Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sailng into the sunset

The 350-foot long Great Lakes steamship dominates the harbor in Saugatuck-Douglas. Once you enter Kalamazoo Lake, you can't help but see the vessel that's longer than a football field. Even from atop Mount Baldhead, the green-and-white-hull of Keewatin with the yellow smokestack stands out against the blue water.

The Keewatin
I bet it's one of the most photographed attractions in town.

Look a little closer, though, and the 104-year-old ship with wooden decks and a grand dining room is showing its age. The carpet is a little thin. The 10 metal lifeboats — already removed for restoration in Canada — were rusted through with gaping holes.

On the move

Owner R.J. Peterson and his son, Matt, sat in the aft section of the vessel Monday morning for a press conference announcing the next stage of the ship's life. The room was once open and it was used for dancing — an out-of-tune piano sits in the corner — but it's now enclosed and showing its age.  A heavy rain had just fallen and several buckets dotted the room, keeping water from pooling on the wooden floor. The upper deck has leaks.

A telling scene about the realities of maintaining a piece of history that once carried almost 300 passengers and 86 officers and crew.

The elder Peterson purchased the ship from the Canadian Pacific Railway after the vessel, built in 1907 in Scotland, was retired in 1965. They had the ship brought to the area in 1967.

Peterson and his wife, Diane, have a passion for preserving maritime history.

“It’s always been my idea to preserve things, but I ain’t getting any younger," said Peterson, 85, who owns Tower Marine, the area's largest marina.

Matt openly admits he doesn't have the same spark his parents do.

"I don't have that passion," he said.

The ship gets about 10,000 visitors a year. A lot, but not enough to cover renovation costs.

So finding a new home for the Keewatin seemed the right thing to do, they said.

"It's been in the works and always was an option for R.J." said Eric Conroy, executive director of the new  R.J. and Diane Peterson Great Lakes and S.S. Keewatin Foundation.

Peterson is donating the ship to the foundation that will then take the Keewatin to Port McNicoll in Ontario. The ship made port there when it was in operation. The Keewatin never came to Saugatuck-Douglas when it was part of the Canadian Pacific Railway.


The investors plan to dredge Kalamazoo Lake to get the ship out. Total cost of the move, including the dredging, is about $1 million.

The dredging will be no easy task. The ship can be lightened to draw about 12 feet (how much of the hull is below the waterline), but the lake is only 2 feet deep in spots. The lake is part of an EPA Superfund site, contaminated by chemicals from upstream paper companies, so the spoils (material pulled off the bottom) can't just be put anywhere.

The Petersons are proposing pumping the spoils through a 16-inch pipe to a Saugatuck Township park. The township board has not yet discussed this at a public meeting and the Petersons expect there to be some resistance to this idea from some residents.

All this will require permits. Peterson estimates organizers will need to deal with eight to 10 agencies, including the department of natural resources, Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard to dredge the harbor.

Peterson said the ship can be moved out in the spring.

A representative of one of the agencies that would be involved with the dredging isn't so sanguine. He estimated it could be at least 2 years.

1 comment:

  1. I hope that this grand lady is restored to her glory! Ships of this quality aren't made anymore.