National Museum of the Great Lakes
National Museum of the Great Lakes
When you use the telegraph, what you sent shows up on the computer screen.
Inside the Museum
Unidentified Figurehead
   Since finishing Shanghaiing Sailors and redirecting all my research and writing efforts to an entirely different subject, I don’t think I’ve gone to a nautical museum in quite a few years. I wanted to visit it for two reasons. First, I’d been to its old location in Vermilion, Ohio, and desired to see how it had changed after moving to Toledo. Second, I longed to tour the Col. James M. Schoonmaker, a lake freighter moored beside the museum that was not at the Vermillion location. Despite having lived all my life near Lake Erie, I’ve never had a chance to climb on board one.
   The National Museum of the Great Lakes is a completely different place than the one in Vermilion and probably the only similarity between the two is that they share the artifacts on display. The museum has a number of interactive things here to engage children, although I’ll admit I couldn’t resist trying out a for few myself (especially the telegraph that, when you use it, shows the messages you output on a computer screen). In the main entry a movie plays repeatedly that gives you a good overview of the history of the Great Lakes, their diversity, and so forth. The screen sets in the middle of a circular room filled with information displays of each lake complete with 3-D maps that show a given lake’s depths. I rather like this sort of thing and spent quite some time combing over them. It’s amazing just how shallow, for example, Lake Erie is compared to the other four.
   I found the museum’s circular layout difficult to navigate. It is divided into a number of sections—Life Saving, Ship Wrecks, Ship Building, and so forth—but they blend into one another, and the confusing layout makes it easy to miss stuff. The museum also suffers from information overload. There are just too many signs to read for a person to reasonably get through without spending eight hours doing nothing else.
   You certainly learn a lot here. During World War II, the Seeandbee, a side-wheeler steamer built in 1913 in Detroit, was converted into an aircraft carrier named the USS Wolverine for pilot training. From this and another converted lake vessel, the USS Sable, pilots such as George H. W. Bush learned how to take off and land on carriers. The Lyle gun was developed by Captain David A. Lyle in 1877 as a means of shooting a lifeline from the shore out to a distressed vessel. Its line was made out of waterproofed braided linen that had to be shot a few times to make it more flexible and to flake correctly (“flaking,” according to the museum’s sign, is a line “wound so it could be shot without tangling”). Another sign reported, “There are 326 lighthouses dotting the Great Lakes 10,900 mile coastline. That’s one lighthouse for every 33 miles—more than anywhere else in the world!”