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17 Awesome Places to Discover Michigan’s Maritime History

As the home of four of the five Great Lakes, it’s no surprise that Michigan has a rich and proud maritime history. Evidence of that tradition can be found all over the state in museums, historic villages, and museum ships.

Not only are these spots great places to discover Michigan’s maritime history, but they are also fascinating in their own right, offering educational opportunities and reminders of just how important the Great Lakes are to Michigan’s economy and its residents.

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum-Paradise
Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum | photo via kielbi60

Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum | Paradise

Whitefish Point is known as the Graveyard of the Great Lakes and this museum in the eastern Upper Peninsula helps tell the many stories of Great Lakes shipwrecks.

It’s a popular tourist attraction and gets more than 75,000 visitors each summer for good reason. Immersive experiences at the GLSM help visitors understand the dangers of Great Lakes sailing and give them a feel for different aspects of sailing aboard ships and navigation.

The museum’s most well-known artifact is the bronze bell from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which stands as a memorial to the ship’s lost crew. The museum also displays pieces from more than a half dozen shipwrecks in the Whitefish Point Underwater Preserve.

The museum complex’s collection of historic buildings makes it easy for visitors to spend an afternoon or even a full day soaking up the rich maritime history found here.

Marquette Maritime Museum | Marquette

The Marquette Maritime Museum is a captivating destination that offers a fascinating glimpse into the Upper Peninsula’s rich maritime history.

Housed in a historic building overlooking Lake Superior, the museum showcases an impressive collection of artifacts, exhibits, and interactive displays that highlight the Marquette area’s maritime heritage. Visitors can explore different aspects of Great Lakes shipping, lighthouse history, shipwrecks, and the important role of the United States Coast Guard.

The museum also features a restored lighthouse keeper’s dwelling and offers guided tours of the nearby Marquette Harbor Lighthouse.

Les Cheneaux Maritime Museum-Les Cheneaux Islands
Les Cheneaux Maritime Museum | photo via mac_karie

Les Chenaux Historical Museum | Cedarville

On the northern tip of Lake Huron in the eastern Upper Peninsula, travelers won’t want to miss a chance to visit this unique collection of museums.

The Les Cheneaux Historical Museum features two buildings, including a log cabin that depicts the area’s early days of settlement and the importance of lumbering. The other, more modern building, shows changes in everyday life as the community transformed from a lumber stronghold to a recreational hidden gem.

The O.M. Reif Boathouse houses displays of vintage boats, marine artifacts, antique motors, historic photos, a boat-building workshop, and a gift shop. The Les Cheneaux Historical Society also hosts an annual wooden boat show, featuring rowboats, sailboats, racers, and more.

Museum Ship Valley Camp -Ship Valley Camp
Museum Ship Valley Camp | photo via themidwestmama

Soo Locks and Museum Ship Valley Camp | Sault Ste. Marie

The Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie is of one Michigan’s most famous attractions and continues to fascinate visitors young and old as an engineering marvel. The Locks continue to play a critical role in Great Lakes shipping and transportation and travelers can visit Soo Locks Visitor Center to see ships passing through.

Visitors who want a closer look at the Soo Locks can take an enjoyable and educational journey through the locks on the Famous Soo Locks Boat Tours.

Museum Ship Valley Camp is a short distance (0.6 miles) from Soo Locks and offers visitors a unique experience. Visitors can step aboard an honest-to-goodness Great Lakes freighter and tour the deck, but the cargo hold is also home to a 20,000-square-foot museum.

The museum’s features include a memorial to the Edmund Fitzgerald and four 1,200-gallon aquariums stocked with Great Lakes fish species. Visitors can also tour the crew’s quarters, offering a glimpse of life for sailors aboard a Great Lakes ship.

Sleeping Bear Maritime Museum-Glen Arbor
Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Coast Station Maritime Museum | photo via jmichaelpadgett

Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Coast Station Maritime Museum | Glen Arbor

Situated within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, this museum offers visitors of all ages a captivating exploration of the area’s maritime history.

Housed in a restored historic building, the museum provides compelling insight into the role of the Coast Guard in the Great Lakes region. Visitors can discover exhibits showcasing the station’s operations, equipment, and the brave men and women who served there.

The museum also offers engaging displays on maritime rescue missions, shipwrecks, and the evolution of maritime technology.

Cannery Boathouse Museum | Empire

Nestled within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, this museum is home to the largest public exhibit of Great Lakes’ small craft.

