by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
It was announced in the April 11, 1919, Winnipeg Tribune that Fred Hilson, a local auctioneer who operated out of a building at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Hargrave Street, had purchased the SS Keenora from the Lake Winnipeg Navigation Co. and leased the former Hyland Park. The deal was said to have been worth $100,000.
The park was a popular picnic and dancing destination named after John H. Hyland and located 2.5 kilometres north of today’s Perimeter Highway, between the Red River and Henderson Highway in East St. Paul. The picnic spot, owned by the Hyland Navigation and Trading Company, had been renamed Keenora Park when the vessel arrived on the scene in 1917 and began daily trips on the river. Before the changeover, the Hyland-owned company had been making regular excursions to the park using the steamers Winnitoba and Bonitoba.
According to the newspaper, Hilson intended to use the Keenora for daily excursions to the park, which is today’s Hyland Provincial Park. The trips were scheduled to originated at a new dock at the foot of Burrows Avenue in Winnipeg, but the vessel actually left from the Lusted Street Wharf, the same location used a year earlier by the Lake Winnipeg Navigation Co. At the time, Lusted ran right to the west bank of the Red River.
In addition, Hilson spent $10,000 to build a dance pavilion and grill room at the park.
A Tribune article on June 25, 1921, described travelling aboard the Keenora to Keenora Park, onward to “the impressive” St. Andrew’s Locks, “or further down the river to the mouth (of the Red) at Lake Winnipeg.”
“Not only is Keenora Park popular for dancing,” the newspaper reported, “with its mammoth pavilion (no longer exists) and its excellent orchestra, but there is the magnificent pleasure park where special facilities are provided for church outings, business firms’ annual picnics, swimming galas, motor boat regattas, fraternity and other excursions, either by road or river ...
“The SS Keenora is patronized by Winnipeg’s most select classes. Hundreds take this delightful trip, many of them three nights a week, thus showing how popular the resort has become ...
“Every alternate Sunday the SS Keenora goes down the river to the mouth of the river at Lake Winnipeg ... At the lake there are three miles of sandy beach, safe for the smallest tots, who can paddle out as far as the eye can see.”
The Sunday trips to the mouth of the Red and the nearby beach were heavily advertised, with special emphasis on attracting “girls, wives and young wives.” Each lady excursionist received a free bathing cap upon boarding the Keenora, according to an August 3, 1919, ad in the Manitoba Free Press.
The ad also mentioned that the trip on the previous Sunday “was patronized by some of Winnipeg’s finest feminine beauties.”
Fares to the lake were $1.50 each, to the locks 75-cents and to Selkirk $1, with children paying half the adult price to each location. At 75-cents, the “special luncheon” was said not to be beaten anywhere in Canada.
Round trip fares aboard the Keenora to Keenora Park in 1919, including dancing in the grand pavilion, accompanied by a full orchestra, were advertised at 60-cents per person. Many of the excursions to the park were undertaken by church, sports, veterans and fraternal organizations, as well as social and workplace clubs.
Even during the height of the May-June 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, daily trips were still being advertised to the locks and every Sunday to the mouth of the Red.
But the days of the Keenora as simply a pleasure boat on the Red were coming to an end. Hilson found that such trips were becoming uneconomical, so he sold the ship to the Northern Fish Company of Selkirk in 1923, and the Keenora began its new career as a passenger and cargo vessel on Lake Winnipeg. The fish company also owned the Wolverine, which was being pushed beyond its capabilities when carrying passengers in addition to fish and other freight on the lake. With the purchase of the Keenora, the company was reorganized as the Selkirk Navigation Company.
The new company built cabins for 100 passengers, added observation lounges fore and aft, with a dining salon on the promenade deck and kitchen, as well cold storage and crew quarters on the main deck aft of the engine rooms (The Keenora has Really got Around, by Capt. Ed Nelson, Free Press, August 11, 1962).
A May 29, 1923, Tribune article noted that the Keenora had passed through the St. Andrew’s Locks and sailed to its new base at Selkirk.
By June, advertisements began to appear in newspapers announcing that the Keenora, “remodelled for lake passenger travel,” would be sailing to Gull Harbour (on Hecla Island), Berens River, Grand Rapids, and Warren’s Landing, with an “extension trip to Norway House,” in July and August. A return fare, including a berth and meals, was $35.
The vessel was unable to dock at Norway House. “It sailed from Selkirk only to Warren’s Landing, because it couldn’t enter the channel to Norway House,” Clifford Stevens, a former first mate aboard the Keenora, told the Real Estate News.
Instead, passengers and freight were transferred to a swallow-draft steamer (freight was also placed on barges that were towed by the steamer) for the journey across Little Playgreen Lake to Norway House, which is at the east channel of the Nelson River, 30 kilometres north of Lake Winnipeg and 460 kilometres north of Winnipeg. One steamer that was later used to carry passengers and freight on this journey to Norway House was the Chickama II, built in 1942 by the Purvis Company of Selkirk. The vessel is now on display at the Marine Museum of Manitoba in Selkirk, along with the SS Keenora.
According to a May 5, 1923, Free Press article, a plan was in place for Norway House to become a resort community. That year, an inn to accommodate vacationers had been opened by a Mr. Kemp, “well-known as a Winnipeg boarding-house proprietor.” Until the construction of the Playgreen Inn, excursionists had been “unable to stay over (at Norway House), as they could not get bed and board except on the boat and was thus obliged to make the going and returning trip a continuous journey ... it is anticipated that the opening of the new inn and the enlargement of the passenger facilities of the Lake Winnipeg fleet by the addition of the Keenora will make one of Manitoba’s most historic localities a popular resort for a long or short holiday during the present summer.”
Norway House had a long history as hub of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur trade. It was an important stopover on the HBC’s inland route between York Factory and the Red River Settlement (Winnipeg).
Warren’s Landing was named after John Warren, a clerk with the Hudson's Bay Company, who came out with the second Selkirk Settlers in 1812. Warren died of wounds he received in a skirmish at Red River in 1815, and was given a military funeral.
To counter the claims that the Keenora was too top-heavy for the choppy waters of Lake Winnipeg, several tonnes of rock and pig-iron were added as ballast, Capt. Ed Nelson wrote in a special feature on the Keenora in the Saturday section of the Free Press ((August 11, 1962). Nelson said the pig-iron was placed in the stern to avoid any doubt about its magnetic qualities affecting the ship’s compass.
The vessel’s first captain to command the Lake Winnipeg run to Warren’s Landing, Alexander “Sandy” Vance, was among the skeptics. Unconvinced that the vessel was safe, Vance resigned his commission after completing only one season in charge of the Keenora. He was eventually replaced by Nelson, who vowed “to prove once and for all the abilities of the Keenora in heavy weather.”
Nelson succeeded in banishing all doubts, and found the Keenora to be every bit as seaworthy as the Wolverine.
(Next week: part 3)