Carved by glaciers more than 12,000 years ago, four of the Great Lakes—Erie, Huron, Michigan and Superior—gave shape to Michigan’s two peninsulas, and for centuries have been sources of life and livelihood for its people. The massive, freshwater lakes, called the “sweetwater seas” by early sailors, were first used as paths of exploration, evolving into liquid roadways for the fur trade and later, commercial shipping routes. Eventually, the passenger and pleasure cruise ships plied the waters between port cities and resort towns.
Sadly, the Great Lakes can be as treacherous as they are beautiful, and the deep waters of the inland seas are the resting place of thousands of lost lives and sunken vessels.
Michigan’s maritime heritage is the fascinating focus of museums that help us to better understand and appreciate the triumph and tragedy of this aspect of the state’s rich history. To find the stories of lifesavers and lighthouse keepers, shipwrecks and sailors go to michigan.org and search maritime museums. Here’s just a sampling:
MICHIGAN MARITIME MUSEUM
Special to this museum on the Black River in South Haven are its on-water experiences. The Lindy Lou, an electric powered launch with a cheery red and white striped canopy, recalls the heyday of resort life on hour-long river cruises, and a Lake Michigan outing thrills aboard the Friends Good Will, a replica of a sloop from 1810.
A maritime heritage path featuring historical markers lines the riverside walkway between the museum and the South Haven Lighthouse and Lake Michigan shore. The museum hosts permanent and changing exhibits and waterfront festivals, and houses an extensive Great Lakes Research Library.
This summer film fans can see a Coast Guard vessel featured in Disney’s The Finest Hours starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck. michiganmaritimemuseum.org
GREAT LAKES SHIPWRECK MUSEUM
Legendary shipwrecks live on at this compound of historic maritime buildings located north of Paradise at Whitefish Point on the eastern end of Lake Superior’s Shipwreck Coast, which has swallowed at least 240 vessels.
Restored museum structures include the surfboat house for the rescue station, fog signal building, light station and lightkeepers quarters. The crews quarters welcomes overnight guests in five private rooms.
Museum exhibits pay tribute to more than 30,000 men, women and children who lost their lives in Great Lakes shipwrecks. Artifacts include the recovered bell of the legendary S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down with her crew of 29 in a violent storm on Nov. 10, 1975 just 17 miles off Whitefish Point. shipwreckmuseum.com
GREAT LAKES MARITIME HERITAGE CENTER
While many of Michigan’s maritime museums are open only during warmer months, this Alpena institution is the year-round visitor center for the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which protects an estimated 200 shipwrecks within a 4,300-square mile of Lake Huron.
The center houses the “Exploring the Shipwreck Century” exhibition, an archaeological conservation lab, community boat-building center and 93-seat theater. It’s also the boarding point for seasonal, twohour, glass bottom boat Alpena Shipwreck Tours of Lake Huron’s “Shipwreck Alley.”
One popular exhibit, in the center’s main hall, is a full-sized replica wooden schooner caught in a Great Lakes storm. According to Thunder Bay Sanctuary Media Coordinator Stephanie Gandulla, “Visitors can go aboard and experience a ‘shipwreck’ without getting wet.” thunderbay.noaa.gov
DOSSIN GREAT LAKES MUSEUM
At Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River just east of downtown, the Dossin Museum is a valuable resource for information about Detroit’s role in maritime history. Step through the doors of the 1960’s modern structure and into the ornately carved wood surroundings and colorful stained glass wall of the Gothic Room, the gentlemen’s smoking lounge from the Victorianera City of Detroit III.
Visitors can “captain” the famed S.S. William Clay Ford from the pilot house of the circa 1953 iron ore hauling freighter, perched at the museum with a view of the Detroit River and passing boat traffic. Another must-see artifact, the bow anchor of the ill-fated S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, sits waterside on the museum grounds.
A rotating display showcases the Dossin’s collection of ship models, which is recognized as one of the largest in the U.S.
Dossin admission is free, but a Michigan State Park Recreational Passport is required to visit Belle Isle Park. Out of state vehicles pay $9 for a day pass or $31 for an annual pass. detroithistorical.org
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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