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SS Keewatin at 'imminent risk' of leaving home port forever

Built in Scotland, the vessel was launched on July 6, 1907, five years before the Titanic. It was retired in 1966
2020-03-25 ap
The SS Keewatin was met with great fanfare when it returned to its Georgian Bay home in 2012. Andrew Philips/MidlandToday

Fears are mounting that the SS Keewatin’s future might not stay anchored in Port McNicoll.

Friends of Keewatin marketing and communications manager Wayne Coombes has penned a letter to Tay Township Mayor Ted Walker urging the township to help keep the ship in its home port before it’s too late.

Coombes said there’s an “imminent risk” Skyline Investments, which owns the Edwardian-era vessel, could soon move it to a museum in Kingston.

“Such an outcome would be a devastating betrayal not only to the approximately 300 volunteers who have contributed tens of thousands of hours collectively in the operation and restoration of the ship, and the thousands in the community who thronged to greet her on arrival, but also to the historical legacy of the county and the tourism industry here,” said Coombes, whose volunteer group operates “this remarkable one-of-a-kind treasure” as an historical attraction while simultaneously working on its restoration.

While the ship isn’t opening this year due to COVID-19, its future is expected to be a hot topic of conversation during tonight’s council meeting.

The non-profit Keewatin group wants the township to approach the county about buying the ship from Skyline and operating it through the Simcoe County Museum as a marine museum in return for a tax receipt through the Cultural Property acquisition program offered by the Canadian government.

“Compared to any alternative Skyline Investments may be considering, this offer would involve no further investment on their part and could be consummated quickly,” Coombes writes in his letter to Walker.

“Time is of the essence in this request, as the museum in Kingston is considering applying for permission. There is nothing like SS Keewatin: she is the last of her kind in the world, as well as the embodiment of the unique laker history of the region. The people of Simcoe County deserve to have her here. Save Our Ship!”

Requests for comment from Skyline Investments were not returned.

Built in Scotland, the vessel was launched on July 6, 1907, five years before the Titanic. It was retired in 1966 after spending almost 60 seasons transporting passengers. Since returning to its Port McNicoll home port from the United States in 2012, the Edwardian-era passenger ship has proven to be a bona fide hit with both area residents and those from farther afield.

Coombes’ also forwarded a letter from Royal Ontario Museum curator emeritus Corey Keeble supporting the ship’s Canadian Heritage application.

“It is important to realize that an historic ship such as the Keewatin is of unique cultural importance not only in terms of the ship itself but in terms of all of its interior fittings,” Keeble wrote as he cited other historic ships located around the world.

“In the case of the Keewatin, this includes engine and boiler rooms in the context of technology and engineering and all of the fittings of the public and private passenger spaces.

“With the Keewatin, the dining saloon is an excellent example of the preservation of a galaxy of table items and interior decoration which comprise a veritable encyclopedic presentation of what is generally referred to as applied or decorative art. The details of the public spaces and of the passenger cabins are a showcase of Canadian achievements in metalwork, wood, glass, textiles and other materials."

Keeble said that while it’s easy to find examples of well-preserved warships, it is much more difficult to find examples of historic passenger ships with their interiors preserved intact.

“By virtue of its age and contents, the Keewatin remains a virtually unique cultural artifact! It is important to realize that with the Keewatin, the ship is the equivalent of a museum building.

“I have had the opportunity to visit many historical ships of different periods, including surviving warships of (the Second World War) in the United States and Great Britain. As for passenger ships, the single example by virtue of age, cultural and historical importance remains the S.S. Keewatin.”

Andrew Philips

About the Author: Andrew Philips

Community Editor Andrew Philips is a multiple award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in some of the country’s most respected news outlets. Originally from Midland, Philips returned to the area from Québec City a decade ago
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