Made by History: Uncovering Lake Erie's Past

From Toledo to Buffalo and everywhere in between, our Great Lake is filled with destinations to learn more about the region's fascinating history.

Put-in-Bay, Lake Erie Islands

Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit
For generations, Belle Isle has been a popular destination for the Motor City. Since 1960, it’s been home to the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, detailing the industrial and recreational history of the Great Lakes. It’s home to the pilothouse of the William Clay Ford, a freighter built for the auto company. The museum also features the restored Gothic Room of the City of Detroit III, a sidewheel steamer that cruised Lake Erie in the first half of the 20th century.

Mariners’ Church of Detroit
Located near the banks of the Detroit River, the church was built in 1849 and relocated 900 feet to its current site in 1955. Prior to the Civil War, the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad (on the other side of the river is Windsor, Ontario; a tunnel found underneath the church was incorporated into the Detroit-Windsor tunnel). Each March, the church holds a blessing of the fleet, and every November, near the anniversary of the Fitz’s sinking, there’s a memorial ceremony for those who died on the Great Lakes.

National Museum of the Great Lakes, Toledo
If you’re looking for a one-stop shop detailing the history of Lake Erie, this is the place. From their formation as glaciers receded during an ice age and importance in the early settlement of America to their modern role for shipping and recreation, the Great Lakes are spotlighted at this museum. Docked next to the museum, along the Maumee River, are the Lake Tug Ohio, a tugboat that was used as a tow boat or a fire boat for more than a century, and the James M. Schoonmaker, a freighter that was named “Queen of the Lakes.”

Tony Packo’s, Toledo
Immortalized by Jamie Farr (himself a Toledo native) as Cpl. Klinger in MASH, the restaurant opened in 1932 in Birmingham, the city’s Hungarian neighborhood, specializing in native cuisine like chicken paprikash and Packo’s famous Hungarian hot dogs. The walls are festooned with foam hot dog buns with signatures of famous patrons, a tradition started by actor Burt Reynolds in 1972.

Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, Put-in-Bay
Arguably the most consequential event on the lake was the Battle of Lake Erie, a naval engagement off of Put-in-Bay during the War of 1812. For the war’s centennial, a cornerstone was laid for a monument, and three years later, it opened. It remains the world’s largest Doric column, 352 feet tall, and commemorates not just the battle — a total of six sailors killed in it are interred under the monument; three American and three British — but also the peace between the U.S. and Canada that remains to this day. (The border between the two countries is still the longest unsecured border in the world.)  The views from the top are not to be missed.

Niagara Military Museum, Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls was an important location in the colonial history of America, both during the French and Indian War and the War of 1812.  That history is told at the Niagara Military Museum, located in the former Niagara Falls Armoury.  The museum also tells the story of Canadian military history with 19th and 20th century artifacts, from the Fenian Raids into Canada to the Royal Rifles fighting in Hong Kong in World War II.

HMCS Ojibwa, Museum of Naval History, Port Burwell
Originally intended for the British navy, the HMCS Ojibwa became a part of the Canadian sub fleet, patrolling the North Atlantic at the height of the Cold War before its ultimate decommissioning in 1998. It was ultimately transferred to the Elgin Military Museum, and in 2012, it made the trek inland through the
St. Lawrence Seaway, ultimately lifted out of the water and transported to its current home, where it’s available for tours. Plans are being made for an adjoining museum as well.

Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum
At one point, the lakefront was dotted with lighthouses. Many of them had a nearby house for the lighthouse keeper. One such home, in Ashtabula, has been turned into a museum detailing the history of the town, which was once home to one of the busiest harbors in the world. Highlights of the museum include a display related to Ashtabula’s tragic train disaster of 1876, a six-foot model of the Titanic and one of the few working models of a Hulett ore unloader, invented by a man from nearby Conneaut.

Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park
In 1976, officials from Buffalo’s memorial naval park and the city’s urban renewal agency asked for a decommissioned battleship for a naval park. They got the USS The Sullivans, a World War II destroyer named for five Iowa brothers who served on the same ship and were killed in action when the ship was torpedoed and sank. The museum is also home to the USS Little Rock, a guided missile cruiser, and the USS Croaker, a Gato class submarine. The museum focuses on Western New York’s history during wartime and hosts a variety of other combat transportation, from tanks to airplanes (some of which were built in the area).

Erie Maritime Museum
Oliver Hazard Perry built his lake fleet in Erie, Pennsylvania, the only freshwater port in the commonwealth. Today, in a former power station on the lake shore, the Erie Maritime Museum commemorates the city’s nautical history, focusing on the War of 1812. Collections include model ships, documents and artifacts from the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor, the U.S. Lifesaving Service, and tools that show how ships for the War of 1812 were made. But, the showstopper is the Brig Niagara, a replica of Perry’s flagship, docked nearby.

Historic Bridge Street, Ashtabula
While you’re in Ashtabula, check out Bridge Street. During the port’s heyday, the street was filled with bars, pool rooms and other places where men could play hard after working hard. Now, Bridge Street features a variety of shops, bars and restaurants — from casual fare like Briquette’s Smokehouse to more formal cuisine like Rennick’s Meat Market.

Tales of Our Treasured Lake Erie

Dive into the past with fascinating stories of brutal battles, mysterious shipwrecks and the role the Great Lakes played in shaping the world we live in today.