Need a Great Lakes fix?

Detroit’s Dossin Great Lakes Museum fulfills the winter itch for maritime history. // Photography by John Sobczak
Pilot House - Dossin Great Lakes Museum

When cold weather dashes thoughts of getting out on the water, and frigid winds chill any desire to hit the beach, consider visiting Detroit’s Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle. The maritime museum found along the Detroit River has filled its visitors’ need for a Great Lakes fix since 1961.

“Those days when it’s cold and snowy out, you’d expect four to five visitors. We get 100,” said Steve Mrozek, museum manager.

Visitors entering the museum can’t help but notice the vintage hydroplane on display, Miss Pepsi, the fastest hydroplane on the river in its time. It’s no accident Miss Pepsi ended up in the Dossin. Three brothers, Russell, Walter and Roy Dossin, were the Michigan Pepsi bottlers. The family began racing hydroplanes in the 1940s, naming their boats after their most successful product.

Miss Pepsi at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum

They eventually built Miss Pepsi and raced the boat with two Allison engines and veteran driver Chuck Thompson. Miss Pepsi went on to win several races, but hydroplane designs were changing in the 1950s, and she was no longer competitive. The Dossins moved Miss Pepsi to the museum they were building on Belle Isle, and the first museum devoted to the Great Lakes maritime history.

Visitors who love freighters enjoy the Dossin, where they can explore the superstructure of the freighter, Benson Ford. It was one of two freighters, along with the Arthur M. Anderson, that risked going out into the storm to search for the Edmund Fitzgerald when the Fitzgerald disappeared from the radar in November 1975.

Down the stairs from the Ford is a room devoted to the Fitzgerald. A map shows the ship’s fatal route. Ironically, the Fitzgerald was going slower than it could have that night. But its radar was out, and it was traveling with the slower Anderson to take advantage of the vessel’s radar, Mrozek said.

Visitors entering the museum can’t help but notice the vintage hydroplane on display, Miss Pepsi, the fastest hydroplane on the river in its time.

Push a button on the display, and visitors hear Anderson Captain Bernie Cooper calling the U.S. Coast Guard to report the Fitzgerald’s disappearance. Lucas Plummer, a visitor from Defiance, Ohio, after quietly listening to the recording said he could hear the indecision in Cooper’s voice.

“You know something’s missing, but you don’t want to believe it,” Plummer said. “When do you give up?”

Museumgoers enter the Dossin through the Gothic Room. Reclaimed from the Great Lakes cruise ship The City of Detroit III, the ornately carved gentleman’s lounge provides a taste of the elegance experienced on early 20th century Great Lakes cruise ships. The museum had to cut 18 inches off the bottom of the entire room to squeeze it in, said Rebecca Salminen Witt, chief development and communications officer of the Detroit Historical Society, which runs both the Dossin and the Detroit Historical Museum

Light house light at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum

From the Gothic Room, visitors flow past several exhibits devoted to the history of Michigan and Detroit. The word Detroit — De-twah in French — means The Narrows. The name came from the French fur traders who were some of the area’s first explorers.

“We want to acquaint people with the Great Lakes and show them how the Great Lakes developed Michigan,” Mrozek said. At one point, Detroit was one of the largest shipping ports in the U.S.

The Dossin has one of the largest collections of model ships built on the same scale, Salminen Witt said. These include Walk-in-the-Water, named after an early Native American chief, and the steamer the Greater Detroit, one of the most detailed model ships made.

An anchor on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum

There are also several hands-on exhibits for small museumgoers. They can sit behind the wheel and pretend they are racing a hydroplane, sailing in the Mackinac Race or on an iceboat.

There is a display of Fresnel lights from Great Lakes lighthouses and an opportunity to view the Canadian shore through the periscope of the USS Tambor, a World War II submarine.

“We’ve never been here,” said museum visitor Kelli Collins of Ferndale. Out-of-town visitors sent her looking for things to do, which led to their trip to the Dossin. “The kids are having a really good time.”

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is found on Belle Isle at 100 The Strand, Detroit. The museum’s winter hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki is a sailing enthusiast and retired Detroit Free Press reporter.

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