2012-06-14 / Front Page

Historic Keewatin Docks at Mackinaw

Longtime Museum Ship Makes Layover On Her Way Home
By Mary Petrides


The Wendy Anne, assisted by American Girl, tugged the S.S. Keewatin to Mackinaw City State Harbor Wednesday, June 6. The 105-year-old ship is making her way from Saugatuck, where she served as a museum for 45 years, to her home port in Port McNicoll, Ontario. The Wendy Anne, assisted by American Girl, tugged the S.S. Keewatin to Mackinaw City State Harbor Wednesday, June 6. The 105-year-old ship is making her way from Saugatuck, where she served as a museum for 45 years, to her home port in Port McNicoll, Ontario. When Eric Conroy was a teenager in the 1960s, he took up a relationship with “a young girl whose father didn’t approve of a boy from the big city,” he said. That girl’s father spoke with Mr. Conroy’s mother and found him a summer job on the S.S. Keewatin, a 350-foot freight and passenger ship for the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

“He got me a job on the ship and I never saw his daughter again,” he said. “It changed my life.”

Nearly 50 years later, Mr. Conroy is bringing the ship from Saugatuck, where it has served as a museum for 45 years, to her home in Port McNicoll,


The S.S. Keewatin was tugged under the Mackinac Bridge and moored at the Mackinaw City State Harbor Wednesday, June 6. Built in Scotland in 1905, the 350- foot former passenger vessel from the Canadian Pacific Railroad had been serving as a museum in Saugatuck. She entered Lake Michigan Monday, June 4, and is expected to arrive in her home port in Port McNicoll, Ontario, Saturday, June 23. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Pepper) The S.S. Keewatin was tugged under the Mackinac Bridge and moored at the Mackinaw City State Harbor Wednesday, June 6. Built in Scotland in 1905, the 350- foot former passenger vessel from the Canadian Pacific Railroad had been serving as a museum in Saugatuck. She entered Lake Michigan Monday, June 4, and is expected to arrive in her home port in Port McNicoll, Ontario, Saturday, June 23. (Photograph courtesy of Terry Pepper) Ontario. She was docked at the state harbor in Mackinaw City Wednesday, June 6, and will remain there until Tuesday, June 19.

As a steamship, the Keewatin was a vital connection in the Canadian Pacific Railway from 1908 till 1965, spending most of that time ferrying passengers between Port McNicoll in the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron and Fort William, near Thunder Bay in Lake Superior. She carried 288 passengers each way on the two-and-ahalf day trip, for 40 weeks each year. The cargo hold brought grain from Fort William back to Port McNicoll.


Bob and Cindy Zimmerman followed the S.S. Keewatin from Saugatuck, where she had been a museum for 45 years, to her home in Port McNicoll, Canada. The couple, both retired teachers, had served as tour guides on the 105-year-old ship for nearly 20 years. They are pictured on the Mackinaw City State Harbor dock, where the Keewatin moored Wednesday, June 6. Bob and Cindy Zimmerman followed the S.S. Keewatin from Saugatuck, where she had been a museum for 45 years, to her home in Port McNicoll, Canada. The couple, both retired teachers, had served as tour guides on the 105-year-old ship for nearly 20 years. They are pictured on the Mackinaw City State Harbor dock, where the Keewatin moored Wednesday, June 6. “It’s a cruise ship on top and, underneath, it’s a grain ship,” Mr. Conroy said.

Built like a down-sized Titanic, the Keewatin was a luxury liner, taking its name from the Cree Indian word for “Blizzard of the North.” Mr. Conroy remembers learning how to arrange place settings with 15 pieces of silverware and being required to memorize passengers’ meal orders.

“It was all first-class service,” he said. “The food the passengers got was terrific. The food that we got was not very good.”

A cook gathered the leftovers from the passengers’ food and made it into dinner for the crew. Mr. Conroy remembers putting in an extra order for a steak at dinner time and smuggling it to the deck for his own dinner.

