Tag Archives: Historical Sites

New Exhibits Aboard the SS Meteor

Have you heard the story about how Captain Alexander McDougall navigated the waters to the Atlantic in his whaleback the Charles W. Wetmore?

Launched in 1891, the Wetmore was the first whaleback steamer to touch salt water. Since the steamer was 264 feet in length, it could not fit through the canals along the St. Lawrence Seaway. McDougall decided that he would run what is currently the St. Lawrence River rapids to get to the Atlantic Ocean. He took her safely through. Visitors can learn how he did it when they visit the SS Meteor’s new exhibits this summer.

SS Meteor Whaleback Ship Museum, the world’s last remaining above-water Whaleback ship.

Stories like this, about McDougall, the whalebacks he built, the American Barge Company and more, are depicted on the seven new exhibit panels that were revealed in May. The stories in this exhibit are unique to Superior, to McDougall and to the whalebacks he created, and they cannot be found on Google. It’s simply not available outside of the museum itself.

Prior to this installation, the exhibits have not had a major update since the early 1980s. The new panels bring the museum’s focus back to McDougall and all things whaleback, instead of a general maritime approach.

Development of the new exhibits has been two years in the making. Countless hours of research, writing, design and proofing, not to mention the gathering of photos and artifacts, have gone into the project.

Part of the research the team conducted in preparation for the exhibits was to ask the friends of the museum what they wanted to see. The overwhelming response was for more whaleback, more McDougall and more of Superior’s harbor history. That’s exactly what visitors will find in the Meteor’s cargo hold.

The new and revised information is something that whaleback enthusiasts can be proud of. The exhibit tells our story.

For more information on world’s last remaining above-water Whaleback ship and tours visit our SS Meteor page.

They’re Trying to Sink a Whaleback!

They’re Trying to Sink a Whaleback!

The year 2015 marked the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the passenger steamship Eastland. The disaster took the lives of 844 people. The ship had been built tall and narrow, and most of its weight was held on its upper decks. Previous incidents had shown that the ship would list when too many people stood on one side. Passenger ships like the Eastland were owned by various companies and had specific regular routes that allowed the public to get to work and move about the lakes and rivers in the area, along with affording these passengers the opportunity to take excursions.

Whaleback ship designer Alexander McDougall built one whaleback that was meant for the transportation of people instead of cargo. The whaleback steamship Christopher Columbus, after being used as a passenger ferry for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, continued its life as a passenger ship owned by the Goodrich Transportation Company, traveling a route between Milwaukee and Chicago. After the World’s Fair, another row of staterooms and an additional deck was added, making the ship very tall. Having boasted 7,000 passengers on her first voyage, the Columbus was allowed to transport 4,000 at a time on her route in Lake Michigan. After the sinking of the Eastland, the public became wary of traveling by ship, and it may be that the strange configuration of the whaleback, along with its height, made them particularly nervous about getting on board.

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board. (Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

The spectacle as the Columbus was towed through the channel with volunteers and sandbags on board.
(Photo courtesy of Superior Public Museums)

A few years after the Eastland disaster, McDougall wrote about how it affected the use of the Columbus. He wrote: “About three years ago, a passenger ship in Chicago harbor rolled and drowned many people, which caused distrust in excursion steamers. To show her stability, the owners of the Christopher Columbus invited the public [to watch] on many other steamers and boats out in Lake Michigan opposite Chicago, where the Columbus, with 4,000 sacks of sand and 300 men were placed all on one side, and on the different decks, where passengers on one side would stand; then with a large tow line from her bow and a powerful tug, she was whirled about in the lake and there much satisfied the public for her patronage continued.” Captain Alexander McDougall also wrote that though the additional deck made the Columbus much taller than she had been previously, she was still “as steady as a church.”

The Chicago Daily Tribune, on August 6, 1915, printed an article about the stability test that the Columbus underwent. “Three hundred lives, the steamship worth $400,000, and the reputation of the Goodrich Transit Company were risked in the undertaking. Experts declared the test satisfactory.” The Columbus continued on as a passenger ferry until she was ultimately scrapped in 1936.

A Visit with Pandora in the Parlor

Picture1

Detail of Pandora.

If you have been to Fairlawn Mansion, you have likely seen the marble statue that resides in the alcove in Grace’s parlor. The bright white sculpture sits on a brown pedestal that makes the figure prominent against the curtained windows. Draped in a soft-looking shroud made of marble, she leans slightly forward with her hair gathered just above her neck. Pandora stands gazing at her little decorative jar, seemingly contemplating whether she should open it or not. As the story goes, Pandora chooses to open the mysterious box, and, in so doing, unleashes all the evils of the world. In her haste to close the box after she realizes what is happening, she shuts the lid in time to trap one last thing: hope.

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An early photo of Pandora.

Martin and Grace Pattison brought the statue of Pandora home after one of their trips overseas. The figurine was created by Chauncey B. Ives in Italy around the year 1864. Ives was an American artist who moved to Florence, Italy in the 1840s. Known for his sculpting of figures, Ives was popular for many years because of his classical depictions of women such as Frances M. Pearce, Sans Souci, and Undine Receiving Her Soul. When the family moved out in 1920, they took the statue with them. She was donated back to Fairlawn when it opened as the Douglas County Historical Society in 1965.

