by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
T.C.B. Boon wrote about a trip he took aboard the SS Keenora in the first year of its operation on Lake Winnipeg (Winnipeg Free Press, May 23, 1966). His account vividly describes the importance of boat traffic to Selkirk and the communities along Lake Winnipeg, as well as the trials of the passage aboard the vessel.
“The dock at Selkirk on the first Monday morning in August, 1923, was a busy place. The Keenora was berthed closest to the old ferry, a little behind her was the Wolverine and further along the Grand Rapids; the Lady of the Lake was moored out in the stream. Smaller boats crowded in everywhere, and the dock itself teemed with loaded horse-drawn drays and men with push-carts ...
“I had been lured into the trip around the lake by the eloquence of W.J. Guest, a partner in the company owning the Keenora, who assured me that he had just come back from making it himself, that the water was lovely, just like a mill-pond. If anybody told me that now (40 years later), I should smile and remark that I thought him lucky.”
Once on the lake, the Keenora steamed through the Narrows towards Black Bear Island, (the island’s former lighthouse is now at the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk). Captain Sandy Vance sailed the ship into shelter at Snake Island (the local name for Matheson Island), where he “held us for 24 hours as adverse weather was approaching,” wrote Boon.
“We pulled out the next morning but the wind freshened, and we rolled more heavily; once I got bumped by someone on the foredeck and rolled into the scuppers to prevent myself taking a header into the water, which seemed the only place to go. Finally we changed course and Captain Vance anchored us in a cove on the sheltered side of Swamp Island (today’s Berens Island), opposite Cox’s Reef, and there we stayed for another 24 hours and watched the lighthouse swing from side to side of us, though this was a delusion really, for we were doing the swaying.”
Capt. Ed Nelson, in a July 14, 1962, Free Press article, described the channel to Berens River as being the most scenic on the lake. The Keenora had to wind its way through nearly nine kilometres of rocky islands.
The next morning the Wolverine was sighted steaming past on its way back from the north to Selkirk. Boon said this “caused some interest, but then the weather meant nothing to
the toll-worn ship or her captain, Ed Nelson.”
The overcaution of Capt. Vance reflected his lack of faith in the stability of the Keenora in heavy seas. Boon noted that “people doubted the seaworthiness of the Keenora, and thought of her rather a tubby kind of boat.”
But over the years, he changed his opinion. “She had her adventures at sea but, as Captain (John C.) Hokanson once told me, she could take everything the lake could give her, and he sailed her for 25 years. From my own experience of her in 1923, and later, I am in agreement with him.”
At noon, the Keenora sailed into Berens River, where the ship was again moored until dusk due to the weather. The next stop was Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River and after that stopover, the vessel headed east and then pulled into Warren’s Landing. From the landing, passengers and freight were transported aboard a shallow-draft steamer as the deeper-draft Keenora could not enter the channel to Norway House.
“How I survived the slow trip in the over-crowded tug to Norway House I shall never know, but I attribute my success to the generous hospitality of the Kemps at the Playgreen Inn.”
Boon said the trip back to Selkirk was made without incident.
After an eleven year absence, the Keenora returned to Winnipeg in 1934. A new dock, warehouse and offices were built on the west side of the Red River just north of the Redwood Bridge in front of Drewry’s’ brewery. A new roadway from Redwood Avenue led to the dock. While these facilities were under construction, the Keenora underwent “her annual spring repairs in Selkirk” (Tribune, May 9, 1934).
A front page photo in the May 24, 1934, Tribune shows the Keenora moored in Winnipeg for the first time since 1923. “She will run on a regular schedule from Winnipeg to Norway House,” noted the caption under the photo. It was also mentioned that the vessel had accommodations for 80 passengers.
“The docking of the Keenora, the largest craft plying Lake Winnipeg, ended a long period of inactivity along the Red River,” reported the May 23, 1934, Free Press.
The newspaper explained that the ship was relocated because sailing from Selkirk was “inconvenient for most Winnipeggers.”
“Passenger traffic is expected to increase materially now that the ship will sail almost from the doorsteps of the city.
In 1935, the Keenora ran aground, as a result of high waves driven by a strong north-west breeze, on a sandbar not far from Hnausa Reef, which is a shoal south of Hecla Island, between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. on August 27. The next day, the Tribune reported the ship was on its regular trip to Norway House. Captain Hokanson ordered the 40 passengers aboard out of their cabins. “One lifeboat was launched and the others were made ready for the
water in case it became necessary.”
Capt. H. Stevens of the J.H. Montgomery saw the distress signals sent
up from the Keenora and went to its rescue.
“All passengers were on deck when the Montgomery arrived. The rescue boat came as close as possible and had made several tries before getting a tow line to the Keenora. Even then it broke several times before she could be hauled to deeper water. She was able to continue on her trip to the north end of lake. Capt. Stevens pulled into Gull Harbour.”
It can’t be over emphasized how important the Keenora and other vessels were for remote northern communities along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
In an interview with the Real Estate News, Clifford Stevens said that he had counted 85 boats passing the Keenora during one season on the lake. “Each night we passed two or three boats,” added the former first mate of the Keenora.
“They were the golden years of steamboat travel on the lake.”
For otherwise isolated remote communities, the Keenora and other vessels were their lifeline to the outside world. A May 26, 1952, Free Press article by Beth Paterson described the diversity of cargo aboard the Keenora and what each community received, when it made its first trip north that sailing season. When the ship steamed northward under the command of Capt. Hokanson, its passage had been difficult by ice fields along half its route that had to be broken through. As the ship plowed through sometimes metre-thick patches of ice, below and above its decks were 180-tons of cargo, 25 crew members and 32 passengers.
(Next week: part 4)