Eric Conroy is big man who loves to tell a good story. Conroy’s very first job – in 1963 at the tender age of 17 – was as a waiter aboard the SS Keewatin.
For six decades, Keewatin ferried new immigrants, tourists, grain and other goods from CP’s deep-water harbour at Port McNicoll, Ontario, through the Great Lakes to Thunder Bay. American businessman Rolland J. Peterson saved Keewatin from the scrapper in 1967 when he purchased it from CP for $40,000. For 45 years, Keewatin served as a maritime museum in Douglas, Mich., until Toronto-based real estate developer Gil Blutrich spent millions to buy it and have it towed back to Canada this past June.
You can read about how Blutrich, president of Skyline International, plans to make the Keewatin the focal point of his new multimillion-dollar Port McNicoll Resort Village, in my recent Globe and Mail article – Titanic-era ship anchors port redevelopment. I wrote about how Blutrich and Conroy first met, and how Conroy is now in charge of restoring the ship and making it financially self-sufficient.
During an exclusive tour of the ship a few weeks ago, Conroy told many colourful stories I wasn’t able to include in the Globe article. Here, in his own words, are Conroy’s many memories of his time aboard the magnificent SS Keewatin.
The last of its kind: The Keewatin was built in 1907 in Scotland by the Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering Company, five years before the RMS Titanic was built in Belfast. Keewatin is 106 metres long and 14 metres wide. “This is the only one left. There isn’t another one like it in the world,” says Conroy.
Eric Conroy: “I started as a high school teacher; I was in the advertising business for 30 years; I was general manager of the Canadian National Exhibition; I was director of public information for the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. I also ran the Toronto Santa Claus Parade for 29 years as a volunteer – my job was to raise money and attract volunteers. So I’ve had experience doing this sort of thing before.”
The Entrance: The 3,800-ton vessel carried 288 passengers with a crew of 86. “This would be the main entrance area. The train would pull up right outside these doors, at this very dock, and passengers would come on board and meet with the purser who would tell them what room they were in. He would give them their room key and the chief bellhop would take their bags to their room.”
Flower Pot Lounge and Promenade “CP had its own horticultural building and they’d put new plants in every time we got into Port McNicholl. They were so beautifully cared for it was like a jungle here.”
“In rough weather, when Keewatin went into swells, not only did we go up and down, but we went side to side. If you were seasick, which a lot of people were, they’d bring you here because you can’t see the horizon. We’d serve them consommé with crackers, and it would make them throw up. If you’ve ever been seasick you know that as soon as you’re sick, you feel better. So, the company might have called it the Flower Pot Lounge, but the staff who had to clean it up called it the Swamp.”
On-board Entertainment: This past summer, a clairvoyant was invited aboard Keewatin. “After she’d wandered around the ship for an hour, she started telling me stories about spirits and presences that are on-board this ship. When I was a waiter here years ago, I’d heard the same story about a woman, a famous singer, who’d over-consumed, and who’d decided to entertain all the people on the ship with a display of her cleavage. The clairvoyant also thought there were several ghosts on-board, including a woman in a long dress who danced around in the Ballroom, and a guy wearing a rumpled suit who rushed around the ship all the time in a hurry.”
Handpainted windows: “These are hand-painted Italian glass. There are about 100 of them. We had to have the ship evaluated for insurance and the windows were valued at $1000 apiece.”
The Dining Room: “This is where I worked. The fellow I worked for, the chief steward, was a guy named Graham. He took me under his wing. Well, his two daughters live in town and they’ve come in with the other volunteers and have scrubbed the floors and cleaned the glass; they’ve taken the tablecloths home and washed them and ironed them. They’ve cleaned the silverware… stuff that’s been in storage for years and years… and set up these tables. It’s all original stuff.”
“Now, every waiter had a [table of] six and a [table of] two, so that you looked after eight passengers. That would be for two sittings, or 16 people altogether. These are my tables here. All of the chairs and tables are bolted to the floor.”
Conroy and Gil Blutrich: “I was only 17 and, early in my career, I made the mistake of ordering an extra steak. Rather than admit to it and take it back to the kitchen, I put it in this drawer, finished my work for the day, and when everybody was gone, I took it upstairs and ate it. It was fabulous. So every day I would order something different and eat it after everybody was gone. Two years, and I never got caught. That’s the drawer.”
The Kitchen: “These are the trays we used to have to carry and we served from the tray. And what they would do to teach you was they would take you out early in the season when the water was really rough. They would put 10 glasses of water around on the outside of the tray. You’d have to walk through the ship without spilling a drop. Once you could do that, you were a waiter.”
Storage Room: “These are all the things we’ve been able to find, all the dishes… the glassware…”
“…Canadian Pacific soap… Look at this: Teapots that have never been used. Made in England.”
The Barber Shop: “If you had your buck and a quarter, you could get your hair cut anytime you wanted. The barber also ran a little concession… he would sell souvenirs and postcards and stamps. The barber lived here, too. There was a fellow who did this for 30 years… he worked here when I worked on the ship. During the winters, he was the barber at Hart House, University of Toronto.”
Ladies Smoking Lounge: “This is called the Ladies Smoking Lounge because, in 1907, women weren’t allowed to smoke in public. Canadian Pacific was a really good marketing company, so they actually made this room as a way to attract women who smoked, to travel on their ships.”
“This is where they would have high tea, play cards, bring their kids here, write postcards. We still have most of the furniture. This is the stuff that’s in the best condition.”
“Nobody ever threw anything out. Look at those curtains… those curtains have been hanging here since I worked on this ship 50 years ago.”
