How the CPR Actually Acquired the S.S. Keewatin and the S.S. Assiniboia

Preamble: This information was obtained from an interview with Mr. James  D.H. McCannell  of Port McNicoll in June, 2015 by Carrie O’Brien (Tay Township Heritage and Planning Summer Student)

James McCannell

James McCannell

James D.H. McCannell  was born in March, 1916 in an upstairs room of his family home on Algoma Ave., Port McNicoll. In the summer of 2015, at the spry age of ninety – nine he still resides in this beautiful home. As a long-term resident of Port McNicoll and the son of a Captain, he is very knowledgeable on matters of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR)’s activity in Port McNicoll and especially that of its ships.

In the summer of 1931, Mr. McCannell started working as a bell hop on the CPR ship Manitoba, one of two that sailed from Montreal down the St. Lawrence River. During the remainder of his time in High School, he spent summers working on tour ships.

He describes this experience as an exciting time in the midst of the depression, and says that he was lucky to have a job when many people were unemployed. After high school he worked on a few different deep-sea ‘salties’ in various capacities until 1936 when he ended up in London, Ontario – where he first experienced the University of Western Ontario.

On a beautiful snowy evening he hired a taxi to take him to the University, which at the time shared its grounds with the London Hunt and Country Club. He was captivated by the beautiful campus and decided then that he would eventually attend the University; a serious decision considering many members of his family were alumni of a rival school – Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario).

Before enrolling in University he gained his first experiences working in a mine; first as a helper on a rock drill at the Shawkey Mines in Val D’Or, Quebec and finally as a mine assayer until the operation closed. He enrolled in the University in 1938. He made a good first impression with a number of his professors who had at one time or another known his father. He graduated from the University of Western Ontario with Honours Degrees in Geochemistry and Geology. In his own respects, he has led an exhilarating life but he also grew up during a very exciting time in history and is part of a family that played a key role in the history of Port McNicoll.


                           Figure 2: Port McNicoll, c1950

Port McNicoll was founded in 1909 and named after a CPR Vice President. It provided the CPR with a good harbour and a location that was easily reached by train, resulting in a more direct and shorter route for shipping. The CPR’s steamship fleet originally consisted of the Alberta, the Athabasca, and the Algoma until the Algoma sunk in 1885 and was replaced by the Manitoba. In 1907 the newly acquired S.S. Keewatin and S.S. Assiniboia joined the fleet which was moved from Owen Sound to Port McNicoll in 1912.


CPR SS Keewatin, Port McNicoll ON, date unknown, cDRP W2

                              Figure 3: S.S. Keewatin in Port McNicoll, c1915

According to Mr. McCannell, the story of the acquisition of the S.S. Keewatin and the S.S. Assiniboia really begins with Russia’s Tsarist autocracy and the revolution of 1905. The Tsar commissioned two ships from Fairfield Shipbuilding and Engineering in Scotland, often known as Fairfields, a company responsible for the creation of other impressive vessels including the R.M.S. Empress of Ireland, the R.M.S. Empress of Britain, the S.S. Athenia and many other cruisers, battleships, and passenger ships. In 1905 mass political and social unrest spread throughout the Russian Empire, and led to a number of constitutional reforms. As a result, the Tsar could no longer afford to take the ships he had commissioned. Fairfields was in need of a new buyer.

In an attempt to sell the ships they contacted the CPR who had already purchased the Alberta, the Athabasca, and the Algoma from another Scottish shipbuilding company in 1883. These three ships also have a unique history. In 1883, they travelled across the Atlantic from Scotland to Canada without issue. Once in Montreal the three ships were cut in half  at the Cantin shipyards to ensure they could fit through the St. Lawrence and Welland Canals and were reassembled when they reached Buffalo.

Mr. Duff of the CPR was contacted by Fairfields about the Russian-ordered ships. While he knew they were too long for transport he also knew that they could potentially be cut in half just as the previous ships were. Canadian Pacific Rail decided to purchase the ships.




Figures 4 and 5: Assiniboia at Davey Shipyard, Lauzon (Lévis) Quebec, 1907

While the ships were completely finished and ready for use when they left Scotland, there was a four month delay once they arrived in Lauzon (now Lévis) where they were cut in half and prepped for their journey. After reassembly at the Buffalo Dry Dock Company in the summer of 1907, they reached the Colchester Channel in western Lake Erie in December.


This area presented a notoriously cold, shallow, and dangerous passage. To help ships navigate, markers were placed in the water during shipping season. However, in  the winter the markers were removed because they were generally shifted by ice and therefore rendered ineffective. This posed a serious problem; whoever was chosen to navigate these ships was going to have to do it without the help of the markers.

      Figure 6: Western Lake Erie

Ed Anderson, Captain of the Manitoba, was not confident in his ability to successfully make the trip. However, he knew of another individual, Mr. James McCannell (Sr)., who was very knowledgeable in the navigation of the Channel. This is how Mr. McCannell became responsible for bringing the S.S. Keewatin and S.S. Assiniboia to their home port (at that time) in Owen Sound.


Figure 7: Assiniboia at Owen Sound, c 1910

img455 assiniboiaMr. James McCannell  was of Scottish descent  from Collingwood. In search of work at the age of seventeen, he snuck onto an American ship docked in Collingwood. The Captain of this ship was his older brother, John McCannell. The ship was carrying a large shipment of coffins, one of which James used as his hiding place. When he was discovered by a watchman his brother put him to work rather than return him to Collingwood. He continued to work on American ships until 1907 when, in return for navigating the safe passage of the ships, Ed Anderson promised him the first Captain’s position that opened up in the CPR’s fleet. For the time being Ed offered him a First Officer’s position on the Alberta which he accepted at the insistence of his wife.


                                                                                                                                                              Figure 8: Assiniboia at Dock, c1960



He was eventually named Captain of the  Assiniboia in 1913, a position he retained for some twenty – five years. And due to the fact that the S.S. Assiniboia was the flagship of the fleet, he was also given the title ‘Commodore of the Fleet’.

Interestingly enough, the pilot’s deck on the two ships was not originally enclosed; a closed in pilot’s deck was a detail that would not have been needed for the warmer climate of the Black Sea and Mediterranean for which the ships were originally designed. Both Captain McPhee (of the S.S. Keewatin) and Captain McCannell (of the S.S. Assiniboia) suffered through terribly cold winters during their careers aboard these ships. However, the two friends were too competitive and stubborn to let the other know that they wished their pilot’s deck enclosed. J.D.H. McCannell recalls a picture of his father piloting the S.S. Assiniboia in the winter, knee-deep in snow. The decks were eventually enclosed, not surprisingly only after these two men had retired. This in conjunction with the fact that the ships were single – hulled, demonstrates that they were not commissioned in consideration of the cold Canadian climate of the Great Lakes.

In any case they serviced the CPR’s passenger and freight business  for some sixty years. However, improved highway and airline systems ended passenger service in 1965 and freight service in 1967. The Assiniboia burned in 1969 but the Keewatin lives on as a floating marine museum in its home port of Port McNicoll. The Manitoba, the last of the other CP freighters, was withdrawn from service in 1950.


Tay Heritage Committee  Interview with James D.H. McCannell

International Marine Engineering, February 1908,

 James P. Barry, Georgian Interview Bay, An illustrated History, Boston Mills Press, 1992

Maritime History of the Great Lakes:

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