Not everyone has the time or money for travel to far away places this summer, but folks from Sault, Ontario looking for a change of scenery and a fascinating look at the history of the Great Lakes need not look any farther than Sault, Michigan’s Museum Ship Valley Camp.
The U.S. vessel, a former freighter which sailed the Great Lakes for 49 years before its conversion into a museum ship, is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2017.
Many are aware the restored, original Edmund Fitzgerald ship’s bell is on display at Whitefish Point’s Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, but not everyone knows the Museum Ship Valley Camp has two battered lifeboats from the Edmund Fitzgerald, for all visitors to see, in an eerie display in the bottom of the ship.
The presence of the Fitzgerald lifeboats display gets around largely by word of mouth, said Paul Sabourin, Sault (Michigan) Historic Sites curator and tour guide.
In the hours and days after the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with all 29 crew members in a vicious storm on Lake Superior Nov. 10, 1975, two severely battered lifeboats from the ship were recovered.
Fitzgerald lifeboat Number 1 was found ripped in half, floating upside down and recovered from Lake Superior Nov. 11, 1975 by a vessel searching for survivors.
Fitzgerald lifeboat Number 2 was found at Batchawana Bay in one piece, but dented, a large hole in its left side and its front ripped like paper from damage inflicted by the ferocious waves of Nov. 10 1975.
A life ring from the ship was found by the OPP near Mamainse Point, and is also part of the Valley Camp’s Edmund Fitzgerald display.
The items were brought to the Museum Ship Valley Camp in 1976 through the efforts of Jimmie H. Hobaugh, who, as captain of the U.S. vessel Woodrush, searched for Fitzgerald survivors and later returned to conduct a survey of the wreck.
“The biggest drawing card (on the Museum Ship Valley Camp) is the Edmund Fitzgerald display. This is something to see, because this was the last of the large wrecks on the Great Lakes,” Sabourin told SooToday.
But back to the Valley Camp itself.
The ship, 545 feet in length, originally known as the Louis W. Hill and operated by National Steel, was launched July 14, 1917 from Lorain, Ohio, 48 kilometres (30 miles) west of Cleveland.
The vessel travelled the Great Lakes, carrying up to 10,000 tonnes of coal in its cargo hold.
In 1955, the freighter was purchased by Wilson Marine Transit, then Republic Steel, which renamed the vessel the Valley Camp in recognition of the Valley Camp coal mining company of Pennsylvania.
By 1966, the coal-fired vessel was obsolete and decommissioned.
“She did about three million miles,” Sabourin said.
The 100th anniversary of the ship’s launching coincides with the Sault Historic Sites 50th anniversary.
Sault Historic Sites, a non-profit organization, was established in 1967 in anticipation of Sault, Michigan’s 300th anniversary, held in 1968, which marked its settlement by European explorers.
The Valley Camp was tugged from Duluth, Minnesota and arrived at Sault, Michigan July 4, 1968 to help celebrate the community’s tricentennial.
“It still had all of its engine and cabins, pretty much everything was stopped, shut down and left here. Things were added, like the platforms, all the ticket booths, stairs, and all of the donations came in to create the museum in 1968,” Sabourin said.
Visitors were allowed only on the deck of the ship at first, while volunteer crews worked to restore the interior of the vessel, which now holds many fascinating displays thanks to continuing donations of artifacts from individuals and various organizations.
After paying for admission, visitors may roam through most of the ship, from the wheelhouse and upper deck right down to the engine room, view the living quarters and offices of the captain and crew, as well as the ship’s kitchen and dining room.
The museum ship features displays of historic photographs, paintings, marine uniforms and a wide range of artifacts, such as wooden remains of a Great Lakes shipwreck from the 1880s.
The ship includes a large aquarium and over 90 models of various types of vessels.
There is also a unique, well-preserved 1937 U.S. Coast Guard motor life boat in the ship’s interior.
It took about 10 years to get the interior of the Valley Camp ready for visitors to enjoy, Sabourin said, adding the museum remains an ongoing labour of love.
"For its centennial, our cargo hold Number One is being cleared out, primed and painted and will become an art gallery, it’s being lit up even as we speak.”
Sault Historic Sites aims to have the gallery officially opened July 14, Sabourin said.
“A lot of people from Sault, Ontario have said, ‘what is that ship, I’ve never seen inside that ship,’” Sabourin said, adding the official opening of the art gallery, a three-hour ceremony open to the public and in which the ship’s original bell will be rung, will be a good chance for visitors to discover the Valley Camp.
“It is history alive, it’s bringing history to people,” Sabourin said.
Frank Mays, the one surviving member of the Carl D. Bradley, a 603-foot freighter which broke up on Lake Michigan Nov. 19, 1958 with 33 lives lost, will be on hand at the Valley Camp for the opening of the gallery, Sabourin added.
The Valley Camp attracts over 20,000 visitors annually, Sabourin said.
The Valley Camp is located at 501 East Water Street between the George Kemp Downtown Marina and the Cloverland hydro electric plant, its hours of operation, admission prices and other information available online
The Valley Camp can be reached by phone through Sault Historic Sites at (906) 632-3658 or by email at email@example.com
Because a tour of the ship takes at least one hour, the last tickets for visitors are sold one hour before closing time.
Packages are available for visitors who would also like to see the nearby Tower of History and the River of History Museum.