The Great Lakes: Natural Wonders

Formed at the end of the last Ice Age, the Great Lakes are a unique ecosystem.

The Great Lakes were born about 14,000 years ago by the retreat of a glacier that covered most of Canada and the northern United States. As it shrank, water settled into valleys eroded by the glacier, leaving only hilltops above the surface – forming 35,000 islands, Bluffs, sand dunes, and prairies lined the shore. Together, they are Earth’s largest group of freshwater lakes, holding 21% of the world’s fresh water (and 84% of North America’s).

Each lake is a distinct body with its own biological characteristics; connected by natural and manmade waterways, they form an interdependent ecosystem.

The Great Lakes: A Shaping Force

People vs. Nature

The Great Lakes were created by the natural force of a glacial ice age 12,000 years ago. The mere presence of the Lakes shaped human choices in the creation of trade routes, settlements, and movement westward. The area’s vast supply of fresh water from the Inland Seas even influenced the continent’s efforts to develop both hydroelectric power and nuclear resources.

The Lakes certainly shaped the human experience, but humans also have shaped the physical nature of the Lakes. Canals were created that connected the Lakes. The course and flow of Great Lakes rivers have been altered. Industry has impacted water quality and the species that live in the Lakes.

The Great Lakes: A Life Force

The Lakes support a complex, natural ecosystem – and a commercial one too

The Great Lakes are alive – teeming with aquatic and terrestrial fauna and flora. That abundance of food and the means to make shelter and clothing first drew humans around 9,000 BCE. North American Indians were followed by Europeans, who came in search of a passage to China. They found furs and, later, minerals and other natural resources that spurred settlement and development of a vast economy.

Today, millions of people live around the Great Lakes, still depending on their bounty and transportation to make a living. The Great Lakes give life to the North American continent by providing fresh drinking water to nearly 40 million people. Commercial fishing helps feed both the United States and Canada, and the thousands of miles of waterway continue to support a robust industrial transportation system. In the 21st century, the presence of the Lakes has also enabled millions of people to enjoy recreational uses of our Sweetwater Seas.

The Great Lakes: A Deadly Force

From weather to war, the Great Lakes have seen tragedy – and heroism.

On a sunny day, it is easy to forget the tragedies that have struck the Great Lakes. Torn between cold winds from the Arctic and warm air from the Gulf of Mexico, the Lakes weather is notoriously fierce. No wonder the Lakes have more shipwrecks per surface square mile than any other body of water on earth. Many more ships might have sunk and many more people have died if not for the bravery of both private citizens and government agencies.

The Lakes also have been touched by war. They were the cause and site of battles to control access to the region’s resources. With peace established, the Lakes became a vital part of America’s arsenal, where warships were built and sailors trained before heading off to fight. Even in peacetime, the Great Lakes were contested territory as pirates and rumrunners challenged the government for control of this vital waterway. Today, smugglers, although rare, still seek personal gain through illegal activity on our Great Lakes.

Underwater shipwreck

Great Lakes Artifacts

Our exhibits are thoughtfully divided into categories, each offering a unique perspective on the rich history of the Great Lakes region. Whether you’re a history buff, a maritime enthusiast, or simply curious about the Great Lakes, our museum offers something for everyone. Plan your visit today to experience the fascinating history and culture of the Great Lakes region firsthand. Here’s a preview of what you can expect to see in each category when you visit our museum:

Exploration and Settlement

Wooden Rudder

A boat is useful only if it can be steered; otherwise, the boat is simply drifting at the mercy of wind and water. Since humans first took to the water, rudders have developed from simple oars, to tiller and rudders, to today’s complex power steering mechanisms. Most vessels are steered using a rudder like this one. When mounted at the back of the boat, the rudder is turned to deflect water flow, making the boat turn. This rudder was discovered off Kelley’s Island in the 1950s and is thought to date from the early 1800s. This might be the oldest artifact in the collection.

Expansion and Industry

Col. James M. Schoonmaker Bell

On a trip through the Soo Locks in 1909, Col. James M. Schoonmaker remarked to a friend, “You could build a wider ship to fill up these locks,” So they did, and the Col. James M. Schoonmaker reigned as ‘Queen of the Lakes’ – largest vessel on the Great Lakes and the largest bulk carrier in the world – for three years, setting tonnage records for cargoes of iron ore, coal, and rye along the way. The next queen was longer, but the 64 ft wide Schoonmaker, along with its bell, remained the Lakes widest ship until 1927.

Safeguard and Support

Niagara Frame

We have met the enemy and they are ours” – Oliver Hazard Perry

On September 10, 1813, U.S. ships commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry engaged the British fleet under Robert Heriot Barclay off Put-In-Bay. The battle was fierce; Perry’s flagship, the U.S.S. Lawrence, lost two-thirds of its crew. Perry rowed to the U.S.S. Niagara and sailed it directly into the British line, firing from both sides and hitting four ships. Barclay surrendered. The British supply chain to Canada was broken, a major turning point in the War of 1812. This frame was recovered from the Niagara’s remains when it was raised in 1913 for the battle’s centennial commemoration.

Shipwrecks and Safety

Fitzgerald Sounding Board

The Edmund Fitzgerald is not only the Great Lakes most famous shipwreck; it also is one of the Lakes’ greatest mysteries. The Fitz– one of the largest ore carriers on the Great Lakes – disappeared in a Lake Superior gale on November 10, 1975. There were no survivors from the crew of 29. This sounding board was one of the few pieces recovered on the surface of Lake Superior above the wreck site in 1975.

Our Great Lakes

The Great Lakes are not only stunning bodies of water but also hold a wealth of history and culture. Be sure to check out each lake below to fully appreciate their individual beauty and significance in the Great Lakes region. Click on an image below to learn more!

Lake Huron

Lake Huron coastline with lighthouse in the distance

Lake Ontario

Beautiful green coastline view of Lake Ontario

Lake Michigan

Beautiful sunrise on Lake Michigan with birds flying around a lighthouse

Lake Erie

Coastline of Lake Erie with a lighthouse in the distance

Lake Superior

Beautiful shot of the water across Lake Superior with an island in the distance and lush greenery in the foreground