Exploring the History of the Great Lakes at the Michigan Maritime Museum
PartVu Xchange Talks Boating spoke with Ashley Deming, the Director of Education and Administration for the Michigan Maritime Museum. We talked about the museum’s role in bringing the history of the Great Lakes alive. Their new exhibit, Full Steam Ahead: The Golden Age of Great Lakes Passenger Steamships provides a view into an era that not many people know much about.
The Michigan Maritime Museum is located in South Haven, Michigan. It is one of the Great Lakes’ best destinations to experience freshwater, marine heritage with both on and off-the-water exhibits.
The Great Lakes warrant special attention and admiration for many things, including their value as a source of drinking water, importance as a recreational outlet, and significance in terms of overall economic impact.
Can you tell us about the Michigan Maritime Museum, including information about your mission and the experiences the museum offers?
Ashley: The Michigan Maritime Museum is located in South Haven, Michigan, on the shores of Lake Michigan. However, the museum focuses on the entirety of the Great Lakes and related waterways. Water relates to many facets of life. The museum’s mission centers around the history of these amazing bodies of water.
Many people talk about oceans but forget to consider the enormity of the Great Lakes. The lakes are so enormous that they are better referred to as inland seas. The lakes are an integral part of the area’s economic development. That’s because they were and are related to trade routes since we didn’t always have a road system as we do now. There’s an incredible amount of history of the Great Lakes going back to the first humans in the area.
At the Michigan Maritime Museum, we have a variety of different exhibits. Some are temporary, and some are permanent. We have exhibits relating to US Coast Guard and life-saving service, small crafts, antique outboard motors, commercial shipping, and more. We also have an entire on-the-water fleet with replicas and historic vessels from various periods.
The museum also has a boat shed for routine maintenance and repair work.
Our tall ship at the museum is a replica of an 1810 Great Lakes sloop that we sail traditionally. So we perpetuate old-school sailing techniques and a maritime lifestyle in many ways.
Finally, we have a new Maritime Heritage Center that just opened. It currently houses a fantastic exhibit called “The Golden Age of Passenger Steamships.”
“Our museum is multi-faceted because the history of the Great Lakes is substantial.”
We’re very excited about the new place we just opened. It allows us to change exhibits as needed and feature a lot more than we could previously.
Today is the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There are a vast number of shipwrecks documented in the Great Lakes.
What is the significance of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald? That incident is particularly memorable and important because it’s still a living memory. It also gained notoriety when Gordon Lightfoot made a song about it.
Unfortunately, during the event, twenty-nine people lost their lives. There were other vessels in that storm, but that boat was a massive vessel that basically just disappeared. The ship was lost for quite a while but was rediscovered in Lake Superior.
In 1913, there was another large storm that took out a lot of freighters and boats. Many lives were lost. We’ve all heard stories about the Titanic. It seemed to get more press than some of these other events, perhaps, because of the opulence on board the ship. However, at about the same time, the Eastland rolled over in Chicago. More passenger lives were lost, but it didn’t receive as much attention. Much of it depends on how the press reacts and grabs hold of the storyline.
The Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point features a lot of artifacts from the Edmund Fitzgerald. They also have a moving ceremony, as does the Mariners Church in Detroit. Both can be live-streamed for viewing at home.
What can you tell us about the history of luxury passenger vessels on the Great Lakes?
Ashley: The history of passenger travel on the Great Lakes started during the Industrial Revolution with the development of steam. The advent of steam-powered engines allowed larger, more powerful vessels to travel longer distances in a shorter amount of time. They could also carry more freight and people.
These ships were used extensively, carrying people from place to place via night routes, day routes, weekly routes, and more. At that time, there were minimal well-developed roads or railways, so people moved about by water.
There were two periods of growth related to steam-powered vessel transportation. We had an initial introductory period where steamships were just hitting the scene. However, the golden age was in the late 1800s and carried forward to the 1930s. The steam-powered era ended, for the most part, during the World War I era. After that, there was some steam-powered luxury travel. However, that kind of travel diminished over time even though the Milwaukee Clipper, out of Muskegon, operated into the seventies.
As it got more expensive to operate steam vessels and other more efficient means of transportation surfaced, steam-powered travel fell by the wayside.
All in all, the hay day for steamships was quite remarkable. During the historical periods of peak steam usage, these vessels were fully equipped with everything you could imagine. They were known as floating palaces for a reason.
Would people use steamships for pleasure cruising, as transportation, or both?
Ashley: Both. Generally, steamboat journeys were not longer than about a week. Day-tripping from Chicago or an overnight trip to cross the lake was very popular, for example. Longer trips warranted bigger ships, whereas short trips were usually completed on smaller boats. But, the boats were equipped with the necessary equipment to give everyone an enjoyable experience.
The vessels were incredibly spectacular, designed to provide a feeling of luxury. Also, the trips weren’t solely intended for the super-wealthy. They were also suitable for regular folks looking to get away or travel to a resort, for example. As a result, the experience from start to finish was very popular.
Most vessels traveled to larger cities instead of remote locations. It’s akin to cruise ship experiences today, but it was on a smaller scale. In fact, we’re witnessing a revitalization of Great Lakes cruising with Viking now.
The cost to travel during the 1920s is another interesting topic. Back in that day, a trip cost about thirty-one dollars for a family of four taking an overnight trip from Cleveland to Buffalo. That roughly translates to five hundred thirty dollars in today’s money. A ten-day cruise in the twenties from Buffalo to Duluth was two hundred sixty-eight dollars for a family of four. Today, that equates to about forty-five hundred dollars.
Did these historic ships have different travel classes, like first class, etc.?
Ashley: There were no different class designations. Everyone was together, although there may have been some minor differences in the kinds of experience you would have, which would affect the cost. You might have paid a little more for slight room differences like you would on a train. However, all of the public spaces were the same.
The main point is that these ships offered luxury and opulence. It’s no wonder many of those businesses reached the point of diminishing returns where things ceased to be economically viable. Before moving to sturdier metal in the latter stages of steamship travel, these vessels were wooden ships that required a ton of upkeep and maintenance.
One of the purposes of the museum is to give people a glimpse of what it felt like to travel on those ships long ago. We want people to feel like they’re in the shoes of a steamship passenger so they can reach back into history to see how it felt to walk up the dock, board the ship, and travel by steamship in those days. We’ve got a ton of interactive exhibits and hands-on demonstrations for kids of all ages. It’s a very family-friendly experience for people to look back on history in an authentic way.
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