By Scott Sullivan
For Memorial Day let’s take note that the Great Lakes steamship S.S. Keewatin, part of our recent past, has found fresh life since leaving here for its new—and at the same time, old—berth in Canada.
The 350-foot-long vessel, built as a sister ship to the S.S. Titanic in 1907, was brought here by Tower Marine owner R.J. Peterson in 1967 after 54 years of carrying cargo and passengers throughout the Great Lakes for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Peterson preserved the Keewatin as a maritime at the Red Dock in Douglas until, in his mid-80s, selling it to Skyline International Development of Toronto.
Skyline paid close to $1 million to dredge a channel through Kalamazoo Lake, in which the last of the Edwardian steamships had long been enmired, to where the water deepens near Coral Gables.
From there Skyline had the historic ship towed out the channel to Lake Michigan, then to Port McNicoll, Ont., her home port when with the Canadian Pacific Railway, to be refurbished as a tourist attraction.
That was now five years ago. Eric Conroy, who was a waiter on the vessel in his teens, then brokered the ship’s move, tells us. The Keewatin’s rejuvenation has made her a popular attraction in her new/old home.
“On June 4, 2012, the mighty ship Keewatin pulled out of the historic Red Dock. It was almost 45 years to the day she first came into the waterway off Lake Michigan.
“R.J. Peterson, a visionary, was prompted in 1967 by the book ‘Farewell to Steam’ given him by his wife. He saw the Keewatin in a picture that said she was the last of her kind and being made ready to part out.
“Peterson bought the retired railway steamer from a scrap company in Canada. His bold move has had a major impact on both the U.S. and Canada. His actions and subsequent care of the Titanic-era ship has come full circle and now fills pages in Google search.
“As Peterson grew into his 80s he knew he had to do something to preserve the Keewatin well into the future. Eventually he was connected to Israeli-born Canadian developer Gil Blutrich, who, as it turned out, is developing the very port the ship used to sail from 1912 to 1965: Port McNicoll, north of Toronto.
“Through a Peterson friend and 1960s waiter on the Keewatin (Conroy), a deal was struck and the ship was cleared to be transported back to Canada. A charitable foundation was set up to encourage volunteers to band together to restore her when she got to Canada.
“In Allegan County, many Americans including the Governor of Michigan, local police and fire services, the Coast Guard, King family dredgers, the Fogg family, their tug boats and crew from Beaver Island, Tower staff, local volunteers and politicians helped to repatriate the Keewatin, which had been part of building the Canadian Confederation. Special mention should go to Jane Verplank, then Mayor of Saugatuck for her support, advice and help.
“Unlike America, where patriotism abounds and symbols of the freedoms Americans enjoy are everywhere, Canada lags behind. As a nation, Canada is a great friend and neighbor of the U.S. and prides itself on being a symbol of unity, the melding of millions of immigrants from around the world and fostering a determined passion that built a free country.
“One of the few nations not formed on war or violence, Canada exhibits political will and universal acceptance of religions, cultures, races and the fellowship of man.
“Without R.J. Peterson, the people of Saugatuck-Douglas and support of Michigan and U.S. governments, the Keewatin would never have survived to carry this important role as a symbol of Canada. All Canadians who hear the story appreciate our American cousins for what has been accomplished.
“The story is well told. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) aired a 45-minute documentary on the return of Keewatin for 36 months. Numbers show more than 20 million watched it in that period.
“The Keewatin left Port McNicoll June 23, 1967, at 2 p.m. bound for Douglas and returned 45 years to the hour she had left there. In Port McNicoll, where she is loved and cherished, she is one of the largest artifacts that tells the story of how Canada was built.
“Canadians appreciate what America did to help. We feel blessed that circumstances evolved to bring the Keewatin home.”