Shipwrecks, lighthouses in spotlight at Toledo's National Museum of the Great Lakes

August 25, 2014


The 617-foot-long Col. James M. Schoonmaker once hauled iron ore, coal and rye on the Great Lakes. It was launched in 1911 and was mothballed in 1980. Today, it is a museum ship at the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, Ohio.

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 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.

I had never heard about the two Great Lakes passenger steamers that were converted into aircraft carriers in World War II. They were used on Lake Michigan to train thousands of American pilots to safely land on a carrier. Among those pilots was future president George H.W. Bush.

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.

The museum has the very first medal, awarded to Lucian Clemons of Marblehead, Ohio, who with his brothers A.J. and Hubbard rowed a 12-foot boat to help rescue two seamen from a schooner that had overturned in Sandusky Bay in 1876.

Lucian Clemons later became the keeper of the lighthouse at Marblehead.

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. Interestingly, the collection includes a 25-foot-long surf boat from 1854. It was designed by naval architect Joseph Francis to enable rescuers to get through heavy waves. It was used on Lake Erie until 1940 and was then used as a pig sty on Kelleys Island until 1970 when it was rescued by the Great Lakes Historical Society.

A 22-ton ship’s propeller from the lake freighter John Sherwin sits outside the museum in a small riverbank park.

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.


It is 617 feet long and 64 feet wide. It draws up to 33 feet, 1 inch of water. It weighs 8,600 tons empty and 23,600 tons loaded.

It was wider than other ore boats of its time, designed to fill up the canal locks at Sault St. Marie between Lakes Superior and Huron and to haul more cargo. It sailed for 65 years and was hailed as one of the most luxurious ore boats on the Great Lakes.

It was owned by the Shenango Furnace Co. until it was sold to the Interlake Steamship Co. in 1969 and to Cleveland Cliffs Inc. in 1971 when it was renamed the Willis B. Boyer. It was mothballed about 1981. In 1986, the freighter was sold to the city of Toledo and restored at a cost of $1 million.


The Schoonmaker is open for self-guided tours: from the engine room to the cargo holds, from the owner’s cabin to the pilot house, from the crew’s cabins to the galley and dining rooms. It includes five suites for guests and rare twin steering wheels.

The tour features steep stairwells and staggered deck plating. The museum advises that parents follow children when climbing ladders and have them follow you when descending.

The museum, once based in Vermilion, is housed in the Toledo Maritime Center on the east bank of the Maumee River. The building was constructed in 2008 by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority to serve as a ferry terminal. That has not happened.

The museum got a nearly $6.1 million grant from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission and provided $4 million of in-kind services. The biggest expense was dredging the river for the ore boat.

Officials are hoping to get 40,000 visitors a year, said Executive Director Christopher Gillcrist. The former facility, which was in Vermilion for 60 years and closed in 2011, got about 5,000 a year.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday at 1701 Front St., Toledo. Take the Ohio Turnpike west to Interstate 280. Head north to Toledo. Exit at Front Street (Exit 9). Turn left. The museum is on the right.

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.

For information, call (419) 214-5000 or go to For Toledo tourist information, call (800) 243-4667 or (419) 321-6404 or go to



Associated Press