankie said. “See over there to starboard, that is Isle Royale, the largest island in the world’s largest body of fresh water. It is fourty fine miles long and surrounded by hundreds of scary reefs and the wreck of the steamer America. It is practically solid copper, and many of its plants are rarely found in Minnesota, which is only sixteen miles away.”  What kind of Plants?””The Saskatoon for one.”

“It is time for tea. ” I said. “With English biscuits. And after tea it will be time for cocktails and after that time for dinner in the grand dining room, where you sit in swivel chairs screwed to the deck and have your choice of soups and all the stilton cheese you demand.” After dinner( we did not try the entree described on the bill of fare with commendable simplicity and directness as Boiled Fowl, but a ruddy faced colonial from Prince George did, and asked for more) we took a turn on deck watching the lights of nearby Lake Freighters passing gloaming. We whiffed the delicious whiffs coming out of the engine room hatch. I through a purloined tea cake to a sea gull. The stars came out. The ship slid noiselessly across the painted lake, her engines sighing.

When everyone whipped the last of the lemon snow pudding off their vests, there was a gathering in that improbable amidships lounge under the flower well for an old fashioned Canadian sing song under the direction of a lad from the University of Toronto. I don’t know why I couldn’t get a nice summer job like that, except I can’t sing and I can’t play the piano. Everybody sang THE MAPLE LEAF FOREVER, ABIDE WITH ME, THE ROSE OF TRALEE. Except for the couple from Grand Marais who were up smooching behind a life boat. Everybody else sand BILLY BOY, THE OLD RUGGED CROSS, THE BLUE BELLS OF SCOTLAND.  except for the people playing bridge up in the forward card room and the man from Prince George who was in the licensed premises enjoying a cigar and a pint of beer. Quite soon Frankie and I were playing boat ride in stateroom 179. This consisted of climbing into the double deck bunks with books, magazines and papers for a “good read” and climbing out every 15 minutes to look out the port holes, ring for ice water, ring for sandwiches and so in. This game can be played indefinitely, or as long as you have quarters for the refreshment bearers. Everybody aboard slept like babies. Including babies.

At breakfast we looked out of the plate glass of the dining saloon right at the lock wall of the Soo Locks. Breakfast was fried, stewed, boiled, and grilled and so on. Why can’t I have grilled Lake Superior fish and fried potatoes at home? The Soo is a historic spot that is so hard up for points of interest that the driver of the sightseeing bus not only roars: “That’s our main fire hall there on the right,” but also announces “Loblaw’s grocery store ahead on the left.” This same driver has won immortality by describing the Provincial Laboratory of Insect Pathology as the Bug Lab.      The Soo is also the home of the Abitibi Paper Company, the Algoma Steel Co. and R.R. and the Chicora incident of 1895, which was a very small incident indeed. Rather splendid roman candles, cherry bombs, Big Tiger Chinese salutes and other gift explosives can be purchased in nearly all the novelty stores and easily smuggled into the United States through Alexandria Bay and other cultural centres. “Please sir, you won’t declare these, will you?” a winsome girl clerk asked me as she loaded a giant hamper with fireworks I had just purchased. “Oh heavens no, “I replied.” I’m glad,” she said.

Meanwhile Frankie and all the ladies from the ship are decimating the town’s inventory of Abernathy Tea Biscuits, god-awful things made of birch bark, and lumpy Eskimo carvings made of grey soap stone. In the last few years these later ‘objects  d’art’ have spread like fireweed, infiltrating Canadian gift shops from coast to coast and even pushing across the border like the Pleistocene glacier, where they threaten to eclipse perennial staples as the balsam Pillow and The Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin. “What Eskimos make these?” I asked, fingering a walrus, or perhaps it was a seal or a yak. “Oh, you know-up there,” the young lady replied, wiggling her fingers in the direction of the Coulson Avenue Baptist Church. “Eskimos, terribly artistic you know.”

At the Soo during the navigation season there is always a ship in view. There are usually several ships in view, and by ships I don’t mean cruisers or dopey little excursion boats. I mean Great Big Ships. It is impossible for anyone who is crazy about ships to get any work done, because watching the ships lock through is a full time job. If you apply for work at Algoma or Abitibi, or Loblaw’s grocery store ahead on the left, you have to sign an affidavit that you are bored to death with ships, especially the long slinky freighters. Those that refuse to sign are shipped to land locked branch plants near Kapuskasing.

