Maritime History of Great Lakes Unfolds in Two Wisconsin Museums

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), December 2, 2007 | Go to article overview

Maritime History of Great Lakes Unfolds in Two Wisconsin Museums


Byline: Mike Michaelson

Head for Wisconsin to hear the story of a famous Michigan landmark. The Wisconsin Maritime Museum at Manitowoc, Wis., a marvelous storehouse of colorful Great Lakes history (and a Smithsonian affiliate), hosts a presentation next month celebrating the 50th anniversary of the opening of the "Mighty Mac."

For the uninitiated, that is a popular sobriquet for Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan's upper and lower peninsulas. Lore and legend galore surround this soaring bridge. There are tales of heights - phobic motorists who take advantage of a service that provides drivers to shuttle cars across (during which some motorists opt to hide under a blanket). Then there are those world travelers who proudly hand their passports to toll attendants.

Learn more at a symposium, "Car Ferries and the Mighty Mac" (Jan. 19), with films screened in the museum theater and a chance to talk with car ferry experts and see their special collections on display, including working steam engine models.

If that is all a bit too esoteric for your family, gather them up and steer them to the Children's Waterways Room. There, kids of all ages are invited to launch a boat onto a miniature Lake Superior, sail it to the locks at Sault Ste. Marie and continue on to Lake Michigan and Green Bay. It's great fun and a splendid learning experience.

Many of us share a morbid fascination with shipwrecks, from the Titanic to the smallest sailboat. One of the most famous on the Great Lakes is the sinking of the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald. During a fierce Lake Superior gale on Nov. 10, 1975, winds gusting to 90 miles an hour whipped up 16-foot waves. This tragic sinking is immortalized on film and in song, including Gordon Lightfoot's haunting folk ballad.

This special exhibition, "Of Ships and Men: The Edmund Fitzgerald," runs through the winter. It features 12 detailed paintings of this famous wreck, produced by artist Richard W. Sullivan as part of the Coast Guard's investigation into the sinking. The paintings, which transport museum-goers eerily back to that fateful night, were used to create a three-dimensional model of the wreck, also part of the exhibition.

As for the wreck itself, the Fitzgerald, broken in two, lies on the floor of Lake Superior in 530 feet of water. Her cargo of iron ore is still aboard, as are all hands. Speculation is that the giant freighter sank in a matter of seconds, before an alarm could be sounded and lifeboats launched.

And there she lies. As Lightfoot said, the lake never gives up its dead.

Moored alongside the museum is the World War II submarine USS Cobia, open year-round for tours. If its anchorage seems far removed from the ocean, keep in mind that 28 similar World War II submarines were built in shipyards just half a mile up the Manitowoc River. …

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