Last weekend was my birthday! So like any good history nerd, I used that as an excuse to visit a museum (not that I really need an excuse). I went to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle (part of the Detroit Historical Society), because although I used to love that museum as a kid, I hadn’t been there since probably the 1990s. High time for a revisit. Plus, they recently did a huge overhaul of the museum, and I was excited to see the new exhibits!
The museum absolutely did not disappoint. It is a small museum, but it fits a lot in. The main entrance takes you into the Gothic Room, which is set up like the gentleman’s lounge of the City of Detroit III, a Great Lakes cruiser from the early 20th century. The room is gorgeous, with richly paneled wood, a huge chandelier and a magnificent set of stained glass windows. The City of Detroit III made trips between Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo from 1911-1950. I really wish ships like this still existed – I would love to take an opulent cruise on the lakes!
The main exhibition in the museum, Built by the River, explores the relationship between Detroit and the river. The exhibit describes how the river influenced the founding of the city (after all, Detroit means “on the straits”), the growth of industry, and local recreational pursuits. I really enjoyed this exhibit. It had some great visual props (both artifacts and images), clear, concise labels, and some really fun interactives. Yes, I played with the toys. You are never too old to have fun at a museum!
One part of the museum that has not changed much since my childhood visits is the William Clay Ford pilot house. The pilot house is built into the museum, but situated on the shore so that when you look out the front windows, it really feels like you are on a ship in the middle of river. During our visit, a friendly docent explained what the various knobs and buttons did, and chatted with us about the maps on display in the back of the pilot house. One of the things I learned while looking at these maps is that the river is actually very shallow down by the south end, where it meets Lake Erie. With the exception of the shipping channels the boats use, you could practically walk across (but you probably shouldn’t).
The William Clay Ford was a freighter that spent years transporting iron ore and coal from northern Michigan to Ford’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn. On November 10, 1975, however, it took part in a different task – searching for the Edmund Fitzgerald, the famous freighter that went down in a storm in Lake Superior. The William Clay Ford was the second ship to take part in the fruitless search, after the Anderson. The pilot house isn’t the only artifact the museum owns related to the Edmund Fitzgerald disaster. They also have an anchor from the drowned ship, although that particular anchor actually came off the ship a few years before it sank. The picture at the top of this post is me sitting on the anchor.
The final exhibit at the Dossin is a rotating gallery that currently contains an exhibit on hydroplane racing on the river. I’ll be honest, I’ve never paid much attention to the hydroplane races, so I was very interested to read about the sport and its long history in Detroit. People have been racing hydroplane boats on the Detroit river for over 100 years, and the sport is still popular today.
That about sums up my visit. But did I mention that the Dossin is free? It is! It is only open on the weekends, however, so plan your visit accordingly. And do plan a visit – it is not something to be missed.
I’m going to leave you with this: