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,
Ontarios 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
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 Sennetts
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 Martyrs Shrine and just about every collector
has heard of Collingwoods 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
Bays 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 eras
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 Railways
(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 McNicolls 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 pyromaniacs
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.
in Port McNicoll harbour at almost exactly the same location
where she handled passengers in her glory days, the Keewatins
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 Midlands
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: Midlands 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 Canadas Chicago of the North.
Figure 4: The Keewatins 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