In 1999, Pandora was sent to the Twin Cities for conservation – cleaning of the whole statue, and repair of Pandora’s broken marble fingers, happened at that time. After the conservation project was finished, the statue was shipped back to Superior and set up in the parlor once again. During the Christmas season, Pandora seems to glow in the light of the decorated trees as she stares at the jar in her hand. Be sure to visit Fairlawn during December to see Pandora standing where she has for most of the past century.

Volunteers Help Get S.S. Meteor in Ship Shape

At the north edge of Barker’s Island at Superior, Wisconsin sits an unassuming, little (by today’s standards) ship with a big story to tell.

It’s hard to believe today, but the launch of the S. S. Meteor (then the Frank Rockefeller) drew tens of thousands of spectators, as did most launches in the Twin Ports near the turn of the last century.

Now one of only two ship museums on the ports’ bay (the William A. Irvin is anchored in Duluth, MN) the  S.S. Meteor Whaleback is now land berthed just a few short miles from the site of her launch in 1896. At this site, she again drew tens of thousands of visitors during the mid-1970s’, with people from across the nation, and even across the sea, coming to view the longest sailing and only remaining (above water) Whaleback in the world.

The S.S. Meteor is one of about 40 Whaleback ships designed by Captain Alexander McDougall and built by his American Steel Barge Company in Superior. The Meteor is an enduring example of the technically innovative steel-hulled ships that greatly influenced the future of ship building and shipping on the Great Lakes. The design marks an important step in the progression toward the 1,000-foot freighters sailing the largest freshwater chain of lakes today.

Superior Public Museums has been charged with the maintenance of this historic vessel and the interpretation of the ship’s history. On deck for the near future is a comprehensive plan to completely overhaul to the ship’s exhibits so we may better present her story to museum visitors.

In the meantime, we have been readying for the new displays to come – getting her in ship shape – you might say. With thanks for the extra help from our hardworking and steadfast volunteer clean-up crew, we can confidently say that the ship is in better shape than it has seen in decades.

The volunteer work weekend scheduled April 26 – 27 is an event in itself. Along with all the cleaning, scrubbing, scraping and painting, there is an evening program, plenty of food to fuel our hale and hearty volunteers, and tons of fun to be had. This year, we’ll also be making plans for a crew to return when the winds at the head of the lakes are blowing just a bit warmer, to give the hull a new coat of paint.

If you are interested in joining the clean up crew or the painting crew, email: info@superiorpublicmuseums.org, or call Sara or Stacie at (715) 394-5712. 

Not up to the down and dirty of heavy lifting and cleaning or wielding a paint brush?  No worries, you can still help out when you Buy a Bucket ‘0 Paint!  $50 purchases one gallon of paint for the ship. You will receive our thanks and your name will be displayed on your bucket(s) in our “Thank You Tower” of empty cans, exhibited at the Meteor for the 2014 season. Contact us for details on how to make your donation – or click here.

The S.S. Meteor will re-open for the 2014 tour season on Sunday, May 19 from noon to 4 p.m. with free admission that day. Come Aboard to hear the story of the Whalebacks and experience a significant piece of Superior’s history.

Visit Your Local Museums

The head of the lakes, along with most of the rest of the country, is experiencing one of the most weather intense winters we’ve seen in a long time.

In the Twin Ports of Superior, Wisconsin and Duluth, Minnesota we’ve set a record for the number of days with below zero temperatures. Some of them have been as much as 30-below.

Let’s not forget the snow. We’ve got a pretty good start to setting a record snowfall for the year as well.

Such extreme weather can get old with the month of March approaching, causing cabin fever to set in with a vengeance.  What to do?  Why not visit a local museum or two?

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel all my life. I’ve seen most of the U.S., from rural farm communities, to small towns and villages, to large cities. One thing I’ve noted, is that for a region the size of the Twin Ports, we have a lot of museums by comparison.

Most of our local, historical sites and museums operate as non-profits. That means the $$ you spend for admission are an important contribution to keeping these historical sites operational and open to the public.

So shake your cabin fever and do a good deed at the same time. Visit one of these local museums to hear the fascinating history of our area.

And remember . . . Your History Becomes You!

In Superior, WI

  • Fairlawn Mansion ~ A Victorian House Museum
    The 42 room Queen Anne Victorian, featuring a four-story turret complete with widow’s watch overlooking the bay, is a unique and well recognized landmark in the City of Superior.
  • Douglas County Historical Society
    To collect, preserve, interpret and exhibit artifacts, archival materials and photographs of the cultural, social and political history of the people and communities of Douglas County, Wisconsin.
  • The Richard I. Bong Veterans Historical Center
    To honor the memory of Major Bong and all the veterans of WWII and later conflicts whose sacrifices maintain our Freedoms. The Center is an educational resource that collects and preserves the tangible legacy of these veterans and their home front supporters.

In Duluth, MN

  • Glensheen Estate
    Glensheen, a historic estate on the shores of Lake Superior, offers a slice of turn-of-the-last-century opulence. Its 1908 collection is intact, completely immersing you in the life of one of Minnesota’s most influential families.
  • Duluth Depot
    Including the *St. Louis County Historical Society, *Lake Superior Railroad Museum,  *Duluth Art Institute and *Veterans Memorial Hall.
  • Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum
    Located in a former Christian Scientist Church building built in 1912, the structure is a beautiful building with a large main floor exhibit hall.

Check individual websites for hours of operation, admission and additional information on exhibits, collections and tours.