Walter Dossin was a wealthy man who became obsessed with a wealthy man’s sport — powerboat racing. Walter and his brothers Russel and Roy made fortunes from running Dossin Food Products Co., one of the biggest soft drink distributors in the country, which was founded by their father, Ernest J. Dossin.
Walter got the racing bug watching Guy Lombardo’s fast boats thundering up and down the Detroit River. He took the company — and the family — into speedboat racing by commissioning several racing boats, including the first Miss Pepsi. Miss Pepsi became a legend on the Detroit River in 1947 after winning The Gold Cup and all races in her field.
The next Miss Pepsi was even faster but the Dossins retired her because other boats lacked the speed to give her a race.
The boat’s legendary designer, Gus Hacker, shunned publicity, interested only in speed and Gold Cups. He often remarked that he would design and build a boat “gratis” if he knew it would win. Hacker, however, never had to work for free. His backers who did seek publicity got it with winning boats.
In 1956 the Dossin family donated $125,000 to the City of Detroit for a new marine historical museum to be built on Belle Isle. In addition they gave the new museum-to-be its first exhibit — Miss Pepsi. The boat now sits enclosed in a glass pavilion adjacent to the entrance of the Dossin Museum.
Detroit and its Historical Commission matched the $125,000 gift and on May 21, 1959, 19 members of the Dossin family attended the groundbreaking ceremonies. Detroit Council President, Mary V. Beck, Detroit historian George W. Stark, and Roy Dossin’s son Robert Dossin, turned the first shovel.
The modern facility replaced the romantic but badly rotted ship J. T. Wing, which had stood on the site for years, giving visitors a taste of life on the Great Lakes.
At the dedication of the Dossin Museum in 1960, Stark unveiled a plaque that proclaims: “This Museum is a gift to the City of Detroit made possible through the generosity of the Dossin family, Ernest J. and his sons, Walter, Russell, and Roy L. It is given as an expression of their affection for their native city.”
Stark acknowledged the Wing’s old captain also in attendance: “We salute Capt. Johnson as our own ‘old man of the sea.'”
Johnson had long lobbied for a Great Lakes Museum he had captained the Wing on water, and had served as curator of the Wing on land from 1949 until 1956.
Detroit Historical Museum staffer Robert E. Lee was named supervisor of the new Dossin Museum.
The Rev. Elmer B. Usher, rector of Mariners Church, blessed the ceremonies and a band aboard the U.S.S Amherst, a Navy patrol boat based at the Brodhead Naval Armory, played offshore.
Mrs. Roy L. Dossin christened the light blue brick building with a champagne bottle containing water from all five Great Lakes.
The museum was so popular that by December 1960 it recorded its100,000th visitor.
The River Room, multi-purpose auditorium and exhibit hall were added in 1968. A window wall allows visitors to watch river traffic.
The Great Lakes Maritime Institute raised funds to add the pilothouse from the William Clay Ford freighter, where visitors can pretend to be the pilot guiding their vessel down the river and chatting with oncoming pilots on their ship-to-ship radios.
A submarine periscope from the USS Tambor shows the river and the city’s skyline. For years the Tambor had been docked across the river from Belle Isle behind the Brodhead Naval Armory and was a popular destination for Detroit school children..
A major attraction at the Dossin museum is the “Gothic Room,” removed from the elegant river boat City of Detroit III. The handcarved solid oak tracery, from what was the largest sidewheeler in the world when it was launched in 1912, was the work of interior decorator, Louis O. Keil, who considered it his masterpiece.
After the ship was scrapped in 1955, the room was removed and kept in a barn in Ohio. Ten years later the Museum raised $15,000 to acquire it. Staffers and volunteers spent two years stripping and refinishing room, restoring it to its former glory.
The three paneled LaSalle window made from 700 pieces of stained glass had suffered only one broken piece.
The museum features scale models of historic vessels that once plied the Great Lakes, including the Griffon, 1679, first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes; The Niagara, 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazzard Perry’s flag ship in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812; The Walk in the Water, 1818, first steam powered vessel on the lakes; the Onoko, 1855, first steel-hulled ore-carrier on the lakes; The David Dows, 1881, only five-masted schooner ever built for the lakes; The John Ericsson, 1896, a “whale back” design; The Alpena, 1909, the first self-unloader; the South America, 1914, last overnight passenger boat on the lakes; and the elegant City of Detroit III, 1912, the side-wheeler queen of the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company fleet.
Artwork includes an 1857 lithograph, “The Battle of Lake Erie,” by Julian O. Davidson and an 1853 Robert Hopkin painting of the steamboat Arrow which sailed between Detroit and Toledo.
Romantic old side-wheelers and schooners have given way to power boats and huge lakes freights, but the museum vividly preserves the rich legacy and lore of the Great Lakes.
(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)
By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News