Toledo’s Museum of the Great Lakes spotlights shipwrecks

Bob Downing
Akron Beacon Journal
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Toledo, Ohio – — There have been 8,000 shipwrecks on the Great Lakes.

A few of those are spotlighted in the expanded and relocated National Museum of the Great Lakes, a new Toledo attraction that opened in the spring and includes a 617-foot-long ore boat/museum ship.

The wrecks featured in the museum include the most-famous Great Lakes shipwreck: the ore boat Edmund Fitzgerald that sank in Lake Superior on Nov. 10, 1975, taking 29 men down with it.

Visitors to the $12.1 million National Museum of the Great Lakes will find one life raft and paddles from the Edmund Fitzgerald among the items from the boat.

The orange raft, one of two, automatically inflated and popped to the surface after the boat sank.

There is also an interactive exhibit where visitors can direct a simulated submersible to the Fitzgerald wreck in an attempt to determine the cause of the sinking. The exhibit looks at an array of options to explain what happened to the lake freighter. Officially, it remains undetermined.

The shipwrecks are compelling tales. They amount to one shipwreck every 11 days for the last 250 years. There are more shipwrecks per surface square mile on the Great Lakes than anywhere else in the world.

The greatest number occurred in Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

For example, the 335-foot steel Marquette sailed from Conneaut, Ohio, on Dec. 8, 1909, to cross Lake Erie to Port Stanley, Ontario. It carried 30 railroad cars. It disappeared. It has never been found and no one knows why it sank, although some wreckage was located.

You can look through goggles to view footage that divers took of the wreckage of the Cedarville that sank in the Straits of Mackinac in 1965, after it collided with another ship.

The museum is filled with more than 250 historical artifacts from Great Lakes vessels and other sources, plus hundreds of photographs. The exhibits cover 9,000 square feet of space in five galleries. It also features documentary videos and interactive displays.

The museum’s goal is to educate and entertain, to let visitors learn how the Great Lakes affected the United States.

It is an interesting, fresh, bright, colorful and kid-friendly place designed to attract and entertain families with compelling stories. It is a great day-trip destination: You can easily tour the museum and the old ore boat in two to three hours.

There are exhibits on Great Lakes lighthouses (there are 326 of them), luxurious passenger ships that once sailed the lakes, the Underground Railroad, rum runners on the lakes, the 1913 White Hurricane storm that sank 12 boats and killed 240, and maritime technology and equipment.

One of the most historic artifacts is a piece of the wooden frame of the USS Niagara, the flagship of American commander Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.

The artifact was acquired when the sunken ship was raised in 1913.

In another exhibit, you can admire a gold life-saving medal established by Congress in 1874. It was awarded for bravery in rescuing people in distress on the water.

You can hoist a heavy backpack like early European fur traders, learn how to pump a ship’s bilge to keep water out of leaky vessels and work together to fire the engine of a simulated coal-powered freighter.

Visitors learn that the Great Lakes contain 84 percent of all fresh water in North America and 21 percent of the world’s surface fresh water.

The museum looks at the Great Lakes’ exploration and settlement; industrial growth; military history; shipwrecks, lighthouses and survival; and maritime technology and shipbuilding.

Only 10 percent of the museum’s historical items are actually on display, officials said.

But the Col. James M. Schoonmaker is easily the museum’s biggest attraction and its biggest artifact. The retired freighter is moored on the east bank of the Maumee River next to the museum.

It was launched in 1911 and was hailed as the “Queen of the Lakes” as well as the largest bulk freighter on the Great Lakes and in the world at the time. It carried iron ore from Lake Superior to the steel mills of Ohio and Pennsylvania, plus coal and rye.

Officials are hoping to get 40,000 visitors a year.

National Museum of the Great Lakes

1701 Front, Toledo, Ohio

Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues-Sat, noon-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $8 for museum only and $12 for museum and tour of the Col. James M. Schoonmaker. Tickets for senior citizens and children are $1 less.

(419) 214-5000

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