Kingston’s Marine Museum of the Great Lakes is charting a new course for the future with an ambitious fundraising campaign and a Titanic-era steamship in its sights.
Chris West, chair of the museum’s board of directors, revealed to Global News for the first time that the museum is in “very close talks” to acquire the more than century-old SS Keewatin, an Edwardian passenger steamship, to become its flagship exhibit.
“It will be a major attraction for Kingston.”
“It’s the last passenger steamship from the Edwardian era. That’s the Titanic era. The last one in the world —there is none other from that period.”
West didn’t disclose a potential price to acquire the 1907-built ship, which is currently docked as a tourist attraction in Port McNicholl in Georgian Bay, but says the museum is working on a donation agreement with the owner.
Part of that involves making an application to Heritage Canada to get the ship designated as Canadian cultural property, which has implications for tax write-off purposes, West explains.
“This ship is in marvellous condition. It’s unfortunate that there’s not a possibility to keep it where it is. But Kingston will be very excited when they learn more about this ship.”
The historical landmark ship, according to the Friends of Keewatin website, was one of six passenger ships that Canadian Pacific Railways sailed on the upper Great Lakes.
The ships ferried passengers and settlers out west and were responsible for the economic growth of Alberta and Saskatchewan, which joined Confederation in 1905.
The marine museum has been looking for a centrepiece artifact ever since it was forced to give up the Alexander Henry, a retired coast guard icebreaker, and was evicted from its long-time home at 55 Ontario St. in 2016 for a private redevelopment plan that never materialized.
But the museum was able to purchase its former home in 2019 and is making plans to move back in as soon as funding, repairs, and COVID-19 conditions allow.
West says the museum knew the heritage buildings were in poor shape as they had sat vacant with no heating or electrical service in recent years.
“It’s a bit of a hill to climb but we are well on our way.”
The museum has launched a $500,000 capital fundraising campaign to restore the buildings.
“We urgently need the $500,000 to turn on the lights, AC and heat, and deal with all the fire and safety and accessibility issues. We really need to get operational next year.”
In addition to its plans to move back into the downtown waterfront site next year, the museum has just produced a five-year strategic plan, “Steering into the Future,” that lays out a bold vision to create a maritime cultural hub attraction.
“Now we have an opportunity to start with a blank slate and build on what we had before but make it much more relevant to a 21st-century audience,” West explained.
He says that plan includes expanding the museum’s footprint from 15,000 square feet to 30,000 square feet, building a new visitor welcoming centre fronting onto Ontario Street, restoring the heritage building components on the lakeside of the property, connecting to the downtown waterfront trail system, launching shipwreck tours, and bringing in ships such as the 42-foot racing yacht, Red Jacket.
“The Red Jacket is going to be an active part of our fleet, doing everything from sunset tours to executive training.”
The vision does not include a fundraising goal, but it does list anticipated timelines for expansion between 2020 and 2025.
In addition to expanded on-shore attractions, West says the museum is keen to get its hands on the SS Keewatin and place it in the historic dry dock where it would become a permanent fixture for public tours and possibly other onboard events, but not a bed and breakfast.
“The staterooms are marvellous. They’re in show condition, (along with) the dining, the ballroom, the barbershop. The engine room is like something out of the Titanic movie.”