By Alex Binkley

Evans McKeil saw an opportunity while working on the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. Sixty years later the company he founded is still known for making the most of its opportunities.

McKeil was hired in Cornwall in the spring of 1955 as a labourer on a dredging platform that was creating a shipping channel in the St. Lawrence River. As he toiled away, he realized there was a need for more boats to transport workers to jobsites on the river.

In a 1995 interview, Evans recalled his switch from labourer to boat builder. “I rented a barn in Ancaster (near Hamilton) and built a 35-foot long (10.5 metre) workboat. It was a combination tugboat and crew boat—the MicMac.”

Evans had moved to Ontario from Pugwash, N.S. in 1949 to find work in the booming Ontario economy. With the assistance of his father William, he constructed the boat powered with a Chevrolet engine and launched it at the Hamilton Harbour Commission docks in 1956. He sailed it to Valleyfield and for three years, transported crews and supplies to the dredges building the Seaway from the start of navigation in the spring through to freeze up in late fall. The business ended when the Seaway construction was complete, but Evans was just getting started. He settled in Hamilton and formed McKeil Marine. By the late 1950s, he had assembled a fleet of 10 tugs, workboats and barges working throughout the Seaway and the Great Lakes.

In 1992, Evans passed the helm to his son Blair who became the President of one of the largest tug and barge operator on the Great Lakes. Still based in the port of Hamilton, McKeil then employed 100 seasonal workers and operated 30 tugs and 45 barges. Now it has a workforce of 300 and operates a fleet of two dozen workboats and tugs including single screw, twin screw and Z-drive, 31 barges including flat deck, jack up and sectional units and the newest addition to the fleet, Evans Spirit. They operate throughout the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River, East Coast and Canadian Arctic.

In addition to its headquarters in Hamilton, McKeil has regional offices in Montreal, Rothesay, N.B. and St. John’s.

Blair is now Chairman and CEO, and Steve Fletcher is President. Blair credits the company’s supportive employees for its ongoing success over the years. “We’re in the same boat together and we’re going in the same direction.”

At the company’s 60th anniversary crew celebration, Blair spoke with tremendous pride, acknowledging the contribution that the employees have made to McKeil’s success and legacy. “Certainly, for me, this anniversary holds a profoundly personal meaning. The best part is knowing that my parents, Evans and Florence, would be proud that the company they started with little more than hard work, a dream and a wooden boat, is not only still operating six decades later, but is also making a difference to the lives of its crews, their families and the communities in which we live and work.”

While the company has Guiding Principles that define it, “I like to think it can be distilled into a deeper and simpler message; we care and we share. From our cooks to our captains, our cleaning staff to our President, we are McKeil. We are here to take care of one another, through both calm and stormy waters. “Safety is our first priority. We continually strive to find better ways to create new opportunities and ensure our customers success. It’s this culture that anchors our sustainability and drives our growth,” he said. McKeil’s customers talk about the company in terms such as willing, innovative, customer-centric, entrepreneurial, solution-providers, problem solvers, giving, and caring, he said. “This feedback is both gratifying and humbling.”

Over the years, the company has also expanded into ocean towage, marine salvage, complex marine construction projects, and embraced the opportunities of the marine highway with new vessels capable of transporting liquid, bulk and break-bulk cargos.

The Highway H2O program has reinforced what McKeil and other Great Lakes operators have said for years about the untapped potential of shipping by water. McKeil’s integrated tug barge units and vessels can carry from 8,000 and up to 15,000 tonnes in one trip, and their shallow-draft design allows them to access smaller ports efficiently.  McKeil has created a niche in shortsea shipping, strategically working with customers to develop customized supply chain logistics, with efficiencies in cargo loading and handling and flexible load volumes that help support inventory management. Some of the products it is moving today include steel coils, slabs, aluminium sows and ingots, aggregates and grain as well as project cargo.

When contracted for regularly-scheduled shipments by barge of steel slabs between Hamilton and Cleveland, McKeil ensured efficient loading and discharge of the slabs by working with the customer in Cleveland to set up a dock logistics system that minimized the time in port. This kept the barges on time and the company’s steel inventory well managed.

This past April, it unveiled in Sept-Îles on Evans Spirit, the company’s shallow-draft freighter, two custom-designed automated cranes to load and discharge cargo—the very first of their kind. “This technology will result in greater efficiencies enabling us to provide enhanced service to Aluminerie Alouette,” the company says. It also designed a 150-foot self-unloading conveyor boom for unloading of bulk commodities and installed it on the Huron Spirit barge.

Working with RER Hydro, McKeil tugs and barges enabled the installation of a prototype hydrokinetic turbine power plant in the Saint Lawrence River. The turbine measured approximately 5m x 4.5m x 7m and weighed more than 120 tonnes. The feat was providing a stable work platform for a crane to place the turbine on the riverbed in a seven knot current.

In Deception Bay in the Arctic, McKeil designed and installed a temporary dock for Canadian Royalties Inc. by using its barge Arctic 400 anchored in the bay and connected to the rugged shoreline by a ramp for loading bagged nickel from the Nunavik Mine onto ships.

McKeil has also branched out into services related its transportation operations. One is project services in marine-based infrastructure, mining, oil and gas, bridge construction and repair and offshore and Arctic development. Recent projects include construction support for the Hebron Project Gravity Based Structure in Bull Arm, NL.

McKeil Marine has received ISO 9001, Lloyd’s Register ISM and Green Marine certifications. Operating successfully since 1956, McKeil is proud of its heritage and passionate about its future.