Posted by: Kath Usitalo | September 30, 2009

Water Great Museum

The pilot house of the lake boat William Clay Ford faces the Detroit River at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle

Maybe it’s because both grandfathers were in the Navy and my dad worked for a couple of years on Great Lakes freighters, but when Graham was just a toddler he became fascinated with boats and shipping—an interest that continues today.

Maybe it’s my interest in the lake boats, and that screenplay about a guy who works on the freighters that I’ve been threatening to finish writing since before Graham was born. (Ready to come back to Michigan to make another movie, Clint?) Whatever the reason for our interest, we’ve visited several maritime museums including the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, one of the treasures of Detroit’s Belle Isle.

Smoking loungeGentlemen who smoked were once treated to this lounge; now smokers retreat to alleys

There’s a lot of maritime history behind the blue walls of this modest-looking building on the city’s island park in the Detroit River. In sharp contrast to the museum’s cool 1960’s modern exterior, visitors step into the ornately carved wood and colorful stained glass wall of the Gothic Room, the gentlemen’s smoking lounge of the early 1900s passenger boat the City of Detroit III.

Museum exhibits include lots of detailed model ships,the history of the waterway and the Detroit riverfront, and an area dedicated to Bob-Lo, the island amusement park that was a summertime destination from 1898 until 1993. Half the fun of Bob-Lo was getting there and back—over an hour each way on the Detroit River aboard one of the huge white steamers, the Columbia or the Ste. Claire. (The owners of both the Ste. Claire and the Columbia are working to restore them and see them back on the water!)

A swan boat from Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park

A swan boat from Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park

A highlight of the Dossin Museum is the actual pilot house of the William Clay Ford (pictured at top), the captain’s roost of an iron hauling freighter that was launched in 1952 and in 1991 was installed along the Detroit River, permanently positioned to monitor the passing water traffic.

Its sister, the Benson Ford, was featured in a long-ago documentary produced by WDIV-TV and Mort Crim about working on a Great Lakes freighter.

“Risky Business: Iron Boat, Iron Men” also featured the Benson Ford’s Captain Pat Owens, and Graham watched the videotape of that program over and over again. Captain Owens, who had years earlier served as 3rd mate on the William Clay Ford, made an appearance at the museum’s new pilot house exhibit so we hustled to Belle Isle (along with our nephew Kevin) and Graham was able to meet his hero.

The Dossin Great Lakes Museum is now open only on Saturdays and Sundays (although closed Oct. 4 and 18 due to other events). Admission is free; donations welcome.



  1. Nice entry on the Dossin Great Lakes Museum! Glad your family enjoyed it. Now you need to bring your family back to the Detroit Historical Museum! The Germack Pistachio Company is featured in one of our new exhibits.

    Bob Sadler
    Detroit Historical Museum

  2. […] here to see my earlier post about the Dossin […]

  3. Does anyone know where one could get a copy of Iron Boats, Iron Men? I had it on VHS when it was aired and then was accidentally taped over!! Would love to be able to view that again…and again and again 🙂


    • I could bring it in to a shop to have it copied for you; I think it would cost about $30 though….

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