The 106-metre, 3,800-tonne luxury cruise ship Keewatin, shown here in 1935, leaves the dock at Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay. This was the golden age of elegant cruising on the lakes. Passengers would arrive at port by train from Toronto and take in CPR’s famous gardens, developed at the docks to gentrify the passenger waiting area, before boarding the ship, where they were treated to white-glove service, wining and dining in elegant dining rooms and housed in magnificent staterooms.

Get ready to wine and dine in grand style as luxury ship Keewatin returns to Port McNicoll on shores of Georgian Bay

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When Canadian Pacific pulled the gang plank up on the Great Lakes cruise ship Keewatin for the last time in 1966, everything remained in its place – furnishings, silverware, even the china. Incredibly, all of those priceless items are still extant 45 years later, ready to be put back into use next year, when the ship returns to its home port of Port McNicoll on Georgian Bay.   

It was the chance meeting of two maritime history enthusiasts at a birthday party for the old steamship that led to the plan to preserve this last remaining link to the halcyon days of luxury cruising on the lakes and return it to the harbour where those voyages once began.  

The two men – a retiree nostalgic about a summer job from his youth and an Israeli-born developer – have combined forces to make sure that next June, the SS Keewatin will sail back to Port McNicoll, once the southern terminus for Canadian Pacific Railway’s Great Lakes fleet. There, the ship will be prepared to take its place as a key component in an ambitious new tourist attraction that will whisk visitors back to an era of elegant and unhurried rail and water travel.  

The sequence of events that culminated in the coming together of these two men began in the summer of 1963 when one of them — Eric Conroy — was just 17. That’s the year Conroy got a job waiting on passengers aboard the Keewatin. The cruise liner was nearing the end of her illustrious career, ferrying passengers through the Great Lakes between Port McNicoll and Port Arthur, now part of the City of Thunder Bay. Two years later, the era of the grand steamship cruisers came to an end and young Eric went on to other jobs.  

Conroy thought little of the old ship until about 15 years ago. Casting his memory back to the job he says helped to prepare him for adulthood, Conroy hired a model boat builder to create a replica of the ship. “I thought it had been destroyed, but the model builder found it over near Lake Michigan,” he told  

Conroy learned that after the ship was decommissioned, it was bought by an American, R.J. Peterson, and turned into a museum in Douglas, Mich. Recently, Conroy decided to write a book about his onboard experiences those many summers ago. He called it A Steak in the Drawer; more on that odd title later.  

In 2005, Gil Blutrich, president and CEO of Skyline International Developments Inc., began negotiations to create an ambitious resort and residential development on old railway lands around a huge natural harbour that sat on Georgian Bay in the tiny village of Port McNicoll, which is part of Tay Township. As Blutrich delved into the history of the property, he unearthed an intriguing tale.  

Chicago of the North

Canadian Pacific had selected the port in the early 1900s as the southern terminus for its substantial passenger and cargo fleet. It is here the company built one of the largest ports on the Great Lakes, including a mile-long deepwater slip.  

“I learned about the plan that would turn Port McNicoll into Canada’s Chicago,” he said. “It was to become a major transportation and shipping hub. I learned about some of the grandest ships on the lakes leaving from Port McNicoll. Passengers would be brought by rail and put onto these grand steamers. It took six days to cross to (Port Arthur) where they’d get back on the train and continue west.”  

The 106-metre, 3,800-tonne Keewatin was launched in 1907, one of six CP steamships built to haul Prairie wheat to eastern markets. In the 1930s, Keewatin began a second life when it was converted into a luxury passenger ship. It was the golden age of elegant cruising on the lakes. Passengers would arrive at port by train from Toronto and take in CP’s famous gardens, developed at the docks to gentrify the passenger waiting area, before boarding the ship, where they were treated to white-glove service, wining and dining in elegant dining rooms and housed in magnificent staterooms.  

Then in the 1960s, Keewatin ran up against changing societal trends and new safety regulations imposed after the 1949 fire that destroyed Canada Steamship Lines’ SS Noronic, killing more than 100 people. CP mothballed its remaining passenger steamers and cut off the rail link to the port. The ships were taken away, the train stopped running and Port McNicoll stagnated. There would be no Chicago of the North here.  