First opened as a warehouse and later converted into a cherry cannery, the building is now a museum that houses historic boats used around the Manitou Islands and Glen Haven. The displayed boats include an Anishinaabek dug-out canoe and a Coast Guard TRS surfboat.

Visitors can also see ice harvesting tools and commercial fishing tools on display, including net anchors, fish, and more. This gives visitors a unique look at how fishermen preserved their catches before the advent of refrigeration systems.

Note: Because the museum is part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, visitor passes are required for admittance.

Glen Haven Village-Glen Haven
Glen Haven Village | photo via saltwaterpurls

Glen Haven Village | Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Glen Haven is a picturesque restored port village within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore that provides visitors with a look at life in a 19th-century village on the Lake Michigan shore.

This charming community is known for its historic charm, with well-preserved 19th-century buildings and a scenic harbor. Visitors can explore an iconic black-and-white striped lighthouse and enjoy breathtaking views of crystal-clear water and towering sand dunes. 

Glen Haven provides a peaceful retreat for nature lovers, with opportunities for hiking, swimming, and wildlife watching, making it a perfect escape in the heart of Northwest Michigan. 

Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum-Mackinaw City
Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum | photo via windowonthewater

Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum | Mackinaw City

A short distance from the Mackinac Bridge and Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse is a museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of Icebreaker Mackinaw WAGB-83.

Known as the “Queen of the Great Lakes,” the Mackinaw was built during WWII to “meet the heavy demands of war materials and transportation during the winter months.” She was decommissioned in 2006 and is now open for public tours in Mackinaw City.

Visitors can learn about the Mackinaw’s career on the Great Lakes and can tour everything from the captain’s quarters to the engine room, to the mess deck.

This unique museum not only preserves the legacy of the Mackinaw but allows travelers to have an up-close-and-personal experience seeing what life was like on a Great Lakes icebreaker. 

Michigan Maritime Museum - South Haven Michigan
Michigan Maritime Museum | photo via @neimanjane

Michigan Maritime Museum | South Haven

The mission of the Michigan Maritime Museum is to offer something for every Great Lakes enthusiast. With a mix of immersive exhibits and hands-on experiences, this fun waterfront museum is one place visitors won’t want to miss.

The museum campus includes five different structures, which include permanent and changing exhibits, a fleet of replica vessels to offer on-water experiences; a workshop for boat-building classes and other maritime-related skills, and more.

Visitors can do a little bit of everything from sailing aboard a tall ship to enjoying the site of the bustling South Haven harbor to viewing informative exhibits to learn more about Great Lakes history. The variety of activities ensures that every visitor walks away with a memorable experience.

Shipwreck Exhibit At Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, Alpena - Best Things To Do In Alpena
Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center | photo via Joel Heckaman

Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center | Alpena

Alpena, known as the Sanctuary of the Great Lakes, is where visitors can find the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which protects more than 100 shipwrecks. Visitors can see these wrecks up close on amazing seasonal glass-bottom boat tours.

However, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center allows visitors to experience and learn even more about the rich history of the Great Lakes. Within a 10,000-square-foot space, visitors of all ages can feel the power of Lake Huron aboard a life-size schooner, “swim” over a shipwreck, and much more.

Admission to this massive facility is free and a visit here, exploring dozens of fun exhibits, makes for the perfect family-friendly activity.

Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum-Rogers City
Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum | photo via jb_jason_nina

Great Lakes Lore Maritime Museum | Rogers City

Nestled about 45 minutes north of Alpena is another wonderful museum filled with stories of men and women who made a living on the Great Lakes.

The museum honors anyone and everyone who made a living on the Great Lakes, from Great Lakes freighter captains to lighthouse keepers to pre-colonial traders. This allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the history of Great Lakes shipping, hearing sailors tell their stories and viewing equipment, uniforms, and navigational tools. 

The museum also holds several special events each year, honoring the crew on the anniversary of different Great Lakes shipwrecks, including the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Carl D. Bradley. This gives visitors a chance to pay their respects to the crews of these ships and to learn their importance in Great Lakes history.

Maritime Museum Ludington Burnsie922
Maritime Museum | photo via burnsie922

Port of Ludington Maritime Museum | Ludington

Through a mix of interactive exhibits, photos and artifacts, and digital storytelling, this museum on the shores of Lake Michigan brings history to life.

This three-story museum at the former U.S. Coast Guard Station gives visitors incredible views of the shoreline, the history Badger car ferry, and the North Pier Light.