After boarding the ship again, what do you know?  It’s lunchtime, as we cruise down the beautiful Saint Mary’s River.  Saint Mary’s River, despite being clogged with splendid ore freighters and black tramp steamers whooshing their whistles, is a delightful watercourse with wooded hills and pleasant watery vistas: it also seems free of orange crates and floating shoes. Eugene O’Neil, whose gripping plays about the sea are rooted in an all-embracing ignorance of the subject, said the women are “jealous of ships” “Are you jealous of ships?” I asked Mrs. Advance Rumely, 139 Locust Street, Fitchburg, Massachusetts, as she reclined in a deck chair knitting an Afghanistan. “Have you ever been to Fitchburg?” she answered. “We have all the modern improvements you know”.

The KEEWATIN is 350 feet long and has a gross tonnage of 3,856. She was built in the year 1907 in Govan Scotland, by the celebrated firm of Fairfield Co. Ltd from whose yards came such Atlantic Blue-ribbon winners as Cunard’s ETRURIA ( 1885),LUCANIA (1893-97) and many other classic ocean grey hounds. She is equipped with a quadruple expansion engine that her engineer says is the last in operation on the sea lanes of the world. The cylinders of this engine have diameters of twenty three and a half inches, thirty four inches, fourty eight and a half inches and seventy inches. In other words, on the lower pressure cylinder head there is room to hold the Arbroath Abbey Historical Pageant with space left over to toss the caber. These engines are a small edition of the behemoths that formerly propelled NORDDEUTSCHER-Lloyd’s Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse ( Stettin 1897). There is a scale model of KEEWATIN’s engine in the Mariners Museum at Newport News, Virginia. But who cares for scale models when they can have the real thing: with connecting rods flying like dervishes, cooling jets of water dribbling on the eccentrics and the thrust bearings, and the fireman in a Glasgow cap banging the fire door? And of course the in effable, the sweet smell of steam. Kipling’s McAndrew knew all about this..


“From coupler flange to spindle-guide

I see the hand O God

Predestation in the stride

o’ yon connectin’ rod”


Not bad for a henpecked Englishman with poor eyesight. I don’t hear WH Auden getting off any good ones about spindle guides, and if you ask me, TS Elliott didn’t know a coupler flange from a poppet valve. They don’t make poets like that anymore. But come to think of it, they don’t make engines like that anymore either. Lucius Beebe, who know all the headwaiters by name, got very low in his mind when he contemplated the decline of the mutton chop and the general collapse of gentle living. ” “Nowhere in the scene of change and rising barbarism has the price of progress been so truly ruinous as in the field of public transportation” he once said, helping himself to a double spoonful of Beluga. “The debasement of the once unrivaled system of  passenger transportation by rail is a case in point.” He added, twirling his gold cane around his head. “Even more poignant to an older generation, ” He went on, as he donned his mink lined cape, “is the disappearance from the American awareness of steamship travel on island and costal waterways, once a wonderful  pattern of movement accomplished in superb comfort and dignity. It has now vanished forever.” Lend me your silk handkerchief Lucius, and let us weep together.  The Keewatin still splits the waves, but owing to a governmental attack of greensickness and moonstroke, she is no longer on the Great Lakes, and for all I know, may be restricted to the transport of freight. One had as lief contemplate Man O” War drawing an ice wagon as dream on such sight as these.

A Day and a half. Two nights. They have slipped away. Marlow. It’s the way of a ship in the sea, Marlow-coal smoke and creamed finnan  haddie. What a voyage it has been! And what larks-eh, Pip? Stand by for landing! Don’t forget your soovenirs of the Soo. There goes the whistle my boy.

The quay at Port McNicoll is made up of cast off bits of stage sets from some English musical comedy of the 1920’s.Immediately alongside the ship is an expanse of the greenest greensward, greeny grassiness set off by immaculately manicured flower gardens. There is sort of a Hugh Lofting style railway station. The sun is shining on this old fashioned scene, and to ad perfect bliss, beyond the emerald  verdure and radiant flower beds stand the red cars of the Boat Train in splendid line, a jovial Porter at each step, all ready for a jolly skim over the rails to teeming Toronto.


There was still hope, hope for all of us in those lovely times. And now, what’s ahead? A one way ticket to the Isle of Lost Ships.