has been written about the last of the Canadian Pacific
Great Lakes Steamships, Keewatin and Assiniboia,
and their long service lives
on the upper Great Lakes. These
3800-ton vessels, built on the Clyde in 1907, carried passengers and
for nearly sixty years, and outlived every other similar service on the
“high seas” of Canada.
My connection with the Keewatin and Assiniboia
began in 1953 when my father was transferred
from Kingston Shipyards to
Port Arthur Shipbuilding. After some months of “commuting” between the
sites, the time had come to move the family. I had just started high
was apprehensive about a mid-year move, but this was going to take
April, like it or not. The decision had been made to put the car on the
Port McNichol and head off to a new life. Although I had been on
before, thanks to my father’s work with Canada Steamship Lines, I had
been on a long voyage involving staying on board overnight.
We found out that we were the only
passengers for the trip
to Fort William
(there was not an inbound stop at Port Arthur, at least at that time of
year), evidenced by
the rolled-up passageway carpets and few amenities. Indeed it was only
second trip of the season, with plenty of ice along the way.
After loading a considerable amount of
freight, we were
underway. It was not long before I was in the engine room, taking in
four-cylinder, quadruple-expansion engine and the four, hand-fired Scotch
marine boilers. I had lost a shoe heel somewhere along the way, and an
on watch produced a last and made the repairs. I was impressed by the
replacement piston rings hanging high on
an engineroom bulkhead: from 30in diameter for the high-pressure (HP)
on up to 6ft or so for the low-pressure (LP) cylinder, with the two
intermediates (IPs) in between.
Keewatin’s engine, at full speed. Blurred link
can just be made out, as well as eccentric rods and one connecting rod.
size of man on gallery for scale. 1950s.
one of the furnaces of the Keewatin’s
four Scotch marine boilers.
After a stopover at Sault Ste Marie the
next noon, where the
two ships crossed, we headed out into Whitefish
Bay and on to Lake Superior proper. The crew provided the
cheery comment that Lake Superior had
only two conditions: a gale, or calm
and foggy. We were in the latter category, and heard the ship’s whistle
the regulation warning every few minutes all night long. We could tell
were still moving by the rattle of the stateroom door in sync with the
of the engine.
In the morning it was still cold, foggy
and damp as we
silently clipped through thin ice, heading for Fort William.
Although the Kee was fitted with
radar, a lookout had been posted at the point of the bow. It was all
creepy, and the similarity to the Titanic’s circumstances was not lost on me.
At some point I could hear a
crewmember’s radio playing
country and western music. I was told that this was the only program
pick up at sea, and to be ready for “plenty of cowboys and Indians” at
Lakehead. I was thrilled to be arriving in a “new world”. The rest of
was uneventful and we landed at the CPR dock up the Kam River
in Fort William
at some point around mid-day.
I tell people even now that we were the
last “immigrants” to
arrive at the Lakehead by ship.
Regular features of the Lakehead
For the next seven years I lived and
grew up in Port Arthur.
to the extensive local railway operations which became my life’s
work, the two CPR lake steamers were always part of the marine scene.
long before I found out that you could ride from Fort William
to Port Arthur
the grand sum of 50c. This
was always good value because you got to be part of the standard
sequence and have a couple of hours of good fun, all for a few cents.
this activity was always on the Kee
because it was the “Saturday boat”…indeed its weekend departure made it
usual boat on subsequent trips to Port McNichol.
departing Port Arthur (now
Thunder Bay) downbound, from Page’s motorboat. 1950s.
Over the remaining years in the 1950s
our family made at
least four trips on the CP steamers, usually one way, thus avoiding
some of the
long and unpleasant driving.
There was always something going on
onboard. About half an
hour out of Port Arthur,
before passing the Sleeping Giant, a lifeboat drill was held. I had my Titanic-based doubts that this would
have been of any use at all had an emergency arisen.
On one trip, the Keewatin
had a new skipper and he made about five tries to get his courage up to
ship into the dock at Port Arthur
(coming from Fort
in the face of a very strong north wind which wanted to push the ship
in the narrow slip. After many tries, we did safely dock, loaded up Port Arthur
and departed, two hours late. I wondered if there was any possibility
up this time. In the engine room I got my answer: “we’ll simply turn up
engine rpm from 72 to 75 rpm, and get another knot out of her”. This
and twenty-four hours later we were pretty well on time at the Soo.
Keewatin, left, at the CPR dock, Port
Arthur, and the CSL package freighter “Calgarian” on the
Both ships crossed and docked at the
Soo on Sunday at the
same time and spent about two hours there. Some said it was to allow
skipper to attend church, while others said it was to allow lunch
those who wished to. I think neither of these reasons was correct…it
Keewatin, stern facing the camera,
and the Assiniboia alongside the outer face of the dock at
Marie. Note shorter stack on the Assiniboia after conversion to
the Canadian Soo lock, from the bow of
the Keewatin. Note optical illusion of curved water surface,
the shape of the channel walls. 1950s.
