Don’t Miss the Boat

by Gregory Lucas-Myers | July 2018

The National Museum of the Great Lakes (NMGL) more than earns its name with a “Superior” collection of exhibits. Located in Toledo, Ohio, educators have curated hundreds of artifacts that document the struggles and triumphs of the people and ships connected to these natural wonders. John McCarty, the museum’s chief operating officer (and himself the proud father of a U-M alumna), helped Michigan Alumnus select 10 activities to engage your younger family members while enriching your knowledge of Great Lakes history.

Tour the Col. James M. Schoonmaker

The enormous crown jewel of the NMGL is open for tours from May to October. Constructed in 1911, the “Queen of the Lakes” reigned as the largest ship operating on the Great Lakes until 1914. It carried out countless cargo hauls until commercial decommissioning in 1980. Toledo purchased the freighter in 1987, and it served as a solo tourist attraction until becoming the centerpiece of the NMGL in 2012. Visitors can explore from the depths of the cargo holds to the two-wheeled pilothouse.

Experience “The Great Lakes”

The first attraction upon admission to the main building is more than just a historical video summary. As the show gets underway, a map of the region lights up in time with the narrator’s key points. An extensive projection, lighting, and audio system immerses the audience as they move swiftly from the Native American frontiers to advent of steam-powered industry. “The Great Lakes” is a perfect primer for delving deeper into the museum.

To plan your visit to the National Museum of the Great Lakes, go to www.inlandseas.org. Alumni Association members save $2 on the admission fee.

Get Informed With the Model Ships

Seeing the growth from 40-foot-long canoes to modern freighter ships is one thing. But at the press of one of many buttons, spotlights and a helpful narrator give even more context. This canoe could float the equivalent weight of several cars; that freighter could hold an entire highway traffic jam’s worth.

Learn Morse Code

A simple, but critically important, messaging system suitably gets its own station in the communication area of the “Maritime Technology” exhibit. A straight key is the only input needed: just press, then either immediately release or briefly hold the knob. An attached computer screen gives the prompt result. Study the alphabet, and soon you will speak the Morse language—and gain an appreciation for sailors who had to send an SOS when under distress.

Understand Great Lakes Weather

When even modern technology can make incorrect forecasts, it is chilling to think of the inherent natural risks taken by the explorers and workers on the Great Lakes in the past. The exhibit “When Two Storms Collide” shows how three main atmospheric factors—Arctic high pressure, low pressure from the south, and the regional jet stream—combine to give the Great Lakes their unique and unstable weather system.

Dive the Fitz

The largest and most famous of the ships lost to the Great Lakes, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a Nov. 10, 1975, storm on Lake Superior. This simulated submersible vehicle dive—complete with joystick controls—into the Fitzgerald wreckage site demonstrates why the exact cause of the disaster remains a mystery.

Find a Sunken Site

The “Queen of the Lakes” investigation gives visitors the chance to work as archaeologists. From clues based on a single newspaper clipping, you must narrow down a search for a lost wreck.

Scan for Artifacts

Take the image of a beach-goer combing with a metal detector for valuable coinage and turn it, instead, toward finding relics of wrecks and war. With the magnetometer in hand, you sweep a plot of sand to find buried treasures of history.

Work in the Engine Room

During the 19th century, coal became the fuel of choice for ships as steam engine power grew to serve ever-increasing shipping demands. This cooperative play area shows how the crew stoked a ship’s fires: one person signals the necessary speed, then another feeds the “coal” into the boiler—being careful that it doesn’t get overloaded!

Man the Port

Another play area places kids on Toledo’s docks, where they use a wheelbarrow to load a canal boat and operate the stations at a replica rail car dumper and conveyor belt.


Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10, is assistant editor of Michigan Alumnus.