Paul Wilson: The big boat Ernie built for Hamilton docks by a casino now

Ernie Kablau promised Hamilton a big ship for cruises from the waterfront. He delivered, but was ahead of his time. Decades later, his Macassa Bay has found new life in the shadow of a riverfront casino.
There's no floating casino here, but Hamilton's Macassa Bay cruise ship has found safe berth next door to Windsor's casino. (Windsor River Cruises)

An entrepreneur named Don Maga surfaced this week to say he wants to put a floating casino in Hamilton Harbour. If you’re betting on playing blackjack there anytime soon, gambling’s not your strong suit.

Maga wants to tow the big old Captain John’s restaurant from the Toronto waterfront, where the ship has been sitting empty since the city shut it down last summer. Some wonder if the craft would even survive a trip to this end of the lake.

RELATED: Boat casino idea for harbour floated by Hamilton businessman

But Maga is not the first to suggest a gambling boat on our waters. Councillor Sam Merulla pushed for just that a decade ago. "The bigger the better," he said. "Really make it world-renowned."

Nothing came of it. Dreams about boats are usually big, and they usually sink.

The Captain John, now crippled on the Toronto waterfront, is surely a longshot as a floating casino on Hamilton's shores. (Wikimedia Commons)

But yesterday a woman came to Hamilton to learn more about her father, a boat builder, a man who did exactly what he promised.

Friday the 13th

His name was Ernie Kablau. On a Friday, the 13th day of December, 1985, Kablau led a parade down little Hillyard Street in the factory zone. He was in his jeep, munching on a long piece of salami.

And there, looming over him, the $1-million Macassa Bay, a 200-passenger steel vessel he had built in his ship repair yard.

Kablau was from Germany, but he loved this city, loved the water. He wanted others to discover it too.

He figured his timing was right. The city said it was building a new waterfront, clearing away the No Trespassing signs that had been in place for generations.

But then the city dragged its feet. Kablau’s cruise boat was out there all by itself beside a contaminated field of scrub, where the kids’ playground at Pier 4 is today.

Ernie Kablau aboard a tug in the 1970s. (Kablau family)

Not enough passengers

Kablau was never able to make it go. On some two-hour trips, he would head off into the harbour with two passengers.

Meanwhile he was paying a captain, engineer, first mate, deck hand and bartender and pumping fuel into the big GM diesels.

Eventually he lost the boat. It ended up in the hands of Hamilton’s long-running tug company, McKeil Marine.

Blair McKeil knew he was getting a very good boat. "Ernie spared no expense," he said then. "The Macassa Bay is a product of his experience and strong German engineering. He built the Mercedes-Benz of boats."

McKeil used it for a couple of years to ferry workers back and forth off the coast of Newfoundland, part of the Hibernia oil project.

Fortune gone

Meanwhile, the recession had ravaged Kablau’s business. He had to liquidate. He had lost his fortune.

In 1994 he and his wife sold the beautiful home he had designed on Old Ancaster Road and moved a long way from the water, to Calgary. It was to be with his daughter Petra and her family.

And yesterday she arrived in the Local History department of Central library. Spectator clippings about her father cover the big oak table.

Petra, mother of four grown children, turns 60 in weeks. She was busy raising kids when her father was building and operating the Macassa Bay.

She is a private person – "No picture, please." But she wants to understand the story.

Ernie Kablau's daughter came to the Hamilton library yesterday to learn more about the boat he built. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Her father’s years in Calgary were good. "In his condo, there was a drafting board and there were always, always blueprints," Petra says. "He never thought it was over."

He died nearly 15 years ago, age 78, just a month after a diagnosis of cancer. Petra and her family ended up in Toronto not long after that.

She tracked the boat down

She wondered about the boat. About five years ago, she learned it was in Sarnia. She e-mailed the owner, told him her father had built the Macassa Bay, but took it no further.

Hamilton doesn’t have a floating casino. But there is now a boat made in Hamilton moored right in the very shadow of a casino. The Macassa Bay operates from right in front of Caesars in Windsor.

It arrived there a couple of years ago, purchased by an outfit called Windsor River Cruises. "Hamilton" is still painted on the stern.

Petra would now love to see her father’s name somewhere on that boat. "Even if it’s in the boiler room," she says. "He probably wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. I would like to see a plaque."

It will be hard, Petra says, but this summer she might make a pilgrimage with her kids to the Macassa Bay. "Maybe, maybe, we’ll go and see it. We’ll put a hand on the rail, feel the energy and say, ‘Hi, dad.’ That would be good enough."

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.