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Explore the ordeal of the SS Michigan at the museum

• Jan 25, 2019 at 4:00 PM

A new exhibit, “Icebound: The Ordeal of the SS Michigan,” is currently on display the Tri-Cities Historical Museum. The exhibit comes to the museum from the Historic Ottawa Beach Society, which is located near the ship’s final resting place.

In 1885, during one of the most brutal winters then recorded, a large steamship, the SS Michigan, became trapped in the pack ice on Lake Michigan. The Michigan was one of the Great Lakes’ true luxury liners.

The Michigan was designed by famed naval architect Frank Kirby, and built in Wyandotte by the Detroit Dry Dock Co. in 1881. Kirby was a master ship architect, designing more than 100 ships used on the Great Lakes, as well as the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. His ships have been referred to as “floating palaces,” which combined the elegance of a fine home with the safety of a fortress.

The Michigan also had the newest in efficient marine engines — an F&AC compound engine which utilized 27-inch and 44-inch cylinders along with a 40-inch stroke. This engine was powered by an enormous boiler, 8 feet in diameter and 18 feet long, constructed by DeSoto and Hutton of Detroit. From bow to stern, the Michigan was 204 feet, and measured 35 feet across.

The Michigan had been sent on a rescue mission, during which it was attempting to reach another trapped ship and tow it to shore. After a 39-day battle with the frozen lake, the ship began taking on water and sank just off Holland. The captain and all 25 crewmen were saved because of the heroics of one young man: George Sheldon, the ship’s porter.

One-hundred and thirty years after the ship sank, members of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association discovered the remains of the Michigan at the bottom of the lake. The team used a side-scan sonar, which is also known as a tow-fish, to help locate the wreck. They searched for several weeks scanning large tracts of the lake bed.

The ship rests in more than 275 feet of water, so a technical diving team with special training was needed to go down and verify that it actually was the SS Michigan. The team of Jeff Vos, Todd White and Bob Underhill dove down into the depths and explored the wreckage. They were able to identify the wreck by location of the ship's name on the capstan. It was indeed the Michigan.

A portion of the exhibit on display was designed by Valerie van Heest, and is based on her children’s book, “Icebound: The Adventures of Young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan.” Van Heest also illustrated the book and her drawings are used within the exhibit to help tell the story. She digitally created the illustrations by combining layers of historic and staged photographs, which she then enhanced, colorized and, in some cases, drew additional features.

Within the exhibit, museum visitors will be able to follow the artist’s chronological renderings, traveling back in time to learn about the adventures of young George Sheldon and the SS Michigan that took place just a few miles from Holland. One will be able to then journey underwater through pictures and video to see the actual steamship as it rests today on the bottom of Lake Michigan, 18 miles offshore.

This is a story-driven exhibit. Due to maritime laws, all artifacts from the ship still reside at the wreck site. Artifacts from the museum’s own collection augment the story of the Michigan. The exhibit also explores other Lake Michigan shipwrecks. Join us to learn how divers and archaeologists analyze wrecks, searching for clues on what may have happened in the past. Come delve into the waters and discover the interesting history of the wreckage of the depths.

The Tri-Cities Historical Museum is located at 200 Washington Ave. in downtown Grand Haven and is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays from 12-5 p.m. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for up-to-date information on exhibits and events.

About the writer: Jared Yax is the curator of exhibits at the Tri-Cities Historical Museum.

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