Port McNicoll's SS Keewatin reopened

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Port McNicoll & the SS Keewatin A Renewed Interest for Collectors
By Mike Smith
A couple of months ago, I ghostwrote a new picture postcard handbook based on the Georgian Bay photographs taken by Midland, Ontario’s renowned J. W. Bald (see Figure 1).
Using the postcard collection and painstakingly recorded notes compiled by Roy Sennett, a dear friend who's now in a Toronto nursing home, I was able to put together a nice little document that will only get better over time.
I say this from experience. What always happens shortly after I release a new postcard book is that I get inundated with letters and emails from purchasers telling me about all the cards I have missed.
This is the nature of postcard collecting - there's always another card to discover and catalogue. And don't get me wrong, I truly welcome these missives. Without them, future editions would be impossible.
When I started recording the captions on Roy Sennett’s postcards, I soon realized how woefully ignorant I was of the entire Georgian Bay region. Of course I had heard of Midland because of the Martyr’s Shrine and just about every collector has heard of Collingwood’s famous Blue Mountain pottery, but that was about it for me.
After all, having spent the first half of my teenage years in Sydney on the Atlantic Ocean and the second half in Kincardine on Lake Huron, what was so special about an inland bay? Boy, did I receive an education.
In addition to showing the phenomenal scenery of Georgian Bay’s “30,000 Islands,” the J. W. Bald postcards revealed that the region was teaming with industry and steamer traffic right up until the 1960s.
And one of the era’s most famous steamers, the SS Keewatin, has recently come home to Port McNicoll (see Figure 2).
The SS Keewatin was one of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CPR) most famous Great Lakes steamers. Built in Scotland in 1907, she began life carrying passengers and cargo from Owen Sound to Port Arthur & Fort William (now Thunder Bay) but in 1912 moved to her new home at Port McNicoll.
The 1912 date is significant in Port McNicoll history. In that year, the town was established as a Canadian Pacific Railway “super port” and the SS Keewatin, her sister ship SS Assiniboia, and three other steamers: the Athabaska, Alberta and Manitoba all moved there.
I was even more impressed with Port McNicoll’s history when, after a little Internet sleuthing, I learned that with its booming railway terminus and equally busy port, it was once dubbed the “Chicago of the North” (see Figure 3).
As the 20th century progressed, improvements in rail service, highway systems and air travel all took their toll on the Great Lakes passenger ship business.
Like other steamers with wooden cabins and superstructures, the Keewatin was compelled to operate under a series of stringent regulations after the horrible fire aboard the SS Noronic in Toronto harbour on September 17, 1949.
Over 100 people died on that tragic day, which saw many of the crewmembers flee and leave the passengers to their own fate. Thought to be caused by a careless smoker in the laundry room, the fire was not discovered until 2:30 a.m. and within minutes was out of control.
The Noronic, once a jewel in the fleet operated by Canada Steamship Lines, was burned beyond repair and scrapped in Hamilton a few months later.
The Keewatin was lucky not to have suffered a similar fate in the era of rampant cigarette smoking. Her beautiful oil-rubbed wooden stairways, decks and panelled bulkheads would have been a pyromaniac’s delight (see Figures 4 and 5).
Why, as I stated in the title, is there a renewed interest in Port McNicoll and the Keewatin? Well, I mentioned earlier that the Keewatin has come home.
Unlike all of the other CPR “overnight” passenger steamers plying the Great Lakes, the Keewatin survived the scrapyard after she ceased operations in the mid-1960s.
Fortunately, for marine historians, a Michigan businessman and ship lover had her moved to his home state in 1967 where she operated as a museum ship until just last June. She was brought home to Port McNicoll on June 23, 2012, by a Canadian-owned development company as part of a major Georgian Bay resort project.
Currently berthed in Port McNicoll harbour at almost exactly the same location where she handled passengers in her glory days, the Keewatin’s official opening for tourists is scheduled for May 11, 2013. And what an event that will be.
Finally, I must extend a heartfelt thanks to Midland’s Mike Ahrens and Wendy Miller for sending me all the real photo postcard images used in this article.
And for those of us not all that familiar with Georgian Bay collectibles, prices for SS Keewatin antique postcards, old menus and other memorabilia have been climbing for the past year, at least on eBay.
I recommend a visit to your neighbourhood antique or postcard dealer without delay.
Figure 1: Midland’s J. W. Bald photographed Georgian Bay industry, people and scenery for over 50 years.
Figure 2: This J. W. Bald real photo postcard shows the SS Keewatin at Port McNicoll in February 1925.
Figure 3: Although it looks rather sleepy in this circa 1920 real photo postcard by J. W. Bald, in its heyday Port McNicoll was Canada’s “Chicago of the North.”
Figure 4: The Keewatin’s beautiful but fire-friendly observation room is seen in this circa 1950 real photo postcard. The photographer here is not known.
Figure 5: This J. W. Bald real photo postcard shows the Keewatin with cargo on her upper decks. Overtime, increased passenger safety regulations and diminishing ticket sales forced steamers like the Keewatin to focus on freight.
Michael J. (Mike) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of '77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting and writing about Canadian antique postcards. He is currently working on his eighth postcard handbook. Visit postcard-directory.com/mikesmithbooks
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