by Bruce Cherney (part 5 of 5)
The Keenora was among three boats stymied by a snow slush at the mouth of the Red River in the fall of 1952. The other vessels were the Chickama also owned by the Selkirk Navigation Company with its crew of four and the Booth Fisheries freighter Red Diamond with a crew of eight.
The slush was blown in from the lake into the main channel of the Red by a strong north wind.
“A heavy snow fall laid a film of slush on the surface of the lake. When it piled up in the channels of the south end it was five feet deep,” reported the Winnipeg Free Press on November 5, 1959
“The boats were reported to have attempted to penetrate it. The slush clogged the water intakes and the cooling systems on the engines ceased to function.”
The next day, the same newspaper reported sailors said the slush filled the channel from bottom to top and went out for a distance of two miles into the lake.
In the article by Ted Byfield, the slush was quoted as being 12 feet deep from bottom to the top of the channel and had the consistency of concrete.
The Keenora attempted to cut a channel while the two other boats waited on the lake in open water. Repeatedly the vessel backed up and plunged into the slush, “each time penetrating it a little further. But each time also, the water intakes plugged; the engines began overheating and the vessel backed out” into the lake.
A radio call went out to Selkirk for help and to the rescue came the federal public works department steamer Bradbury. Or had it? The government steel-hulled vessel arrived on the scene on November 4, but while pushing into the slush from the south, it immediately became mired.
“The trouble was that there was absolutely no water in the channel at all,” Kris Thorsteinson, the skipper of the Bradbury, told Byfield. “We had plenty of power to push the slush out of the way, but there was no place to push it.”
Following another attempt, the Bradbury plowed through the slush and cleared a path about half a mile out into the lake.
“But the Bradbury was less than 200 yards from the point where the other three vessels quit when the slush packed in so tightly around the bow that the vessel couldn’t back up,” wrote Byfield.
“For one hour, the 500-horsepower engines churned through the slush in reverse to try drag the bow free. By this time, Capt. Thorsteinson had sent a distress signal to Selkirk and the government tug Spoonbill was making its way down the river to the Bradbury’s channel to help haul the big boat free.”
Capt. Thorsteinson had one trick left and ordered the Bradbury’s rear and ballast tanks to be filled with water, reported Byfield, so that the back end of the vessel settled and the front end rose above the slush. Throwing the engines in reverse, he backed the vessel out. With this, the steamer was able to turn around and it sailed to Selkirk to moor for the winter.
On the other hand, the three other vessels, including the Keenora, were defeated by the slush and were forced to turn back northward and overwinter in Gimli. It was the first time that this had happened since the Keenora had been sailing the lake. It was only during the summer tourist season that the Keenora regularly visited Gimli.
In 1959, the Keenora’s steam engines were replaced with diesels which provided added power and speed. After the new engines were installed, the vessel was given the designation MS (motor ship) Keenora.
A year later, the Keenora’s departure for northern communities was delayed for nearly two months due to the government’s drydock being out of service. Under difficult circumstances, repairs to the vessel were finished in mid-July — half the shipping season was already over — and the Keenora again sailed on Lake Winnipeg.
While the Keenora was laid up, the Selkirk Navigation Company was forced to leased five fish-packing vessels — the J.R. Spear, Suzanne E, Red Diamond, Goldfield and Icelander — to get supplies out to settlements along the lake. So many vessels were necessary because the largest could hold only 50 tons of freight, whereas the Keenora could haul 200 tons per trip.
In the spring of1965, Winnipeg businessman Arthur J. Tooley bought the vessel under the auspicies of Marine Transportation Ltd. Although under new ownership, the company officials retained the name Selkirk Navigation Company Ltd.
By this time, its years of plying Lake Winnipeg was taking a toll on the Keenora. Yet, there was still a thrill of adventure associated with the vessel as it continued to travel its route to communities along the shores of Lake Winnipeg.
The peak passenger season for the Keenora was July and August, when “about 75 per cent are Americans seeking the excitement of the Canadian wilderness” (Free Press, June 8, 1959).
Members of the Steamship Historical Society of America wanted to partake of the wilderness experience and so they took a five-day-long excursion aboard the Keenora in the summer of 1965.
“It’s unique, it’s a piece of the past,” James T. Wilson, a resident of Staten Island, New York, told Edith Paterson in an article she wrote for the Free Press on July 21 of that year.
“The Keenora is well known in our society,” said Wilson. “It was a very pleasant trip, perhaps a bit rough at times, but then, Lake Winnipeg is shallow. And the boat stops frequently so no one would be seasick all the time.”
Despite the sense of adventure it instilled, the Keenora’s days of carrying passengers were numbered.
In 1966, the federal department of transportation refused to licence the Keenora for passenger excursions unless some $175,000 in repairs were made. It was a cost the owners were not prepared to bear.
“With her withdrawal,” according to a May 7, 1966, editorial in the Free Press, “Manitoba loses one of its prime tourist attractions. Every year people — many of them Americans — come here especially to make the trip up Lake Winnipeg and back again.”
The editorial claimed there was no shortage of passenger interest that year in the Keenora, as bookings were actually “higher than ever,” but that had not convinced the company to make the necessary repairs to maintain the vessel’s passenger licence.
It was because of the demise of Keenora that pressure mounted to build a replacement excursion vessel — the MS Lord Selkirk II.
For the remainder of the 1966 season, the Keenora continued to carry freight to remote communities, but at the end of the navigation season, the vessel was put to rest in the Selkirk Slough with no prospect that it would ever again sail on the Red River or Lake Winnipeg.
The Keenora remained abandoned in the slough for years until a group of Selkirk residents took up its cause. They formed the Save the Keenora Committee in 1972 and raised $10,000 to purchase the vessel from Marine Transportation Ltd.
At a Selkirk council meeting, a resolution was passed allocating an area in the south end of Selkirk Park for the vessel, which became the home base for the Manitoba Marine Museum, the first of its kind in Western Canada. The Keenora was placed on its permanent foundation on July 20, 1973, and it became the first static display at the museum. Restoration work of the Keenora was then begun, which became a multi-year process. The museum officially opened to the public in 1974.
Besides the Keenora, vessels on display include the Bradbury, the Chickama II, the Peguis II, the Lady Canadian, and the Joe Simpson.
The museum is a fitting resting place for a vessel with such a long history, having been built in 1897 for travel on Lake of the Woods, and later became an excursion boat on the Red River and then a major passenger and freight carrier on Lake Winnipeg.