When the Canadian Pacific retired Keewatin in 1965, she was purchased by R.J. Peterson of Michigan and converted into a museum at Saugatuck. Bob and Cindy Zimmerman, museum tour guides for nearly 20 years, are authors of “Ninety-Five Years Young: The Story of the S.S. Keewatin.” This summer, they have been following the boat in their motor home and stopped on the Mackinaw City dock when she arrived. It had been an emotional journey. The vessel had called Saugatuck home for 45 years and residents were sad to see her go.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye on the dock,” Mrs. Zimmerman said.

Built in Scotland in 1905, the Keewatin arrived in the Great Lakes in 1907. She had to be severed in half to fit through the Welland Canal, connecting Lakes Ontario and Erie, then taken to Buffalo, New York, to be welded back together. She was one of 3,800 Clydebuilt ships constructed on the River Clyde during the Edwardian period of the early 1900s. Mr. Zimmerman called them “mini-Titanics.”

“In those days, those fellows wrote the books on how to build ships,” he said, looking up at the Keewatin from the Mackinaw City dock. “Just envision three more stacks, a little bit wider, a little bit longer, and you have the Titanic.”

“What we’re seeing here is a vision of the past,” he added. “She looks good for 105.”

The Keewatin is the only Edwardian Clydebuilt left. The others were sunk in wars, cut up for scrap, or deteriorated. Mr. Conroy said the Keewatin owes her longevity, in part, to her travels through fresh water, which is less corrosive than salt water, and also to the care she received during her time as a working passenger vessel and as a museum at Saugatuck.

Mr. Conroy worked on the Keewatin for two summers, when he was 17 and 18. The following summer, he was told the boat had been sold for scrap, so he found other summer employment, as a tour guide taking Americans through Canada.

But his experiences on the boat stayed with him. About 15 years ago, he hired a man to build a model of the boat, and that man found that the ship was still in existence. Mr. Conroy began traveling to Saugatuck when he had time off work. He worked with Mr. Peterson, helping to train the museum staff and locate artifacts. He wrote a book about the ship, “Steak in the Drawer,” as a fundraiser for the museum. The title was inspired by his smuggling of passenger dinners.

Mr. Peterson turned 87 and was ready to retire and sell the boat. About the same time, a man working on development in Port McNicoll read the book and called Mr. Conroy, asking if he could buy the boat and bring her home.

“So I did the transaction and managed moving it back to Canada,” he said.

The Keewatin entered Lake Michigan Monday, June 4. The Wendy Anne, assisted by American Girl, both of St. James Marine and Fogg Towing, towed her to Mackinaw City, where she arrived at the State Harbor Wednesday.

About a dozen people stood on the State Harbor pier when the ship came into view, and a few more dozen arrived as she came closer. Among them was Dick Campbell of Mackinaw City, who grew up in a lighthouse and spent much of his life working on state ferries. Ships are of particular interest to him. He keeps an eye on freighter schedules so he can watch them go through. When he learned that the Keewatin would pass through, he came to the dock right away.

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he said.

The Keewatin will remain at the state harbor until June 19, when she departs for a Saturday, June 23, arrival in Port McNicoll. It will be 100 years since her first arrival there, and the people of Port McNicoll have big plans for her.

“Where this is going, the people are so excited it’d be like you folks [in St. Ignace] getting the Chief [Wawatam] back,” Mr. Zimmerman said.

Mr. Conroy has gathered a group of 250 volunteers to operate the ship, which will sit in 35 feet of water. In addition to being a museum, the boat will have a restaurant and bar, and the officers’ quarters will be turned into a ham radio museum. The ship will also have weather radar information, which will be helpful for boaters in the area. In addition, the volunteer group will work with a nearby community college, so students attending to study trades such as carpentry and plumbing can spend time working on the ship.

Despite his lost teenage love, Mr. Conroy said he is grateful for his experiences on the ship. He hasn’t forgotten those two summers.

“It had such an impact on my life. I’d never worked before, never been away from home before, never lived with men before,” he said. “Learning to work with other people is an art they don’t teach you in school. There’s office politics. You have to find out who you can trust and who you can’t. … I grew up. That was where I learned all my life lessons, was on that boat. Taught me things my parents never could.”

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