Maritime museums Maine to Manitowoc

You don’t need sea legs to appreciate the work that gets done in water, be it commercial fishing, cargo hauling or the cruising of tourists. Maritime attractions that show how far we’ve come, and how we got there, are plentiful – both close to home and far away. Here are examples.

I spent a week in Maine recently, and it’s an understatement to call the state a hub of waterway activity. There is great pride in water transportation history, great efforts to preserve working waterfront.

The state has about two dozen maritime museums, which is fitting because of its military heritage and its three high-traffic seaport cities: Portland, Searsport and Eastport. The ports are deep and ice-free, making usage attractive year-round.

Some Maine maritime exhibits are modest in size but in exquisite locations, such as the Portland Head Light Museum at Cape Elizabeth. This lighthouse – the state’s oldest (it opened in 1791) and perhaps its most photographed – is a part of a 90-acre park that also contains Fort Williams, designated by President McKinley in 1894 and deactivated in 1963. For more, go to or call (207) 799-2661.

Maine’s oldest maritime museum is the Penobscot in Searsport, a campus of about a dozen buildings in a town known as the home of about 275 sea captains (particularly during the 19th century) and more than a half-dozen ship building companies.

On scenic and meandering U.S. 1, north of Portland, one of the people at the helm today is Clark Nichols, who is age 90 and a descendant of a long line of sea captains. Born in one of the houses that visitors can tour, he recalls that, during its heyday, “there were so many ships built in this area that sometimes half-models would get tossed out or used as firewood.”

Now Searsport is a haven of seaworthy artifacts, and most of the buildings that display them are on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can see the way sea captains lived while at work and ashore. There are scaled-down models of ships, full-sized watercraft, genealogical archives, ship paraphernalia and paintings.

The latter includes 23 works by Thomas (1797-1827) and James Buttersworth (1817-1894), a father and son who made their love for the sea an artistic specialty. The son’s paintings of military, commercial and leisure vessels have been described as “premier examples of American marine art.”

For more, go to or call (207) 548-2529.

The leader of all maritime tributes in the state is the Marine Maritime Museum in Bath, a 20-acre property that is off of U.S. 1 and the Kennebec River, north of Portland. The heart of the grounds is a historic shipyard. One building is devoted to lobstering; in another, visitors can watch wooden schooners being built. History exhibits have six themes, from world trade to recreational use of waterways. Boat rides can be taken, and the grounds are ideal for picnicking.

For more, go to or call (207) 443-1316. Next door and within view is Bath Iron Works, which makes ships for the U.S. Navy, but no tours are given.

OK, we don’t have high seas – as in ocean – to contend with in Wisconsin, but our Great Lakes heritage makes maritime history a noble study in another way.

The Wisconsin Maritime Museum, Manitowoc, is one of the largest such museums in the Midwest. An unusual aspect is its study of the state’s World War II submarine building industry. Tours can be taken in the 1945 USS COBIA, a National Historic Landmark that also can be rented for overnight youth group stays.

Clipper City Days, during which the public can tour and/or cruise on a half-dozen clipper ships, is June 19-20, A temporary exhibit, “Hot Boats on Cold Water,” about sailboat and power boat racing, is in place until November. For more, go to or call (866) 724-2356.

The Door County Maritime Museum has three sites to tour.

Its Sturgeon Bay museum concentrates on the area’s shipyard history, which has included ore carriers to luxury yacht production. “Guillotines and Champagne: The Science and Celebration of Ship Launching” is a special exhibit that will be up through January 2005.

The oil house and lighthouse keeper’s house at Cana Island Lighthouse, Bailey’s Harbor, can be visited until late October. The working lighthouse’s interior cannot be toured; it is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The third property – a museum at Gills Rock, at the peninsula’s tip – has been remodeled and recently reopened. Hope, a fishing tug that was built in 1930, can be boarded there; its last fishing trip was in 1992. Marine engines, ice fishing and navigation are among the other themes. There is a new exhibit about the Washington Island Ferry Line and its longtime operator, Arni Richter.

For more about these facilities, go to or call (920) 743-5958. At the Sturgeon Bay museum, there are 7 p.m. Sunday outdoor concerts from June 27 to July 25. The annual Door County Classic and Wooden Boat Show is Aug. 7-8.

Last, the S.S. Meteor and Maritime Museum, Superior, is open until September. It is the world’s only whaleback ship (which preceded freighter ships) and was built in Superior in 1896. Tours are given daily. For more, go to or call (800) 942-5313.