SS Keenora — ship originally built to navigate Lake of the Woods between Rat Portage and Fort Francis

by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Lake Winnipeg is noted for the mighty blows which pile up waves that pitch any boats in their path tither and yon in a seemingly endless roller-coaster ride. For any embattled boat encountering gale-force winds accompanied by heavy rain, a shoreline and landmarks can be obscured, making it virtually impossible to pick out known rock shoals and sandbars. 
For these reasons, whenever gales, especially nor’westers, arise, the more alert and lake-wise captains seek the nearest sheltered bay or any other safe harbour to ride out the storm — to do otherwise is to imperil the lives of all aboard the vessel. 
Aboard the SS Keenora (SS designates steamship), John C. Hokanson, an experienced lake skipper who was captain of the ship from 1929 to 1952, knew the danger he, his crew and 54 passengers faced when a gale struck the lake in the summer of 1934 with his steamer away from port.
“It was a heavy gale,” he told a Winnipeg Tribune reporter on August 27, 1934.
In fact, it was a three-day-long blow, and on Sunday, August 26, a rumour began to spread in the city and around the lake that the Keenora had floundered in the gale. It wasn’t until the next day when the Keenora steamed into Winnipeg that worried family members knew the rumour was false.
Hokanson told the reporter that the wind sprang up about 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday. “We ran for Nelson River, reaching there at noon and laid by until the storm was over.” The ship moored at Warren’s Landing in the mouth of the Nelson River at the northern tip of Lake Winnipeg to ride out the gale.
“It was pretty rough, but I wasn’t sick,” said Kay Irvine a resident of Montrose Avenue in Winnipeg, who was returning on the ship from a vacation when the fury of the storm struck.
H.C. McDiarmid, of the RCMP’s excise branch and an old-timer in the north, said it was one of the worst storms he had ever witnessed on the lake.
As the storm raged on the lake, those aboard the Keenora rode it out in relative comfort, as a result of the captain’s quick thinking. On the other hand, pilot George C. Mackie and air engineer Les Blackwell were less fortunate, as their bodies were recovered “Black River, on the shores of wave-battered Lake Winnipeg after an extensive search effort was initiated. Ironically, the two men had been travelling north to rescue “brother fliers.” 
According to the report in the Tribune: “Owing to the heavy seas, created by a whistling north-west wind, it was impossible to land.” When pilot Mackie did attempt a landing, his Cirrus Moth biplane was pounded by waves that tore the aircraft apart, killing the two men. The biplane was later found beached on rocks at the shoreline and wrecked beyond salvaging.
Both men were Winnipeg residents and employed by the Northwest Aero Marine Company based at Stevenson Field (now Richardson International Airport).
At the time of the gale, the Keenora was owned by the Selkirk Navigation Company, which was then operating out of Winnipeg, and had its dock at the foot of Redwood Avenue. Despite initial concerns expressed that the vessel was too top-heavy with its shallow draft after being rebuilt in 1917 by Manitoba Bridge and Iron Works, the Keenora survived every storm it encountered until it was retired from service.
“I never felt I was in any danger,” said Clifford Stevens, who served as  first mate aboard the ship under Captain August Helgason of Arnes in 1955, “and we travelled in every kind of weather.”
“It was very stable with all that coal in the bunkers as ballast — 40 tons a trip,” added Stevens, a Gimli resident (Real Estate News interview, May 26, 2014).
The steamer had not started out life as a passenger and freight ship based in Manitoba, instead it was built to travel on Lake of the Woods in Ontario. It’s construction was commissioned by Graham Horn & Co. of Fort William (now Thunder Bay) and Walter Ross of Rat Portage (now Kenora) and was built by the Bertram Engine Company of Toronto at a cost of $60,000. Once the components of the ship were built in Toronto, they were to be shipped by railway flatcar to Rat Portage for assembly.
“The hull of the boat will be of steel,” reported the Manitoba Free Press on April 30, 1897, “126 feet long, 30 feet beam ... She will be capable of attaining a speed of sixteen miles an hour (not so, it was 15 mph, see below) and is to be fitted up with cabin and furnishings in the same style as the celebrated CPR lake steamers. The Keenora will be lighted by electricity and is to have two compound (steam) engines and twin screws (propellors). All westerners and more particularly mining men will welcome the advent of the Keenora and wish the enterprising owners success in their venture.”
A brochure produced in 1898 by the Rainy River Navigation Company, which owned and operated the Keenora, stated: “The hull is built entirely of steel and the upper works of wood. In the hold is powerful machinery comprising 250 horse-power boiler and two fore and aft compound engines of 225 horse-power combined, which drive two 58-inch screws 175 revolutions per minute each, giving a speed of 15 miles per hour. There is also a smaller dynamo, by which the steamer is brilliantly illuminated throughout.” 
