Photo: SS Keewatin in Port McNicoll
Steam junkie Bryan Dearsley shares a little history about the iconic SS Keewatin, soon to be on permanent display in Kingston, ON
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There’s no denying the fact that 2023 is shaping up to be an awesome year for one of North America’s grandest “old dames”, the SS Keewatin. Famous as Canada’s “grand lady of the lakes”, this historic passenger vessel, built in 1907 just five years before tragedy struck the RMS Titanic, is slowly making her way to the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes in Kingston.
Currently undergoing renovations in Hamilton, the 116 Edwardian-era vessel has had an uncertain few years after vacating her previous home in Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay. It was here that the iconic “Kee”, as she’s affectionately known by steamship buffs, once sailed regular passenger routes around the Great Lakes.
Constructed in Scotland for Canadian Pacific Railways using some of the same design features later used on the Titanic, SS Keewatin was considered state-of-the-art technology at the time. Most notable among the innovations used on SS Keewatin was the first use of revolutionary quadruple expansion steam engines, which could push the ship along at a then impressive 14 knots.
SS Keewatin Was Luxury on the Great Lakes
Stretching 350ft from bow to stern, SS Keewatin was able to carry 288 passengers, along with a crew of 86. Her route at the time consisted of a three-day journey across Lake Huron and Lake Superior to Port Arthur from Port McNicoll. And they certainly traveled in style.
After experiencing a decline in traffic in the 1960s, the Kee was eventually considered obsolete and wound up in the USA, in Saugatuck on Lake Michigan, where she was saved from the scrapyard and spent 40 years as a marine museum on the banks of the Kalamazoo River.
Saved from the scrappers again in the early 2000s by a Canadian non-profit hell-bent on saving the vessel, the Keewatinwas towed back to Port McNicoll where she was to be a highlight of a planned-for redevelopment of the town’s harbor area that unfortunately never materialized.
SS Keewatin: A Time Capsule
I was lucky enough to have visited this beautiful vessel during her brief time as a museum in Port McNicoll and can say with great confidence that she’ll be a very valuable tourism asset to the city of Kingston.
The ship’s public spaces, which you’ll soon be able to see for yourself once she’s again on display, are nothing less than a time capsule that perfectly preserves a bygone era of travel. Considered luxurious for the time, you’ll easily find yourself thinking of the grandeur of the much larger Titanic, especially when you see the beautiful grand staircase and the Edwardian-style dining saloon.
Other highlights include the ship’s original barbershop, smoking lounges (including one for women), and a grand ballroom. And throughout these opulent spaces, you’ll see original handcrafted décor and trim, as well as hand-painted Italian glass.
The Kee Comes to Kingston
The arrival of the SS Keewatin symbolizes a very real renaissance for the ship and something of a coup for Kingston and the city’s marine museum. Once moored at the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, she’ll be readied for tours and will again provide visitors with a fascinating glimpse into Canada’s shipping history.
Before the ship’s expected arrival in the fall of 2023, work is underway to prepare a variety of related museum exhibits and programs, and it’s expected that public tours will be available in the spring of 2024.
To learn more and to keep up to date with the ship’s progress, visit the museum’s dedicated website at https://sskeewatin.com.
Riley Recommends: Enjoy A Stay in Kingston
Interested in making a weekend or mid-week break of your 2024 tour of SS Keewatin once this “Grand Lady of the Lake” is freshened up and ready for you? Be sure to plan ahead with our list of the best hotels in Kingston.
And to really get you in the mood, consider checking into splendid The Frontenac Club, a charming boutique hotel set in a former gentleman’s club from the same era as the Kee.
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In search of ideas for fun things to do in Kingston? Check out Visit Kingston‘s website at www.visitkingston.ca for inspiration.
Editor-in-chief Bryan Dearsley is a luxury lifestyle and travel writer. He’s also a Co-Founder of Riley International Media.
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