by Benson Gardner, PortalWisconsin.org
The waters rushed in at such a pace I was going to lose the shipyard underwater if I couldn't secure the lock. Thankfully, I pushed the right lever in time, and with effort, I managed to open the next lock. Finally, the boats made their way inland and I breathed a sigh of relief.
But the next catastrophe was just minutes away! Overflowing its banks, a river flooded a hillside farm. Glad to see no farmer around to be carried away, my heart sank anyway, when I noticed the fields were losing their fertile soil.
The saving grace of these catastrophes, though, is that I caused them, I ended them, and it all happened in miniaturein a remarkably engaging room at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc.
Despite my hours of enjoyment, I have a feeling the Wisconsin Waterways Room was designed mostly for children. They can put together plastic boats to sail down the miniature lock-and-dam system, under a raise-able drawbridge, or down the erosion-demonstrating river. But anyone who likes to pull levers, move things on hinges, and be surrounded with bright colors can have a good time there. (Take a virtual tour of the Wisconsin Waterways room.)
The room is part of the museum's recent expansiona doubling of its sizemade possible by a multi-million-dollar fundraising push that brought in donations from private individuals, businesses and other groups, including the largest gifts ever from the Manitowoc Company and the Burger Boat Company, both local boat builders, and from a local philanthropic organization, the West Foundation.
At the museum, maritime enthusiasts can also find, for the first time, Lady Isabel, a 1907 Burger boat. The museum has owned the ship for about 15 years, but never had a room big enough to display it before. Isabel may have been ready for some quiet in her life, however. For 30 years, her owner was "a questionable character," says the museum's development director, Patty Ressler. And so the ship found herself banned from Lake Superior's Isle Royale, for carrying "contraband" ("Booze and prostitutes," Ressler explains). This same owner tried to get by cheap on repairsreally cheaprelying on inexpensive materials like oatmeal. Eventually, a Milwaukee man took the boat, hoping to restore her, but found himself short of money. In the late 1980s, Ressler says the Burger Boat Company "rescued" the ship but then the company was sold. The new owners of the firm donated the boat to the museum, where Ressler says volunteers spent about five years fixing her up.
Other new features of the museum include a gallery of impressive, intricate model boats and a "Little Lakefarers" room, where kids can enjoy an underwater theme.
Those who have never been to the biggest maritime museum on the Great Lakes can also marvel at the old attractionslike walking through a World War II submarine (never been in a sub before? It's not as claustrophobic as you imagined...it's more so), or strolling along the simulated, store-lined plankwalk of a maritime town (complete with sunset and seagulls).
The museum has also constructed, at its very front, a new space big enough to accommodate an enormous, brightly colored ice-breaking enginesure to make people of all ages feel tiny and wowed. Though it doesn't have any ice to chew through anymore, the steam-powered engine still runs sometimes, turning its giant propeller and pulverizing the hopes of any museum visitor who wanted to remain aloof and cerebral while learning about Great Lakes history.
Indeed, the folks at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum are making the most of these childlike, awestruck feelings. With the new expansion, they're sure to add a double dose of both excitement and illumination.
For driving directions, hours of operation, and more, see the visitor information section of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum's Web site.