Blutrich was determined to find out what had happened to the last two ships in the CP fleet – the Keewatin and her sister ship, the Assiniboia. The latter had been destroyed by fire years ago while work proceeded to turn it into a floating restaurant. But much to his delight, Blutrich learned the Keewatin had been saved and was being used as a museum in Michigan. He found it “disturbing” that this piece of Canada’s heritage was now under the American flag.  

Blutrich envisioned the Keewatin as the crown jewel of his Port McNicoll development. His opportunity came in 2007, when he and Conroy encountered one another in Saugatuck, across the Kalamazoo River from Douglas, while attending a celebration of Keewatin’s 100 years of existence.  

Important piece of Canadian heritage

Blutrich had a dream and he knew he just had to have that ship. He’s fascinated by the history of his adopted country and says he is delighted Canadians are waking up to the importance of preserving it. He was determined to do his part to save this little piece of our heritage.  

Back in the 1960s when the Keewatin was purchased from CP, it went along with all of the onboard furnishings, including silverware, china and even the dining menus. Blutrich inquired about buying the ship and, since the owner was getting older and wondering what would become of his vessel, he was delighted to sell. The problem is, the ship was stranded 3,500 feet from the open waters of Lake Michigan.  

Blutrich won’t reveal how much he paid to buy the ship, but says it’s costing about $1 million to dredge a channel to the lake and sail it the 1,000 kilometres to Port McNicoll. He believes “history belongs to the public. I want to ensure the ship is kept for the next generation to enjoy.”  

“We will set up a not-for-profit organization to manage the ship,” says Conroy, who has spent a lifetime in fundraising. “I’ll put together a group to operate it.   

“The hull is in as good condition as any ship on the lakes. Apart from a bit of dry rot, it’s excellent. There’s still artwork on the walls; the carpets, the dining room are immaculate. The parquet floor was rebuilt and they redid the bar and the ballroom.”  

He says the engine is identical to the Titanic’s. “Imagine going to visit the Titanic? Well, here it is.” Although the Titanic was three times larger and built in Belfast while the Keewatin was constructed on Scotland’s Clyde River, both are considered Edwardian-class steamers. Keewatin is a native Indian word meaning “north blizzards.”  

The ship will become part of a heritage park. Conroy says the ship will be reopened with a museum, restaurant and events area. A replica railway station will be built dockside and Blutrich even hopes to obtain a locomotive and passenger cars from CP to add to the park. He says the English gardens will be rebuilt, too.  

“We’ll do this step by step,” Blutrich says. He expects it could take at least until summer 2013 to complete the project. “I want to operate a restaurant in the ship’s dining room, using the same cutlery, china, even re-create the same menu.”  

Major tourist attraction in planned community

Once the park is complete, it will form the third significant tourist attraction for the area  — the Wye Marsh and St. Marie Among the Hurons are the others. It could be a huge draw — a plan to transform a decommissioned Cold War-era submarine in the Lake Erie community of Port Burwell into a museum included estimates of 100,000 visitors a year.  

Next to the heritage park, Skyline continues work on a 10-year plan to build a resort/residential/retail development. On the harbour sides, there will be docks, restaurants, cafés and boutique shops. Residences will include everything from custom homes to weekend retreats and condos. Skyline plans to keep more than half the 825 acres as wetland, including a swan nesting area.  

Blutrich said sales of waterside lots have been brisk and home construction has begun. In 2012, he says, townhouses and smaller waterfront lots are to be introduced, ranging in price from $250,000 to $1 million.

Conroy doesn’t live anywhere near Port McNicoll. But his home overlooks Scarborough’s bluffs and he retains a strong nostalgia for Ontario’s waterfront. He’s delighted to be able to introduce tourists to the Keewatin and a little slice of Ontario’s maritime history.  

Thinking back to his job as waiter aboard the Keewatin, Conroy said: “It was a fabulous time. As a waiter, I was faced with 15 pieces of silver at each place. I’d never seen more than a knife, a fork and a spoon in my life. I’d make $1,100 in pay over the summer and at least that much again in tips.”  

So what of that book title – A Steak in the Drawer? Conroy explains: “The food onboard was spectacular, but it wasn’t what I was used to. I didn’t like most of the food so when we had steaks, I’d order an extra one and hide it in a buffet drawer. The stains are still there in that same drawer.” — October 2011