The name Keenora, according to 1897 newspaper articles, was derived by taking the first letters from the towns of Keewatin, Norman and Rat Portage, a designation that carried over to Rat Portage when the community was renamed Kenora — without the extra “e” — in 1905.
On June 3, the Tribune reported the disassembled Keenora had arrived at Norman from Toronto and the pieces were being assembled at the “old Cameron and Kennedy wharf.”
The new passenger and cargo vessel was successfully launched on August 10, 1897, but not without some initial difficulty.
The Tribune reported on August 13 that the “usual and christening ceremony was performed by the orthodox pretty lady and a bottle of champagne” a few days earlier, “but owing to the skids being too soft and resting on mud, the graceful gliding like a duck into the water had to be deferred till yesterday.”
On August 11, the completed Keenora was towed out of Norman for Rat Portage. Today, Norman is a neighbourhood in the city of Kenora.
“Wednesday morning,” wrote the correspondent for the Free Press in Rat Portage on August 12, “our wharves were lined with people anxious to see her towed from Norman to her coaling berth at Rat Portage. Down the stream she came looking really majestic in the comparatively narrow waters and dwarfing the steamer which had her in tow into insignificance.”
The Catherine S had been lashed to the side of the Keenora to tow the newly-built vessel across the bay to its home port. At Rat Portage, the steamship was to take on coal in preparation for its trial run on Lake of the Woods.
While inspecting the ship docked at Hall’s wharf, the Free Press correspondent encountered Walter Ross, one of the steamer’s owners. The Rainy River Navigation Company, managed by Ross, was formed to oversee the operation of the Keenora, as well as the steamer Agwinde on the lake. The Keenora was to make a tri-weekly (later daily) run to Fort Francis and the Agwinde provided the connection from there to Beaver Mills.
“It is going to be a big success,” Ross told the correspondent. “The berths are being taken up very rapidly, and letters and telegrams are continually coming to hand asking for rooms on her. A lot of our Rat Portage people also propose going up, and altogether I expect we shall have a pretty full house.”
Several Winnipeggers participated in the maiden voyage of the Keenora to Fort Francis on August 21.
“All spoke in the highest terms of the scenery of the route and the accommodations on the boat” (Free Press, August 23, 1897), “... and those who have returned would emphasize” it was far superior to the average vessel plying lake of the Woods “and add that the interior appointments of the boat are all that could be desired, while the cuisine is first class. The state rooms are costly furnished, and the cabin is tastefully upholstered, containing every comfort and luxury to be found on all the best eastern ships.”
Later newspaper accounts reported that excursions aboard the Keenora were popular with visitors from Britain and the U.S. According to an article in the July 14, 1906, Free Press, the Keenora had every comfort, convenience and elegance for holiday travel. There was a salon with easy chairs, a “finely arranged dining room with an outlook on the bow end.” And staff were eager to please every whim of the passengers.
The only time in the early history of the vessel that tragedy struck was when Joseph Bourdeau, “the popular young porter” (Free Press, July 22, 1899), fell overboard and drowned. The drowning occurred as the ship was leaving “Mr. Ward’s dock at Little Forks.” Apparently, Bourdeau lost his footing, fell into the water in full view of 60 to 70 passengers, and although a strong swimmer, was carried under by a strong current just 10 metres from shore.
The tenure of the Keenora on Lake of the Woods was somewhat brief. In 1901, the Ontario and Rainy River Railway was built, which had a direct effect on passenger travel aboard the ship. With declining numbers of excursionists caused by railroad transportation, the vessel was docked for five years until the Canadian Northern Railway took over ownership of the Keenora in 1915. 
Advertisements for the sale of the Keenora and Agwinde began to appear in newspapers in 1916. The sale was “pursuant” to the “judge of the Admiralty Court” in Toronto.
A consortium of Winnipeg lawyers, who formed the Lake Winnipeg Navigation Co., Ltd., purchased the Keenora and had it dismantled for shipment to the city by railway flatcar. When being reassembled in Winnipeg, the ship’s hull was extended by 30 feet (9.1 metres), giving the vessel an overall length of 156 feet (48 metres). 
Sixty-five passenger cabins were also built and new machinery installed. A wooden dance floor was installed that went the width of the second deck.
Although seaworthy, the Keenora didn’t sail for another year and instead served as a stationary floating dance hall.
The following spring, the Lake Winnipeg Navigation Company began advertising trips to St. Andrew’s Locks and Victoria Beach. All sailings originated from the foot of St. John’s Avenue. The trip to the rapids was 50-cents for adults and 25-cents for children, while a return far to Victoria Beach was $1.50 with no mention of a children’s fare. 
Later in the navigation season, daily evening trips to Keenora Park with a band and dancing were announced at 50-cents apiece. In addition, there were five trips to Keenora Park on Dominion (Canada) Day 1917. Newspaper accounts from the period indicated that the vessel’s deck was often packed with over 400 excursionists.
          (Next week: part 2)