Sunday, July 20, 2014

Toledo's National Museum of the Great Lakes


This past weekend I had the chance to visit the Great Lakes Historical Society's new museum on the waterfront in Toledo. I've been a fan of their museum at Vermilion, Ohio since I was a child.

I was a little nervous whether this new incarnation would be too watered-down. Although the exhibits were more focused on a younger set, they managed to convey a lot of good information, and were more organized and thematically focused than the previous museum. On the other hand, the architects did not leave any real space for expansion, so there was a limited amount of room for more artifacts or, presumably, travelling or temporary exhibits. 

The museum no longer has the pilot house of the Canopus, nor the steam engine of a great lakes tug (both were probably left at the Inland Seas archives in Vermillion). However, the real centerpiece, the restored 1911 freighter S.S. Colonel Schoonmaker, more than makes up for their absence. I'll get into the ship in my next post, though.


There are a few poignant artifacts from the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, the famous ore freighter lost with all hands during a November storm in 1975.



A diving suit from the pre-SCUBA years.


A capstan from a US Navy gunboat which patrolled the lakes in the 19th Century. I think these were run on steam winches but kept the holes for manual back up, to haul up anchors, lines and so on.


Unfortunately the new set up of the model display makes it hard to see them up close. These represent the great diversity of craft that have plied the lakes over the centuries-- from open boats and canoes to the 1,000-footer iron ore giants.



A sword thought to date from the early 19th century. It has an inscription from the United States Public Land Survey, which with the metal scabbard probably places this use in the 1830s (but what was a surveyor doing with such a mean-looking cavalry saber?)

A rudder found off Kelly's Island in Lake Erie. Unfortunately they didn't orient it correctly, as you can see the hole for the horizontal tiller at right, and the fitting for the hinge with the sternpost at top left. It could be the oldest artifact in the collection.

 A kelson or keelson belonging to the USS Niagara. Amazing to think that it was hewn in a forest somewhere near Erie, attached to the Niagara throughout the War of 1812, and then sunk in Misery Bay (near Erie) for a century.

Le Griffon, a 7-gun barque built at the eastern end of Lake Erie in 1679 by La Salle and lost with all hands somewhere between Green Bay and the lower lakes.

The wreck of the USS Hunter (formerly HMS General Hunter). See my earlier post on the ships of the Battle of Lake Erie-- she was found in 2001 on the beach at Southampton Ontario.
There were lots of neat photographs. These are two of the Ford Motor Company's Eagle-class patrol boats. Mass-produced like the Model-T, they had a lot of design flaws including being too narrow, and prone to capsize in heavy seas...
 These little mock-newspaper articles provided insights on some of the more important or unusual topics, like Captain Alexander McDougall's unique "whaleback" freighters. His designs were meant to allow waves to wash over them, but they still sank in the fierce Great Lakes storms on occasion. The most famous was the S.S. James B. Colgate, which was lost with all hands save the captain in the Black Friday storm of October 20, 1916 off Long Point in Lake Erie. 4 ships sank that night, and in two cases the captain was the only survivor.

 A log book from a freighter, detailing some of its day to day business.
 Different communications devices, from the megaphone (a simple cone) to a radio telephone.

 There is a lot of kids-oriented stuff, including divers masks revealing video footage of real wreck dives.

 A life raft from the Edmund Fitzgerald. The badly mangled ship's lifeboat was also found washed up on shore after she went down in Lake Superior. The heavily laden iron ore freighter is believed to have sank so fast that none of her crew would have had time to use their lifesaving equipment.


 It's a shame that the Cleveland Cliffs Victory was not preserved. She was originally a Victory ship that served in the Pacific Theater in WWII, before being sliced up and extended into an iron ore freighter and hauling iron on the Great Lakes. A unique lake freighter that could claim campaign and battle honors from the high seas.

 USS Michigan, the US Navy's first iron hulled warship, built in 1843 and served on the Great Lakes until 1912 (!). Her prow and some other pieces were preserved at the USS Niagara Museum in Erie, PA.

A Cleveland waterfront scene from the old days. Lumber hookers not only hauled finished lumber, but used booms to tow vast numbers of freshly cut tree trunks down the lakes to the lumber mills. Thousands of these trunks sank to the bottom of Lake Superior, where they were preserved in the frigid waters. Fishing them out has become a small industry, now that old-growth lumber is rare.

 Detroit, Toledo and the lakes were a hotbed for smuggling in the Prohibition era.

 This converted Spencer carbine fired a line that could be attached to a larger rope so that people could be saved from wrecks.

 The whaleback steamer Christopher Columbus was the only passenger vessel to adopt this unusual hull form. She operated from 1893 to 1933.

 The Greyhound had a distinctive mascot (preserved at the museum) and ran between Toledo and Detroit on pleasure excursions to places such as Put-in-Bay. She could carry 3,000 people. The modern version of these majestic vessels are ferry lines like the Jet Express.
 If you look closely you can see this greyhound on the prow of the ship itself in the photo above. The Depression killed most of these behemoths.

The characteristic pivot mount of the smaller gunboats in the US fleet during the War of 1812 on Lake Erie. This allowed a small ship (like the schooner USS Ohio, depicted here) to carry a big gun like a 24-pounder, and bring it to bear from more angles. This ship was captured in a surprise attack in 1814. In the old museum, her model was flanked by a giant scale model of the 1820 64-gun ship of the line USS Ohio. The Great Lakes Society is selling the smaller model for 3 or 4,000 dollars... I have no idea what the bigger one would go for.