Sailing into History
“You would make a ship sail against the winds and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck…I have no time for such nonsense.”
At the mention of steam power, we often envision roaring freight trains winding through the countryside. In the early twentieth-century, the power of steam was also moving massive freighters across the Great Lakes.
The 618-foot long William G. Mather is a formerly coal-powered steamship which spent 55-year (1925-1980) sailing the water of the Great Lakes region. As the flagship for the Cleveland-Cliffs Company, Mather was designed with guest bedrooms, dining halls, and sitting rooms. Today, she serves as a floating museum in Cleveland’s North Coast Harbor.
We managed to squeeze in an end-of-season visit to the W. G. Mather on her last day of operation for 2015. Although not a preschooler-friendly attraction, the visit made a meaningful impact on our boys (ages 2, 4).
The staff and volunteers of the Mather were friendly and enthusiastically shared their knowledge of the Mather’s history. We even met a man who actually worked on the ship when it was in revenue service.
Our self-guided tour began in The Great Lakes Story exhibit found at the entrance of the museum. This was the least impressive part of the entire museum. Many of the interactive displays were broken. Additionally, the programs playing on the numerous monitors were too lengthy to hold the attention of our little guys. Overall, the displays felt as though they had been put together from leftover pieces of a more comprehensive exhibit. It was disappointing to have so much space dedicated to the Great Lakes Story while so little was devoted to the Mather’s history and its role in transportation.
Moving through the ship with preschoolers was a challenge. Steep stairs and lots of potential misstep hazards kept us on high alert from bow to stern.
If visiting the Mather, plan to do a lot of walking and be sure to dress for the weather. A tour of the ship will have you repeatedly going inside and out. Leave the stroller in your car, there are far too many trips up and down stairs to even attempt a rolling tour for your little one.
Despite the disappointing museum displays and the challenges of moving about with little ones, the experience was worth the price of admission. Both of our boys had a great time and learned a lot from the experience.
Pictures from The W. G. Mather
Making a Mather Toy
It’s always nice to be able to reenact experiences through play. Our trip to the Mather inspired a strong interest ships. Unfortunately, finding a toy representation of a Great Lakes freighter is quite near impossible. So we did the next best thing, we made one. It’s not to scale, and we used a little artistic license, but our goal wasn’t a perfect model, it was to make a playable toy as quickly as possible.
Since one ship would never be enough with two little boys, we also built a tug boat to help maneuver the Mather in and out of port. A second freighter is in the works.
The ships are constructed entirely of repurposed cardboard and held together using hot-glue. We finished the model by painting them with acrylic paints.