The 1951 Makeover: “In 1951, the ship had a major renovation – the carpets, the furniture, everything you see is circa 1951. When this ship left Canada for Douglas, Michigan, everything you now see was on it… the last time I worked on this boat, this is exactly what it looked like… pictures, carpets, furniture. Everything. And that’s 50 years ago this summer.”
“We’re not going to renovate it at all. Were going to restore it… cleaning it up and fresh paint. If we put new carpets down, they’ll be very similar to these. Just about everybody in this town either worked on Keewatin, had a parent or grandparent or cousin who worked on it. I’ve got every trade you can think of as part of our little group of volunteers, so that we are going to do it all locally.”
The Ballroom: “This is the ballroom, and it actually used to be outdoors. In 1920, they built it in. The ceiling used to be pressed tin but because it echoed, the Americans put in cork because they were going to use it for parties.
The Beverage Room: “This is a great room because it’s got carved characters that are representative of all the cultures of Canada. We have an Englishman, a Frenchman, an African… So multiculturalism isn’t a new thing and obviously Canadian Pacific promoted it.”
The cabins: The 3,800-ton vessel carried 288 passengers with a crew of 86. “There were 107 rooms of which only seven had ensuite bathrooms. These are the least expensive rooms, and you’ll see that they’re very similar to railway carriages. They had a sink, sometimes bunk beds, sometimes a chesterfield.”
The Company Suite: “The Company Suite was only used when the executives of Canadian Pacific would travel.”
The Stewardesses: “We had three crew women on board and they were called stewardesses. They lived in this little room here. They were farm girls and they changed every piece of linen in this ship every day. Their jobs were also vacuuming, making beds, serving tea in the Ladies Lounge and booking the only bathtub on the ship. So they were very busy girls.”
Crew Quarters: “This is where all the waiters, the bellhops and the cooks slept. The waiters slept six to a room and the bellhops had eight to a room. The beds were not very comfortable and they were not very big. So for a guy like me who’s 6 feet, 2 inches, I would always sleep curled up.”
The Bellhops: “This is where the bellhops sat, and anytime there was a buzzer the bellhops would know which room they were going to. It was 24/7 service, all first class. I could never understand why these boys wanted this job… I mean, they didn’t make as much money as the waiters, and they cleaned out people’s potties.”
“But about five or six years ago I ran into one of them, and he said they used to make a fortune because back in those days you couldn’t buy a drink on a Sunday and even on a Saturday night the bars closed at 11:30 p.m. A lot of the passengers were Americans and they would ask the bellhops where they could buy a drink.”
“The bellhops would have bought a stash of mickeys whenever we were in Sault Ste. Marie for $3 apiece. So, they would go to their rooms, get a mickey of whatever the passenger wanted. The passenger would say ‘What do I owe you?’ And the bellhop would say ‘Oh, I can’t take any money for it.’ Then, the guy would invariably pull out $5 or $10 for the $3 bottle of alcohol.”
“So these guys made a fortune, and they didn’t have to work in the winter.”
The Engine: “In Europe, they built the ships in various places, but most of the components were built in the same places. So the engine that’s on this ship is very similar, and has some of the same parts, that Titanic’s engine would have when it was made five years later. So, if you ever wondered what the engine of the Titanic looked like…”
“That’s the telegraph… That’s how they’d know what the captain wanted. The captain would use this upstairs… it would go ‘dring, dring’… and if it went to ‘Slow’ the guy down here would push his to Slow so that the Captain would know that he heard him. And that’s how they’d drive the boat.”
The Boiler Room: “If you’ve seen the movie Titanic, you’ll recognize that this is exactly the same as you would have seen on the Titanic. They were made by the same boilermakers that made the boilers for Titanic. As the coal turned into charcoal, they’d shovel it out and then flush it out into the lake. These guys were big, muscular men. On the last night that I worked on the ship, they invited me to work a four-hour shift, shoveling. I did it just to say that I’d done it… four hours is a long time.”
The Cargo Deck: “We could carry up to 40 automobiles… they would put them all in here and then tie them down so they wouldn’t move while the ship went. Our long-term goal is to make this a community area, once the docks are finished and we ballast it to the proper level. All of these doors will come out and we’ll put glass in so there’ll be lots of light down here. We might use it for a Saturday farmer’s market, or antique shows, or anything that would attract the public.”
Eric Conroy and Gil Blutrich: “A few years ago, I had a heart attack and I had to sell a lot of things I owned. I had a painting of Keewatin and a model of the ship. I’d only met Gil once before, but I called him out of the blue and asked if he’d like to buy them. I told him how much I wanted for them and he said ‘Bring it down tomorrow.’ Just like that. He never argued the price. That’s the kind of guy he is. He helped me.”
“I’ve done this whole deal on a handshake. Gil gave me the money [to bring the ship back to Canada, and to restore it] and I told him I’d use it as wisely as possible… I have no staff… I deal directly with him. We have a philosophy that we’re both working towards.”
A Canadian Icon: “If Canadians had grown up with this ship and it had never moved away from here, I think people would be blasé about it. But because it went away for 45 years, and Port McNicholl was destroyed because of it, it has an aura of being a kind of an icon… of the future being successful.”
“How many people get a chance to see something like this? And now I get a chance to offer it to millions of people who live within an hour-and-a-half of it. I retired last June and this opportunity came up in July. It was like someone said, ‘Eric, we’re going to take everything you’ve done in your life, and give you a job for the rest of your life.’ This is where I started. Now I can finish it.”