Sleeping Bear Maritime History

Sleeping Bear Bay provided a safe stopping place for the schooners and steamboats traveling between the Straits of Mackinaw and Chicago. The steamboats needed fire wood for fuel, and all vessels needed fresh food and supplies. Passengers came ashore for a meal, a dry bed and to search for land to homestead. Later farmers and lumbermen used the dock at Glen Haven to ship their products to other markets on the Great Lakes.

These are dangerous waters. Storms and shoals have combined to sink fifty-eight ships in the Manitou Passage. These shipwrecks are now part of the Manitou Passage State Underwater Preserve and are protected for visitors to explore and enjoy. You don’t have to be a diver either. Often a large chunk of a wreck will wash up on the beach for hikers to find. Shipwreck artifacts are, of course, protected and must be left where they lie. This way others may also enjoy the thrill of discovery. And the thrill of discovery is what Glen Haven is all about!

The Sleeping Bear Point Maritime Museum was built in 1901 as a U.S. Life-Saving Station on Sleeping Bear Point. It was moved to its present location in 1931 when the shifting dunes threatened to bury it. The US Coast Guard abandoned it in World War II and it stood vacant until 1984 when the park refurbished it and opened it to the public as a museum.

The buildings are open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but the grounds are open year-round. Wayside exhibits are in place to tell the story of the station. The station’s first floor contains exhibits on Great Lakes maritime history, including shipwrecks and lake hazards. It also includes types of vessels used throughout the decades and daily life at the station for the Life Savers and the Coast Guardsmen. Exhibits on the second floor include a recreated crewmen’s bunkroom and a lake freighter pilot house, complete with a panoramic view of the Manitou Passage.

Nearby, the boathouse has been refurnished as it would have appeared at the beginning of this century with surfboat, lifeboat, beach rescue cart, line-throwing cannon, and all the many pieces of equipment necessary for saving lives.

Some of the boats that operated on Sleeping Bear Bay and around the Manitou Islands can be seen at the historic boat museum, housed in the old Cannery building back in Glen Haven. The structure was built early in this century to process fruit produced as part of the enterprises of businessman D.H. Day, who owned Glen Haven and much of the surrounding land. The National Lakeshore has more recently adapted the Cannery as a place to display the boats and related artifacts that interpret the story of daily life, working and playing on Lake Michigan and other local waters.

Indoor exhibits include from small rowboats, outboard motors and a 36-foot, self-righting, motorized lifeboat of the U.S. Coast Guard. Just outside is the Aloha, a typical Great Lakes fishtug, said to be “as ugly as it was practical”. Also located in the Cannery is the original Edison generator that provided direct current electricity for Glen Haven in the early days.