Volume 43

The Building of History I: National Museum of the Great Lakes

A Family Friendly Trip Through Maritime History


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Okay folks, this brand new Maritime Museum in Toledo, Ohio, is a sleeper. No, not like “yawn,” but like “wow,” this is all pretty cool. It was nothing like I expected. The first thing you see is one very impressive, huge boat tied up at the dock; like seeing a humongous old Buick from the 80’s. It was beautiful. Green and orange, a giant creation of iron and steel, built to haul an immense load of iron ore or coal, or store all of Donald Trump’s money. Next to the ship is a brand new, nicely designed museum building, with a huge ship’s propeller mounted on display at the entrance. The interior is also impressive, with the exhibits connected by a maze of curving walls.


I expected to see stories and pictures of ships. There is so much more. Models of the five lakes show their comparative sizes, with accurate contour lines to indicate the depth of each lake (Lake Superior is the deepest at 1,325 feet). The Great Lakes hold more fresh water than any other place on Earth.


It’s only natural that enterprising humans have found a way to navigate this vast area of water to their advantage. Unfortunately, due to mechanical error, or human error, ships sink. The museum extensively illustrates these shipwrecks. Over 800 have been identified, and the number is assumed to be much higher than that.


The immense size of the Great Lakes has a profound effect on the weather, and many shipwrecks have been caused by storms. The Edmond Fitzgerald, an iron ore freighter and the largest ship to ever go down in the Great Lakes, sank after being caught in a November gale near Whitefish Point on Lake Superior.


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The Edmond Fitzgerald’s home port was Toledo, Ohio. Like many of the Great Lakes freighters, it was docked at or very near where this museum is situated. During the industrial revolution, these ships unloaded iron ore and loaded coal in Toledo, making the city an integral part of the industrial boom. The museum highlights stories about the impact of industry and commerce on the upper Midwest’s economy, and shows how the future of the area was shaped by the hard working men and women here.


One of the most interesting topics covered by the museum is a story about WWII aircraft carriers on Lake Michigan. In order to prevent enemy submarines from sinking our aircraft carriers in the ocean, two old steamships were converted to carriers. Navy pilots, like George H.W. Bush, learned to take off and land on the decks of the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable.


Several displays focus on events in Europe that influenced the Great Lakes region and how, over several centuries, these events impacted the lives of Native American tribes in the area.


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There are plenty of hands-on activities for children to see and do. Overall, the exhibits bring back things we adults have learned in the past and give our children a chance to experience education at its best. Mark this museum as a must-see.


While you’re in the area, consider visiting several other interesting places, such as Ft. Meigs in Perrysburg, and the “Battle of the River Raisin” site in Monroe, Michigan. As you travel east from Toledo, you can visit marshes filled with a wide variety of birds. Follow the birds to Port Clinton, where fishing boats return from Lake Erie, filled with Walleye. To the east is Catawba Island, a hilly peninsula with grape vineyards and a nice sandy beach at East Harbor State Park. The beautiful Marblehead Lighthouse is also here. From Catawba Island, you could almost swim to Put-in-Bay, but the ferry would be much faster. Heading south, you can visit Fremont, home of Rutherford B. Hayes, the 19th President of the United States. Fort Stephenson is also in the area, where, during the War of 1812, the Americans defeated a much larger British and Native American force. Travel northeast to Sandusky and visit Cedar Point amusement park on Lake Erie, home of giant roller coasters.


By now, it’s time to give your GPS a rest. Enjoy your travels.


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