Exploring Great Lakes History at New Museum

  • The National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo. Photo: Rebecca Williams

July 3, 2014

If you’ve ever wanted to step foot on a ship as old as the Titanic, you can do that at the new National Museum of the Great Lakes. It opened this spring in Toledo. The museum’s creator hopes you’ll walk away with a much better appreciation of Great Lakes history.

Chris Gillcrist, executive director of the new National Museum of the Great Lakes, is the kind of guy you want on your Trivial Pursuit team. This is the kind of fact he talks about every few minutes.

“The first millionaire in American history is John Jacob Astor. It’s a guy trading beaver pelts from the Great Lakes and sending them to Europe.”

There are a lot about shipwrecks at the museum, sure, but Gillcrist wants you to know it’s much more than that.

“We look at it as retrofitting American history to more accurately depict how the Great Lakes impacted the nation as a whole over the past 300 years,” he says.

You can spin a century-old ship’s wheel, or your kids can try out the bilge pump exhibit, and try to keep water out of their boat.  At first, it’ll be a cinch.

“Then they’ll switch it to 'terrible storm' and they won’t be able to keep up, and they’ve opened up a seam in their boat, and they’re sinking, and the terror of watching the water rise in the cargo hold and you know there’s nothing you can do about it,” Gillcrist says.

You can also see the inflatable life raft from the shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and you can try out the dive simulator to learn about the theories on why the ship sank.

There are 250 artifacts on display in the museum, from the 22-ton propeller on the front lawn, to tiny decorative corncob holders from a passenger boat. But the biggest artifact first sailed the Great Lakes in 1911.

Gillcrist gets his keys, we walk up a footbridge and we go into the freighter.

“You’ve now just entered the number two cargo hold of the Col. James M. Schoonmaker Museum Ship. She was sailing when the other big boat, the Titanic, was launched and met her end in her first voyage.”

When the weather’s nice, you can climb up onto the deck and nose around.

Gillcrist says he hopes the museum will make people care a lot more about Great Lakes history, and generate money to send his staff archaeologists out to look for more shipwrecks to learn more about history. 

Just don’t expect him to go diving.

“I’m actually the only executive director of a maritime museum that gets terribly seasick, and I don’t like being on the water,” he laughs.