Ludington – Waves rolled and gulls squawked as I stood at the wheel in the pilothouse, attempting to steer the Pere Marquette 22 car ferry into Ludington Harbor. Despite Capt. Wallace “Andy” Van Dyke’s instruction to “ease ‘er down a bit,” I mistakenly sped up and bumped the boat into the dock. “That’s what happens when you don’t follow orders!” the captain barked. “Looks like you’ve got some more training ahead before you can become a wheelsman.”
Lucky for me (and for the locals), it was just a simulated training exercise inside the most popular attraction in the new Port of Ludington Maritime Museum. It opened in June in a former U.S. Coast Guard Station in this deep-water port city in west Michigan.
Guided by an onscreen hologram of Capt. Van Dyke, with realistic motion and sounds, museum visitors like myself eagerly test their steering skills inside the re-created pilothouse and ferry (circa 1924). In its heyday in the early half of the last century, the Pere Marquette 22 was one in a long line of railroad car ferries that plied Lake Michigan for decades, transporting everything from trainloads of timber and farm goods to family vehicles and passengers — and even the occasional Amish buggy — between west Michigan and Wisconsin.
Ludington’s car ferry history, along with other maritime experiences, artifacts and lore, are showcased in the three-floor, $5.2-million museum. The building, restored to its original 1934 Coast Guard Station exterior, is a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
In addition to local car ferries — including the last, still operating, independent SS Badger, which can be viewed from the museum’s back deck — exhibits focus on lighthouse lenses, Great Lakes shipwrecks, the lumber industry and more, enhanced by video footage and interactive activities. A replica of the Pere Marquette 22 captain’s quarters features authentic items donated by Capt. Van Dyke’s grandchildren, including his desk and chair, typewriter, the ship clock and barometer, and family photos.
Other museum highlights include collections of miniature lighthouses and miniature ship models and a 95-foot-long panorama scroll of Ludington-area history painted in the 1930’s by a local shopkeeper-turned self-taught artist. “I got a notion to just make a little picture,” said Jacob Lunde, who narrates on a recording from the 1950’s.
Even the admission desk is in keeping with the museum’s nautical theme: it’s a replica of a Coast Guard 36 boat. Admission, good for an entire day so you can come and go if desired, is adults, $12.50; seniors, $11.50; children ages 6 to 17, $9 and children 5 and under, free. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Check ludingtonmaritimemuseum.org.
Need a special reason to visit? Combine a museum visit with the city’s Michigan Lighthouse Festival, Aug. 25-27, featuring tours of Big Sable Point Lighthouse, marking its 150th anniversary, and of the tall ship Appledore V. Author Patricia Majher will discuss her book, “Ladies of the Lights” and a Saturday night concert will feature “Storm,” with Dan Hall and shipwreck historian Ric Mixter. Check michiganlighthousefestival.com for details.
Find Ludington travel information at pureludington.com.