Sea History 077 - Spring 1996

Page 23


Maritime History in America's Heartland: The Michigan Maritime Museum I.

by Dorris Akers


aritime history is alive and well in the heartland of America. Michigan 's 3200 mile s of Great Lakes shoreline and its other waterways have seen the development of a varietyofmaritime activities, from Native American fishing camps to industrialized cities with their myriad waterrelated businesses. The European-based fur trading industry and immigrant-led commercial fishing activities helped define Michigan's culture. The state's wooden boat building tradition rivaled that in other parts of the country. Lumber companies supported settlement, and sail and steampowered boats were seen in a host of roles in hundreds of Michigan harbors. One very active steam trade was the delivery of thousands of passengers to Michigan 's thriving vacation destinations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Michigan Maritime Museum presents this story of diverse activities in its facilities in South Haven, an inviting harbor town on southern Lake Michigan across the state from Detroit. The harbor is mainly taken up with recreational activities-marinas, dock builders, charter fishing and tour boats, boat launching faci Ii ties, and boat repair businesses. Public sugar sand beaches and twin piers jutting into Lake Michigan bring people to the waters to swim, to fish and just to watch the lake and sunsets. A strong sense of direction and carefu l attention to building its collections have helped the Museum become an enlightening attraction for all visitors. Boats (all ships are called boats in the Great Lakes), and other maritime artifacts, are housed in both permanent and changing exhibitions . Main gallery exhibitions tell chronologically the stories of the many people who have built and used boats in the state. The Marialyce Canonie Great Lakes Research Library was developed to back up the Museum 's mission of education. It is the only library and archive in the

state to collect and share information on the whole scope of Michigan's maritime history, including information on the health and ecology of the Great Lakes, as well as texts, serial s, boat logs, photographs and slides, oral hi story tapes, videotapes, maps and boat plans. Many other types of documents, such as transportation company records, US Lighthouse Board correspondence, train and passenger ferry schedules and original lighthouse engineers' drawings bring researchers from all over the country. Of the many hi stori cal subjects that make up the Michigan maritime experience, the Museum has given special attention to three: the building and use

of small boats, the US Life Saving Service/Coast Guard, and the commercial fishing industry. The Museum 's permanent exhibit about the Life Saving Service and Coast Guard includes three restored boats that were common in Michigan stations in the first half of the 20th century. The 26foot pulling surfboat, the 26-foot motor surfboat, and the 36-foot motor lifeboat are warmly and often affectionately remembered by the retired "Coasties" who used them. The boats are displayed in a boathouse built in the manner of l 9thcentury Great Lakes life sav ing stations. In addition, photographs of Michigan ' s 46 stations add an architectural dimen-


Above: The typical commercial fishing tug ElsieJ. enters Black River in South Ha ven in the 1940s. Below: The Great Lakes lumber hooker George C. Markham is tied up at an unknown dock in 1912.