For more than a half-century tourism has been big business around the Great Lakes. For many small towns in the north, the entire economy can depend on visitors coming for two months out of the year. Few places have tried to attract tourists by showing them the history of the lakes, a history that is not widely known. Some think it could be a huge draw, especially as the baby boomers move into retirement.
One town in the region that does use maritime history to market itself is Manistee, Michigan, which calls itself the Victorian Port City. In 1882, a fire in Manistee claimed part of one block downtown. Seven buildings in a row went up soon after. They’ve all been restored in the original Victorian style.“You get an exact image here of what you would have seen in 1890,” said Steve Harold, a historian with the Manistee County Historical Museum.
Promoting history is unusual in northern Michigan. Most coastal towns around here promote the blue water of Lake Michigan and the beaches and boats that go with it. Manistee has a nice beach too, but the city has also put its heritage to good use. In early December every year Manistee hosts the Victorian Sleighbell Parade, so it’s one of the few communities in the north to have a major festival in the winter. The port is also a regular stop for cruise ships on the Great Lakes. Steve Harold says the historic character of the downtown adds flavor to what most tourists like to do, shop.
Travelers spent more than 17 billion dollars in Michigan last year, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. National surveys show visitors increasingly want some kind of cultural experience that is unique to the places they travel. That’s why some people think the maritime history of the Great Lakes should be promoted more than it is.
But that history has long been neglected. Lee Murdock is a folk singer who lives west of Chicago. He’s been singing ballads and sailor songs about the lakes for 25 years. Murdock says it makes sense that people in the 20th century forgot about the lakes since they were using them like a sewer.
“And the lakes got dirtier and dirtier and dirtier,” said Murdock. “That’s when cities like Chicago, Cleveland and Detroit… and Buffalo, they kind of turned their back on the Great Lakes.”
Murdock says when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire it not only reminded people that the lakes were dirty, but that they were there. He thinks interest in maritime history has followed the environmental issues and he expects baby boomers to become more interested in the past as they grow older.
Bill Anderson agrees, and sees an opportunity. “We’ve never had an age cohort in the history of the United States with so much education and so much disposable income,” said the historian from Ludington Michigan.
Anderson was the head of Michigan’s now defunct Department of History, Arts and Libraries. These days he’s helping his hometown cater to those boomers. Ludington is one of those Lake Michigan towns that has mainly relied on the beach to attract visitors. But now city leaders are looking more closely at what else they have.
“One of the areas of strength for us is that we’ve always been a maritime community,” says Anderson.
The last coal-fired car ferry still operating in the Great Lakes has its home in Ludington. Other attractions here include a vintage baseball team, The Ludington Mariners, and a waterfront sculpture park featuring life-size bronze pieces that evoke the past. Anderson is involved in a study to inventory all the assets and show the business community that history and other cultural attractions are worth promoting.
Drawing in visitors is a challenge, though, even for the best maritime museums and exhibits. Chris Gilchrist, the executive director of the Great Lakes Historical Society in Vermillion, Ohio, says most historic attractions around the Great Lakes are not destinations.
“Most of your visitors come to the community for some other reason and say, ‘Oh, they’ve got a museum.’”
Maritime exhibits can be expensive. Ships and lighthouses especially are very expensive to restore and maintain. Government and foundation grants that typically help with such projects are harder to come by these days. Manistee just took ownership of its lighthouse and plans to refurbish it. Local historian Steve Harold figures it will cost $150,000 just for a proper coat of paint on the outside. He’s not worried about raising the money though because the light is Manistee’s icon.
“It’s on city stationary,” says Harold. “It’s on everything that gets published.”
Once it’s open, Manistee will have a lighthouse and two historic ships for visitors, in addition to the local museum. That will put the city in a good position if there is a renaissance Great Lakes maritime history and the tourism business favors towns that can satisfy travelers curious about the old days on the inland seas.