Icebound! A Part of Michigan Maritime History

| 1/26/2009 5:13:58 PM

Tags: Lake Michigan, maritime, history, museums,

Maritime Museum Harbor

It was the perfect day for it. Though temperatures during the preceding week ranged between the below zero mark and the single digits, the thermometer that Sunday afternoon hovered in the mid-twenties. Downright balmy, it seemed. The storm had dumped day-after-day of snow, and it was still coming down. Wind added to the over-all feeling that one just might have been transported back to the winter of 1885. A photo shown during the presentation I was attending confirmed it: The only noticeable difference between the South Haven in the photo during the 1880s, and today was the mode of transportation of the time; horses struggled to make their way through the snow instead of cars.

Mother Nature certainly appeared to have set the stage well for Valerie van Heest’s lecture at the Michigan Maritime Museum. But appearances can be deceiving: the feet of snow already on the ground and still accumulating, the wind and bitter temperatures, and the layer of ice on the channel outside the museum, were nothing compared to what George Sheldon and his fellow crewmates aboard the SS Michigan endured 125 years earlier.

Valerie van Heest is not only an engaging speaker, but is a world class diving champion, shipwreck hunter, and author. She a member of the Women Divers Hall of Fame and co-founded Chicago’s Underwater Archeological Society, the Southwest Michigan Underwater Preserve and Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates. The topic of her presentation at the maritime museum was the wrecks she and her team have discovered on the bottom of Lake Michigan, particularly focusing on the SS Michigan.

The SS Michigan was a 200 foot luxury passenger steamship. One of the grandest on the Great Lakes, it boasted the best of amenities for the vacationing passengers traveling from West Michigan to Wisconsin in the 1880’s. No expense had been spared on the rich wood paneling, oriental rugs, artwork, and the grand staircase with the sky light above. And with five watertight compartments and a double iron hull below, the Michigan was strong as well as stately.

Its strength was the reason it was called into service as a rescue boat in the winter of 1885. The double hull was thought strong enough to break through the ice that had stranded its sister ship, the Oneida, in the worst storm to hit the area in a decade.

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