Canadian Pacific Great Lakes Steamships ... personal recollections
Photographs by the author.

Much 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 350-ft, 3800-ton vessels, built on the Clyde in 1907, carried passengers and freight for nearly sixty years, and outlived every other similar service on the inland “high seas” of Canada.

First trip

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 two sites, the time had come to move the family. I had just started high school and was apprehensive about a mid-year move, but this was going to take place in April, like it or not. The decision had been made to put the car on the Keewatin at Port McNichol and head off to a new life. Although I had been on smaller ships before, thanks to my father’s work with Canada Steamship Lines, I had never 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 the 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 the 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 engineer on watch produced a last and made the repairs. I was impressed by the set of replacement piston rings hanging  high on an engineroom bulkhead: from 30in diameter for the high-pressure (HP) cylinder, on up to 6ft or so for the low-pressure (LP) cylinder, with the two intermediates (IPs) in between. 

8.59 Kee engine
The Keewatin’s engine, at full speed. Blurred link can just be made out, as well as eccentric rods and one connecting rod. Note size of man on gallery for scale. 1950s.

Firing 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 blowing the regulation warning every few minutes all night long. We could tell that we were still moving by the rattle of the stateroom door in sync with the 72 rpm 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 quite 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 you could pick up at sea, and to be ready for “plenty of cowboys and Indians” at the Lakehead. I was thrilled to be arriving in a “new world”. The rest of the trip 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 scene

For the next seven years I lived and grew up in Port Arthur. In addition to the extensive local railway operations which became my life’s interest and work, the two CPR lake steamers were always part of the marine scene. It wasn’t long before I found out that you could ride from Fort William to Port Arthur for the grand sum of 50c. This was always good value because you got to be part of the standard departure sequence and have a couple of hours of good fun, all for a few cents. For me this activity was always on the Kee because it was the “Saturday boat”…indeed its weekend departure made it our usual boat on subsequent trips to Port McNichol.  

The Keewatin departing Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) downbound, from Page’s motorboat. 1950s.

Summer trips

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 get the ship into the dock at Port Arthur (coming from Fort William) in the face of a very strong north wind which wanted to push the ship sideways in the narrow slip. After many tries, we did safely dock, loaded up Port Arthur passengers and departed, two hours late. I wondered if there was any possibility of making up this time. In the engine room I got my answer: “we’ll simply turn up the engine rpm from 72 to 75 rpm, and get another knot out of her”. This was done and twenty-four hours later we were pretty well on time at the Soo.  

The Keewatin, left, at the CPR dock, Port Arthur, and the CSL package freighter  “Calgarian” on the right. 1950s.

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 the skipper to attend church, while others said it was to allow lunch ashore for those who wished to. I think neither of these reasons was correct…it was simply operations.

The Keewatin, stern facing the camera, and the Assiniboia alongside the outer face of the dock at Sault Ste Marie. Note shorter stack on the Assiniboia after conversion to oil firing. 1950s.

Entering the Canadian Soo lock, from the bow of the Keewatin. Note optical illusion of curved water surface, caused by 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 down the 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 stokehold and clouds of black smoke, we marched up one side of the long queue and out into Lake Huron. I was told that we were making more than 16 knots during this sprint to keep the schedule.

Making smoke!  The Kee’s tall stack 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 scenery from a lounge chair or play shuffleboard on the top deck. The air (and sea) temperature went from the 50s on Lake Superior, to the 70s, more like one would expect in July or August.  

Passengers 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.

The Page family bundled up on deck.....none of this deck sport thing for them! Keewatin, 1950s.

Dining on the CPR steamers was a Victorian experience: assigned seating and times, fancy CPR china and cutlery, all with views out the huge plate-glass windows on the main deck. Orders were taken verbally by the waiters, most of whom were university students. With many choices on the menu, there were inevitable mix-ups, in fact it became a game to guess who among us would get what dinner. I recall that it was all good food, and that it was only 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 transcontinental train trip. Once, to my surprise, I met several of my teachers from Port Arthur 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 waiting, and people looking for their arriving friends, the Port McNichol terminus was a suitable end of the two day, 500-mile trip. 

Arriving at Port McNichol, from the bow of the Keewatin. The boat train is waiting, just beyond the station with its tiddly gardens.
Note tropical-style white band on trees in the foreground.

The technical side

The Keewatin’s (and Assiniboia’s) engine was the largest reciprocating steam engine I ever saw in operation. I was fortunate enough on one trip to watch the Second Engineer take indicator diagrams of each cylinder when under full power. This was done periodically to ensure that the engine was balanced, ie, producing the same horsepower from each of the four cylinders. If there were discrepancies, the output could be fine-tuned by a screw adjustment on the reversing link for each 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 horsepower. The Second was pleased with that, with no follow-up required, other than 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 vacuum, and exhausting to the condenser at 26” vacuum, produced the same output as the much-smaller HP cylinder, operating at much higher pressure range! In modern terms this would be a four-stage turbine, doing exactly the same thing, but, in 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 natural 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 their service lives.

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, adjacent to the roundhouse. Given the huge coal storage and handling facilities on Island No.2 in the Kam estuary, there may have been several places to take on fuel.

The end

My last trip was downbound in August 1959. I never saw either ship again.

The Keewatin 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 fuel-saving modifications made her more economical and convenient to operate, making her the logical choice to remain in service.

The Keewatin 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 father, 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 crossed the Atlantic from the builders in Scotland. 

Ah, ships!

Thanks to R. L. Kennedy’s online paper “Canadian Pacific Railway Great Lakes Steamships” for factual data and dates.
All photographs by the author.

Bytown Railway Society,  Branchline, February 2009, page 3.

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