When someone mentions maritime history on Lake Michigan, what do you picture? Myself, I imagine a wayward clipper succumbing to an autumn torrent, as it braved a threatening passage known as Death’s Door. Also, imprinted on my mind, as I was raised only a few minutes from a shipbuilding town, are the giant, bulky barges and the Naval ships that were built there, not to mention the prestigious yachts built in said town. The Wisconsin Maritime Museum, located in Manitowoc Wisconsin, pays homage to such vessels that, at one time or another, navigated the squash shaped lake known as Michigan.
I enter the museum and discover a dignified hall, as I approach a marble veneer counter nestled next to a typical gift shop. I am greeted courteously and informed that, included in the price of admission, there is a submarine tour aboard the USS Cobia, a sub similar to the twenty eight vessels constructed in Manitowoc during WWII.
First, I’m off to see the exhibits.
Upon entering the first exhibit, which is dedicated to shipwrecks of the great lakes, I’m struck by the lighting. It’s darker, the lamps are beaming on the exhibits but no fixtures are overhead, as the walls are painted either blue or black. I fancy myself combing the bottom of the lake, as I lay my eyes on an array of exhibits, from artifacts recovered from sunken ships to interactive touch screen games. There are a ton of great exhibits to choose from in this first area, but my favorite is the ROV(Remotely Operated Vehicle) simulator, demonstrating one must be skilled to investigate shipwrecks with remote cameras.
I follow a flight of stairs, as I descend I’m charmed by a mid 19th century downtown setting. Replica store fronts and a skeletal portion of a hull of a ship lay before me. Here the exhibits become even more interesting. The lighting remains the same as I find myself in a large room full of all things maritime. As I read placards on the walls I realize a maritime museum in Manitowoc seems a natural and rational choice.
Manitowoc’s shipbuilding past stretches back to the mid 19th century, as companies built primarily lake schooners and clippers. In 1902 the maritime giant the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company was formed and began the construction of steel boats. Today the company has evolved into a world leader in the crane industry, the Burger Boat Company being the only shipbuilder left in the city. The city’s history, and exhibits from other companies from Wisconsin, are chronicled here.
In the exhibit area, ancient ship building tools hang in glass cases as placards detail the steps followed to construct both clippers and schooners, a technology very relevant in the middle of the 19th century. Also, A wide variety of fully assembled engines from steam to diesel appear stately in such a closed setting. There’s navigational instruments from an era past, cased in wood and glass, giving you a sense of how different lake faring was at the time.
Along a wall, stand replica storefronts filled with goods one might find over 150 years ago. My fanciful mood is somewhat dampened as I happen upon an exhibit, passing through the storefronts, that is dedicated to invasive species, a danger of bringing ocean going vessels into the great lakes. Here, one can get an education on such species such as sea lamprey, which attach themselves to the hull of a ship and find their way into the lakes, sucking the life out of many fish.
If you appreciate model ships there are plenty to investigate, from barges and clippers to yachts and coast guard ships. In fact, an entire room has been dedicated to some of the larger models, each cased in glass. From the model gallery I notice a slow spinning propeller attached to a wall, as the room gives way to actual wood boats set below and beyond the model area. I find my way to the other side of the propeller wall and am floored by the sight of a monstrous two story high steam engine.
The museum plays home to more that I have not mentioned, I’ll leave that for you to discover on your own. However, I will note that this place would be an excellent spot for children, not only to play but learn as they pretend with exhibits purposed for fun and education.
From dress up clothes replicating those of the 19th century to building blocks for assembling ships, not to mention interactive touch screen games, there is plenty to keep children amused in the shipwreck exhibit. Below, on the main exhibit floor, lies Dr. Gills invasive species lab. A child can float a boat down a canal and operate locks and a drawbridge as it sails to it’s destination.
As I’m wandering the museum, a page sounds over an intercom, notifying those taking in the exhibits that the submarine tour is about to start. I hurry to the concourse area where a sizeable group is greeted by a very knowledgeable tour guide.
As he guides as through the tour, I’m in awe for some very compelling reasons.
The weaponry for a sub two thirds the size of a football field is quite extensive. There are surface guns, artillery and aft and forward torpedo bays. No doubt this was definitely a feared piece of hardware to any enemy ship. Most enemy vessels wouldn’t know of the threat till it was too late.
I’m left, also, to marvel at the technology and ingenuity it took to create such a craft. From massive diesel engines to radio communications, the sub demonstrates what cutting edge technology looked like in my grandfather’s day and age, as today it still is something that can wow the average person.
However, the appreciation that strikes me most deeply is for those who sailed the Cobia. Enduring temperatures of 90 plus degrees and the rancid air of stale tobacco smoke and perspiration, eighty men lived aboard this tight quartered cigar shaped machine. It is a testament to all those who served and sacrificed for their country during a war the US tried to avoid.
The price for admission is $15 for and adult, $12 for seniors and veterans, $8 for children 4-12 as any younger are admitted for free. The hours are 9-5 daily and the submarine is climate controlled, creating a pleasant touring environment. I spent two hours total in the museum, as the tour aboard the cobia is about an hour. The gift shop has some nice T’s and other fun souvenir’s. I think anyone curious about ships and their history would be pleasantly surprised by this beautiful museum.