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Michigan Maritime Museum

Bringing History to LifeSouth Haven’ s Michigan Maritime Museumreopens with an expanded exhibit space, keeping Great Lakes maritime history alive.

By Chuck Warren

The Great Lakes have played a significant role in American maritime history by providing passage to the Midwest, food supplied by commercial fishing, timber that rebuilt Chicago after the Great Fire, and much more.

For those interested, one of the very best places to learn about Great Lakes maritime history is at the Michigan Maritime Museum in the lakeshore town of South Haven, Michigan.

Located at the mouth of the Black River on Lake Michigan’s eastern shoreline, the town of South Haven roars to life each summer as one of the top vacation destinations for visitors from across the Midwest.

Overlooking South Haven’s main harbor, the Michigan Maritime Museum offers visitors a wealth of information about Great Lakes maritime history through immersive exhibits, art, marine artifacts and more. Past exhibits have featured everything from early U.S. Coast Guard rescue activities to the area’s contributions to World War II, when luxury passenger ships were converted into aircraft carriers and used to train Navy pilots.

(Top) Aerial photo of the South Haven harbor looking west (circa 1950-1960) and future home of the Maritime Museum, which would be built in the lower right corner. (Bottom) Commercial fish tug at Jensen’s Fishery in South Haven harbor circa 1960-1970

Full steam ahead

Although one of West Michigan’s most popular attractions, the museum did not have the room needed to display much of its collected artworks, artifacts and exhibits until the launch of a recent campaign aimed at expanding and refreshing the campus. The successful campaign drove the museum’s growth from just under 5,000 to 19,000 square feet of indoor space. The museum also grew its outdoor footprint with the addition of adjacent waterfront property providing room for even more exhibits and attractions.

With its official launch in August 2022, the museum’s main hall opened with a new exhibit titled “Full Steam Ahead: The Golden Age of Great Lakes Passenger Steamships.” As sail gave way to steam power, the huge steamships ferried passengers and cargo between Midwest ports on Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie and beyond. The immersive display presents the age of steam-powered vessels on the Great Lakes in the early 1800s, giving visitors a glimpse of the luxury accommodations for passengers, as well as a crewmember’s challenging life aboard the hulking vessels.

Before the expansion, the museum did not have enough room to display

RIBBON CUTTING PHOTO BY TOM RENNER many pieces from its collection of art and artifacts. Instead, many of its treasures were loaned to other organizations.

“We have an extensive model collection that has been on loan to other places,” says museum Executive Director Patti Montgomery Reinert. “It’s a way of collaborating with other museums, but it’s just so great to have the space to be able to share some of these things here.”

The new expansion also enabled the Michigan Maritime Museum to offer event capabilities to the local community, creating the opportunity to host classes, corporate meetings, weddings and more.

“We’ve had numerous conferences held in these rooms, and many of them have been driven locally,” Reinert says, “but we have had people coming in from out of town to have their meetings here and that has also helped grow our membership.”

On-water experiences

Although the main building houses the museum’s largest exhibit, there are many more reasons to visit the extensive campus.

Outbuildings along the South Haven harbor waterfront include the Van

(Top main) Aerial photo of the Maritime Museum campus, including Friends Good Will and Lindy Lou. (Top inset) Front view of the Michigan Maritime Museum. (Bottom right) Kids crewing aboard Friends Good Will and “learning the ropes.” (Bottom left) Grand Opening ribbon cutting ceremony on July 14, 2022.

THIS PAGE: (Top left) Interior shot of the Van Oort Boathouse, which houses the museum’s collection of Coast Guard wooden lifesaving/rescue vessels. (Top right) The expanded waterfront and exterior of the McClendon Small Craft Barn, and the new boardwalk. (Lower left) Interior of the McClendon Small Craft Barn and boats on display. OPPOSITE PAGE: (Top) Museum main atrium. (Far right middle) Entryway to the “Full Steam Ahead” exhibit. (Far right bottom) Museum gift shop.

Oort Boathouse, which contains a complete collection of wooden U.S. Coast Guard rescue vessels, and the McClendon Small Craft Barn, which features a collection of antique outboard engines.

Nearby, the Padnos Boat Shed provides a workspace where volunteers and staff repair and maintain the Michigan Maritime Museum’s “on-water experiences” — an impressive fleet of classic and historic vessels.

Standing tall in the historic harbor, the 101-foot Friends Good Will, built specifically for the museum in 2004, is an exact replica of the original Great Lakes merchant ship that sailed from 1810 to 1813. Museum visitors can join the Friends Good Will’s crew of museum staff and volunteers, all dressed in period clothing, for a cruise on Lake Michigan several times daily while also assisting with shipboard duties such as raising and lowering the sails.

Guests can also cruise on the museum’s other floating attractions, such as Bernida, a 32-foot 1921 racing sloop that won several prestigious events before it was donated to the museum.

The Michigan Maritime Museum’s waterfront is also home to Lindy Lou, the electric-power replica of a 30-foot Truscott river launch like the originals used to ferry passengers and small cargo upriver, and Merry Time, a fully restored 22-foot 1929 Chris-Craft Cadet — both of which offer cruises several times daily.

Part of the museum’s collection of historic Coast Guard rescue vessels, guests can also cruise onboard the 1941 36-foot, self-righting U.S. Coast Guard motor lifeboat used by Disney while filming the movie “The Finest Hours.”

Get involved

The Michigan Maritime Museum offers a wide variety of classes, internships and volunteer opportunities. Volunteers are required to become members to help ensure they receive some orientation and are qualified to assume different responsibilities.

“There’s care for the vessels, maintenance — that kind of stuff,” Reinert says. “They go through basic training to learn how to sail and learn the history, and they are actually a docent.”

Volunteers aboard the Friends Good Will help with maintenance and restoration work and also sail on the ship as crew to help operate the vessel and teach visitors about Great Lakes maritime history.

However, Michigan Maritime Museum volunteers do not only come from the local community or from summer residents.

“The Coast Guard crew comes up from St. Joe every year to help us clean the brass and clean the Coast Guard building so it’s ready for exhibition for that season,” Reinert says. “We just got a call this week from the St. Joe station and they said ‘we just love being there.’”


Museum internship opportunities offer experience in education and outreach, tourism and hospitality, and more unique and targeted experiences such as museum studies and even exhibit design and maintenance.

Still growing

The museum expansion has also allowed the display of many more pieces of new and historic artwork and maritime items donated to the museum, although one of the more unique historic artifacts in the building could easily go unnoticed.

Much of the trim and other decorative pieces of wood in the building, including the face of the welcome desk, are made from timber recovered from the bottom of the Great Lakes. As timber harvesting and production grew during the mid-1800s lumber boom, harvested logs would sometimes sink before reaching sawmills or while waiting to be processed. Known as “timeless timber,” this recovered old-growth wood has been used to decorate the interior surfaces of the museum.

Still growing, the Michigan Maritime Museum is already looking toward Phase Two of its planned expansion, which will include a new seawall installation to help protect the museum’s waterfront. The second phase will also extend the museum’s boardwalk, add a three-season tent to connect several outbuildings, and create a close replica of South Haven’s original Coast Guard lifesaving station on the grounds, which will include a viewing tower.

Preserving history for future generations is an important responsibility; however, the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven is doing more than just keep history alive. The museum’s incredible team of staff and volunteers are bringing Great Lakes maritime history to life. H