The CP Steamers used the narrow
Canadian lock at the Soo,
and once clear of it, had to join the long queue of freighters heading
St Mary’s River. On one trip we were able to see the Kee
do her stuff and really step out, after the skipper decided to
pass all the plodding traffic ahead. With plenty of hard work in the
and clouds of black smoke, we marched up one side of the long queue and
into Lake Huron. I was told that we
making more than 16 knots during this sprint to keep the schedule.
Making smoke! The Kee’s tall
belches it out, keeping up our 14kts. 1950s.
Once in Lake Huron,
passengers did not take long to peel off their jackets and take in the
from a lounge chair or play shuffleboard on the top deck. The air (and
temperature went from the 50s on Lake Superior,
to the 70s, more like one would expect in July or August.
enjoy a bit of shuffleboard, being
watched by a gent with his cup of tea, on the top deck of the Keewatin.
This must be in Lake Huron, given the shorts being worn! 1950s.
Page family bundled up on deck.....none of
this deck sport thing for them! Keewatin, 1950s.
Dining on the CPR steamers was a
assigned seating and times, fancy CPR china and cutlery, all with views
huge plate-glass windows on the main deck. Orders were taken verbally
waiters, most of whom were university students. With many choices on
there were inevitable mix-ups, in fact it became a game to guess who
would get what dinner. I recall that it was all good food, and that it
the second time (with none since) that I had Baked Alaska for dessert!
Most of the fellow passengers were
American tourists, taking
a sea voyage to avoid the tedious roads, or breaking their
train trip. Once, to my surprise, I met several of my teachers from
Collegiate. Away from the school, they were human afterall!
Arrival at Port McNichol was always
like something out of a
movie, certainly unlike the grungy quay-side at the railway yards in Fort William.
With manicured gardens, a neat little station, a very clean boat train
and people looking for their arriving friends, the Port McNichol
terminus was a
suitable end of the two day, 500-mile trip.
at Port McNichol, from the bow of the Keewatin.
The boat train is waiting, just beyond the station with its tiddly
Note tropical-style white band on trees in the foreground.
The technical side
Assiniboia’s) engine was the largest reciprocating steam engine I ever
operation. I was fortunate enough on one trip to watch the Second
indicator diagrams of each cylinder when under full power. This was
periodically to ensure that the engine was balanced, ie, producing the
horsepower from each of the four cylinders. If there were
output could be fine-tuned by a screw adjustment on the reversing link
cylinder, in effect changing the cutoff to balance the output. On this occasion, the horsepower per cylinder
was within the tolerance allowed, with each cylinder producing 900
The Second was pleased with that, with no follow-up required, other
entering the results in the engineroom log.
I was into my second year in mechanical
engineering by that
time, and marveled at the real-life example of thermodynamics in
action: the LP
cylinder, some six feet in diameter, taking in steam at about 5” hg
and exhausting to the condenser at 26” vacuum, produced the same output
much-smaller HP cylinder, operating at much higher pressure range! In
terms this would be a four-stage turbine, doing exactly the same thing,
my case, it was all within one real engine!
Early in the 1950s, the Assiniboia
was re-boilered and converted to oil firing. No longer needing the
draught of the very tall funnel, the funnel’s height was cut back and the black band re-painted lower down. This
gave the Assinboia a more modern look
than the Keewatin,
a distinction between the two vessels which remained for the rest of
I never saw where the Keewatin was coaled, or if
this was done at each end of the circuit. At the Fort William
end this was probably done at the dockside coaling tower downriver,
the roundhouse. Given the huge coal storage and handling facilities on
No.2 in the Kam estuary, there may have been several places to take on
My last trip was downbound in August
1959. I never saw
either ship again.
was withdrawn from service at the end of the season in 1965, while the Assiniboia lasted another two seasons in
freight service only. No doubt the oil conversion job and other
modifications made her more economical and convenient to operate,
the logical choice to remain in service.
ended up as a museum ship at Douglas Michigan, where it still resides.
The Assiniboia sailed down the St Lawrence
under her own steam and met a fiery fate some time later in the US. My
then at the Davie Shipyard in Lauzon QC, saw the Assiniboia
passing by and told the staff that she had last passed
that site 60 years earlier, on her way in (with a stop at Davie’s to
cut her in
half, to fit the smaller St. Lawrence canal then available), having
Atlantic from the builders in Scotland.
Thanks to R. L. Kennedy’s online
paper “Canadian Pacific
Railway Great Lakes Steamships” for
data and dates.
All photographs by the author.
Branchline, February 2009, page 3.