Was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie the single most important event in Great Lakes history?
Christopher Gillcrist, executive director of the new National Museum of the Great Lakes, believes so. He said, “If Perry doesn’t win, we’re Canadian. No doubt. Even if we win the rest of the war.”
Gillcrist made his comment last week while speaking to the East Toledo Club at Hope Community Church in Oregon.
Gillcrist traveled here from Vermilion, home of the Inland Seas Museum, which will relocate to The Marina District in East Toledo and expand its exhibits. The renamed National Museum of the Great Lakes is scheduled to open this fall.
Gillcrist said if Perry’s victory was the most important event, it was closely followed by the role the Great Lakes played in the Industrial Revolution.
“The Industrial Revolution is the defining economic experience in this nation’s history,” Gillcrist said. “It was made possible not only by the things that were here—iron ore, coal and grain—but also by the ability to ship that cheaply and cost-effectively in a capitalistic framework. We would not have had the Industrial Revolution without the Great Lakes.”
The role the Great Lakes played, and continues to play, in industry will be highlighted in one of four major galleries. The others are:
•Exploration and Settlement which will take visitors on a tour from the days of the Voyagers, fur trappers and explorers to the early 1800s;
•Safeguard and Support which will describe the role the lakes have played in our military history;
•Shipwreck and Survival which will tell the stories of lighthouses and wrecks such as the Edmund Fitzgerald.
To give you an idea of the quality of the exhibits, Gillcrist said a visitor will be able to take a simulated ride on a diving bell down to the wreck of the Fitzgerald to explore the ship and the reasons it sank. It will be one of many exhibits that are hands-on. Another will feature a hand-operated bilge pump to give visitors real-time experience on keeping a ship afloat without mechanically powered pumps.
Creating such excitement is a must in today’s museum, Gillcrist said. And, it’s not cheap. The Fitzgerald exhibit alone cost about $250,000. Fundraising, memberships in the Great Lakes Historical Society and state grants will pay for most of the construction work. The museum will be housed in the Toledo Marina building, which will require about $800,000 in renovations to accommodate the galleries.
The biggest expense so far has been to move the Col. James. M. Schoonmaker (once called the Willis B. Boyer) from its berth near the Anthony Wayne Bridge to a new slip located adjacent to the museum. That cost approximately $3 million and was paid for by the State of Ohio.
The ship, once the largest freighter on the Great Lakes, was built in 1911. It has been repainted and will become an integral component to the museum experience.
“It offers incredible opportunities for programming,” Gillcrist said. He added, “In terms of marketing, it’s a 625-foot billboard that says ‘come here’ when you’re coming over the I-280 bridge from the north.”
While the museum will tell the story of the Great Lakes from Duluth to the St. Lawrence Seaway, it will also have a section on Toledo’s importance as a port entitled “The Toledo Trail.” One exhibit will feature a 17-ton, 23-foot blade-to-blade propeller built in Toledo in the mid 1950s by American Propeller. At the time, it was the largest propeller in the world and was cast in brass in one piece.
Another exhibit will tell the story of the David Dows, the only five-masted schooner to sail the Great Lakes. It too was built in Toledo.
Gillcrist says the Great Lakes have been overlooked for its role in the Underground Railroad. He will try to correct that. Many runaway slaves found safe haven in Canada crossing one of the Great Lakes on a steam ship.
Gillcrist says the museum will also host community events, perhaps, a muscle car and muscle boat show.
A feasibility study predicts the museum will attract some 41,000 visitors annually. Admission is expected to be about $11 per adult, with discounts for various age groups.
Why move from Vermilion to Toledo?
Gillcrist said Toledo has a maritime history, the Schoonmaker museum ship, a building and available land. Access from the Veterans Glass City Skyway on I-280 and visibility also were factors. So were other cultural attractions such as the Toledo Museum of Art and Imagination Station.
“This is a phenomenal fit for us. We think it’s going to be a great success,” he said.