Exhibitions at this Ludington museum give visitors a glimpse into life on the car ferries, the evolution of lighthouse optics, famous Lake Michigan shipwrecks, lumbering on Pere Marquette Lake, and much more.

With three floors to explore, every visitor can find something to enjoy. Even the youngest visitors will find something fascinating as they explore and learn about Lake Michigan’s importance for Great Lakes travel.

Uscgc Acacia And Ss City Of Milwaukee-Manistee
USCGC Acacia and SS City of Milwaukee | photo via spencer_galore

USCGC Acacia and SS City of Milwaukee | Manistee

Together with the SS City of Milwaukee, the Acacia offers West Michigan visitors the chance to get a glimpse of what life is like on a Great Lakes ship.

The Acacia was a multi-purpose vessel primarily responsible for maintaining Great Lakes buoys, lighthouses, and other navigational aids. It also assisted in rescues and icebreaking. During various times, it was homeported in Port Huron, Grand Haven, Charlevoix, and Detroit.

The City of Milwaukee operates as a seasonal museum, a seasonal bed and breakfast, and delights visitors each October by transforming into a Ghost Ship haunted attraction.

Visitors can tour one ship or buy a combo ticket to tour both to gain fascinating perspectives on both ships.

Ss Milwaukee Clipper
SS Milwaukee Clipper. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Polasek.

SS Milwaukee Clipper | Muskegon

Visitors of all ages are invited to step aboard and learn the intriguing story of an iconic national landmark known as the “Queen of the Great Lakes.” For decades, this majestic vessel has stood as a symbol of maritime heritage.

The Clipper predates the Titanic and once sailed four of the Great Lakes as a passenger ship and car ferry. Visitors can tour the ship — located at the former Grand Truck ferry dock — and may find that every room is like a time capsule.

The ship includes a pilothouse, crew quarters, staterooms, a dance floor, a movie theater, and more, giving visitors a real look life about this legendary Great Lakes ship.

Huron Lightship Museum In Port Huron | Photo Via Leah Tennant
Huron Lightship Museum in Port Huron | photo via Leah Tennant

Huron Lightship Museum | Port Huron

Michigan’s Thumbcoast offers a truly unique and enlightening experience that relays an important part of Great Lakes history.

In Port Huron, visitors can see and step aboard a functioning lightship, the HURON, known locally as “Old B.O.” Lightships like the HURON were floating lighthouses anchored in places where lighthouses couldn’t be built. They used a mast light and sirens to keep ships on course. The HURON got its nickname due to the sound its foghorn made, which sounded every 30 seconds in three-second blasts.

The HURON was the last operating Great Lakes lightship and was retired in 1970. It is moored permanently in Pine Grove Park and houses an extensive collection of artifacts.

Algonac Clay Historical Society-Algonac
Algonac-Clay Historical Society | photo via bmwellsphoto

Algonac-Clay Historical Society | Algonac

The Algonac-Clay Historical Society is a cherished institution in Michigan’s thumb that’s dedicated to preserving and celebrating the rich heritage of the local community.

The society’s museum showcases a diverse collection of artifacts, photographs, and documents that chronicle the area’s history. Visitors can explore exhibits highlighting the region’s maritime traditions, industrial heritage, and the lives of early settlers.

The society also organizes educational programs, events, and community outreach initiatives to engage residents and visitors.

Dossin Great Lakes Museum-Detroit
Dossin Great Lakes Museum | photo via vanpeltspencer

Dossin Great Lakes Museum | Detroit

Located on the shores of scenic Belle Isle, the Dossin Museum specifically highlights Detroit’s place in maritime history.

The museum is well-known for housing one of the world’s largest collections of model ships. The collection is one of the museum’s many permanent exhibits that appeal to residents and travelers alike.

The museum’s other permanent exhibits include the bow anchor from the Edmund Fitzgerald; the pilot house of the SS William Clay Ford, which gives visitors a chance to be a “freighter captain”; and the Miss Pepsi, one of the fastest hydroplane racing boats of all time.

Visit an Awesome Michigan Maritime Museum

Imagine stepping aboard a historic freighter and peering into different rooms to get a sense of Great Lakes sailing life. Picture majestic ships navigating the Soo Locks or the Great Lakes as you gaze at their historic artifacts. Think of the crews of ships that were lost in Great Lakes shipwrecks.

By visiting one of the spots listed above and many others, locals and visitors alike will gain a great appreciation for the navigational tools, the ships, and the people who have left their mark on Great Lakes history. 

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