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History repeated as Keewatin returns to Port McNicoll

Sharon Weatherall, Special to QMI Agency

TAY TWP. - The small town of Port McNicoll in Tay Township is taking a trip back in time.

On Saturday, residents will be rubbing their eyes in disbelief when a ghost ship from the past appears on the horizon. It is a classic passenger steamship that frequented the town dock and Georgian Bay waters throughout the early to mid-1900 and a vessel that one of the town streets was named for.

On that day the re-appearance of 'S.S. Keewatin' will be witnessed by thousands of visitors who will arrive to join locals in welcoming the grand old lady home after five decades and during which time many thought her long-gone to a scrap metal yard. The Keewatin will be pulled in to Port McNicoll dock by five tugs and commandeered by a man who discovered her whereabouts several years ago and recently manipulated fate to bring her back here.

Eric Conroy or 'Captain Rick' worked on the ship as youth of 17 and says bringing the Keewatin to Port McNicoll and helping to develop a major tourism opportunity surrounding her, is like a dream come true.

"That's where I started my life and that's where I will finish my life. It's a great semi-retirement for me and kinda like being in a time machine."

"On June 23rd the ship will appear off to the north of Port at 1:30 p.m. and for the welcome it will be docked in the place where it will always be. There will be entertainment at the dock for the whole day with information booths, a Lions Club BBQ, music and festivities. The community is running this family event and we are expecting between 5,000 - 10,000 people so those planning to come should arrive early."

Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) officials contracted the construction of the S.S. Keewatin along with her sister ship - the "S.S. Assiniboia', to a Scottish company named Fairfield Shipping and Engineering Company in 1907 and she arrived in Montreal on September 1907. The 350' x 43' Keewatin and Assiniboia were two of the most beautiful passenger ships on the Great Lakes. Keewatin, later referred to as ``the pride of the CPR`` would serve Canadian Ports in Northern Lake Huron and Lake Superior for 57 years until her retirement. She ran with 86 officers and crew members up to 14 knots, carrying 288 passengers in berthed and 108 staterooms.

In 1967 when Diane and J.R. Peterson purchased her to serve as a marine museum in Saugatuck Michigan, they saved Keewatin from the scrap yard. She remained there on show until she sold last year for the purpose of relocation to Port McNicoll as part of a multi-million dollar project now in the development stages. Several years ago a visionary developer named Gil Blutrich became aware of the property and purchased it.

So, Eric Conroy's dream was made possible through Blutrich`s development company. 'SkyLine Investments' is developing Port McNicoll to bring back some of the Georgian Bay port`s former fame. Once known as 'Chicago of the North' it was a booming railway terminal and ship port of 8000 people but that changed with the closure of the CPR.

"It was a really big bustling town - all railways east and west went there. It was a busy port with three grain/passenger ships and 14 grain ships but after the CPR closed down a vast majority of the people left," said Conroy.

"This development could be the spark to re-ignite what Port McNicoll used to be. SkyLine is a yacht service that will attract yachts from all over and the tourism this will bring will be very good for the economy."

Since the 2007 and the 100th Anniversary of the Keewatin, SkyLine president Gil Blutrich, wanted to buy and bring her home to Port McNicoll as a museum and tourist operation that involved the community. The ship was a passion of J.R. Peters which he was not about to part with. However last year, aged 87, Peters agreed to the sell the Keewatin and negotiated with Blutrich a deal was signed by the end of August 2011. Conroy, who had been volunteering at the ship museum in Michigan for several years and had recently retired, was hired to bring the boat home. Amply qualified he was the perfect man for the job.

At 17 Conroy began working on the S.S. Keewatin and her sister ship S.S. Assiniboia as a waiter in 1963 and 1964 and he is currently the youngest surviving crew member. Conroy says his great life experiences during this time became an important part of who he became and what he accomplished in his life. Over the years he has been a high school teacher, a promotions salesman, an advertising executive and a restaurant owner. Conroy founded a chain of automotive stores, has worked as the General Manager for the Canadian National Exhibition and consulted on Public Affairs with the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. He founded and ran the largest children's magazine in Canada and spent 29 years as a volunteer Toronto's famous Santa Claus Parade selling sponsorships. Conroy is a distinguished member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Mess in Ottawa, a Life Honourary member of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and holds an Order of Bulgaria.

Conroy has also written two books about Keewatin - one for the Saugatuck museum site and another about his personal tie to the ship beginning with his employment as a waiter. Retired in June of 2011, 'Captain Rick' agreed to take on the challenge of purchasing the 105 year old ship for Skyline Investments and managing the huge job of arranging to bring Keewatin home, as well as establishing her as a profitable 'not for profit charitable foundation' and organizing her volunteer support group, 'Friends of the Keewatin' - a membership of 250.

Conroy says the community is behind the Keewatin venture 100 percent and proud to be part of it.

"Tay Township has given a three acre park to go with the ship and museum and it will all be run by the not-for-profit committee with a board made up of local people," said Conroy.

"The residents are very excited and looking forward to this. It will bring a lot of new interest to the area and put Port McNicoll back on the map."

Conroy says the Keewatin will not be open for public visitation for about one year at which time the ship is up to code with electrical and plumbing, etc. Until then, people can look but they can't go in. Conroy says he hopes to keep the Keewatin a 'working ship' with a working theatre, restaurant, weather station and more to keep people interested in it and coming back. Plans are in the making now to bring the 'Ossowippi' train car restaurant from Orillia to Port McNicoll as part of the development.

"There is a cargo area on the Keewatin that holds 40 cars that will be used as an area for community to operate functions. It's about 10,000 square feet which is a nice size for shows and events. There will always be something different to go on the ship and bring people. There will also be lots of parking space," said Conroy.

"We have also negotiated with Huronia Museum in Midland to run the Museum on board and staff will have an information booth at the welcome on June 23rd."

The ship is impressive inside with original rich woodwork, furnishings and memorabilia right down to the china. The walls are lined with lots of pictures, there's a fancy ballroom and polished wooden floors all taking visitors on a trip to the past.

Jamie Hunter, curator of the Huronia Museum in Midland says the return of the Keewatin to Port McNicoll is a great tourism opportunity for the area.

"There will be a 4000 square foot space for Huronia Museum to create a Marine Museum on Georgian Bay Transportation and History," said Hunter who is preparing a presentation for June 23rd as well that includes posters of the ten captains of the Keewatin.

"Seeing the ship pulled in by five tugboats will be a spectacular sight. They are expecting about 10,000 people to be there watching."

After the June 23rd welcome, Keewatin will be moved temporarily while a new million dollar dock is prepared near the freight docks and grain elevators. You can follow the route of the Keewatin as she leaves Michigan and makes her way to Port McNicoll on Conroy's blog and read about the lake dredging - a 50' x 10' one mile corridor and other challenges during the past year, including the removal of 135,000 cubic yards of silt from the lake and process to get permits from the municipality and State. It's been a year in the planning but worth every minute.

Conroy says at over 105 years of age the Keewatin is in remarkable shape and is sound for the journey home.

"Two towing companies were hired one to get it out of the lake and another - Fogg Towing, was hired to bring the ship all the way across the Great Lakes," said Conroy.

"It was a well built ship and the engine is workable if you can find a power source. Some guide wires have too been replaced and other things but there have been no changes to the actual structure of the ship itself. She's an impressive sight and police figure on June 23rd if even 10 percent of the boats from Georgian Bay area come out there will be 4000 in the water to see us bringing back 100 years of history."

For more about S.S. Keewatin, visit

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