Detroit Port Authority unveils maritime history display

By: Brendan Losinski | Advertiser Times | Published May 31, 2017

 John Polascek, the project coordinator for the Portal View project for the Great Lakes Maritime Institute, welcomes the public to the new display at a ceremony May 22.

John Polascek, the project coordinator for the Portal View project for the Great Lakes Maritime Institute, welcomes the public to the new display at a ceremony May 22.

Photo by Donna Agusti

DETROIT — The Detroit Port Authority unveiled a new educational display May 22 called the “Portal View” that aims to teach the public about the maritime history of Detroit.

The event took place at the site of the Portal View display — outside the Carl Levin Port Authority Building at 130 Atwater St. Making the occasion even more significant was that it took place on National Maritime Day.

“This project was a partnership between the Port Authority with General Motors, Three Squared Inc. and the Great Lakes Maritime Institute,” said Samantha Simmerson, who provides marketing services to the Detroit Port Authority. “We want to share maritime knowledge and the history of the shipping industry of the Great Lakes to show people what came before and how this industry is still very much alive.”

The site includes a small museum constructed from a shipping container by Three Squared, which converts shipping containers into a variety of new uses. Inside the museum are artifacts from some of the ships that traversed the Great Lakes, interactive displays that allow visitors to track ships on the water in real time, and other informational exhibits.

“A group called BoatNerd put together an interactive kiosk, and there will be screens to track the freighters on the lakes,” said Simmerson. “There will be freighter lights, life jackets and other artifacts inside, and even the port holes used as windows on the container are from a ship that traveled on the Great Lakes called the American Fortitude.”

The site also includes the anchor recovered from the SS Greater Detroit, a passenger ship that regularly traveled between Detroit, Cleveland and other sites along the Great Lakes.

“The anchor was cut off when they scrapped the ship back in 1956. They didn’t have the steam power to lift it back up, so they let it rest at the bottom of the Detroit River,” said John Polascek, the project coordinator for the Great Lakes Maritime Institute. “We sent a dive team to recover it, and it was harder to find than we thought it would be because it wasn’t where eyewitnesses said it would be. It actually got dragged farther out into the river than we thought. It was just sitting there at the bottom of the river for decades, so we thought, ‘Why not include it in the display?’”

Those who organized the site are hoping it will become a point of interest for those who come to the Detroit RiverWalk, as well as a field trip destination for students learning about Michigan history.

“This will give kids and teachers a viable touch point on the great maritime tradition here,” said Katie Andrecovich, Three Squared’s project manager on the Portal View project. “Detroit was the shipbuilding capital of the country at one point, but people often forget that.”

A few speeches were made by some of those who led the push for the Portal View project, and a blessing was performed by Anglican Bishop Peter Beckwith. This was followed by a small reception to celebrate the opening of the site.

John Loftus, the executive director of the Detroit Port Authority, said many people don’t know that Detroit has a port, but it is a crucial aspect of both the past and future of the city.

“What I want is the 3 million people who come up and down the RiverWalk each year to learn about an important part of their history and heritage, and maybe educate themselves a little about the giant ships they see moving down the river to this day,” said Loftus. “The Port of Detroit is more important than most people recognize. It is responsible for 15,000 jobs and is a key part of Detroit industry, and we want the public to know it is still an important part of the community.”

Those on hand at the ceremony included Elena McGowan, of Farmington Hills. Her family has a long history with shipping on the Great Lakes, including her grandfather being a crew member on the Greater Detroit. The ship still holds a special place in her heart, and she even keeps a painting of the beloved vessel above her fireplace.
“My grandfather was chief engineer on the Greater Detroit,” explained McGowan. “He got passes every summer so my sisters, my mother and I would take the ship to Niagara Falls once a year. I’m so happy the waterfront is coming into its own, and I’m proud my grandfather’s ship is playing a part in that.”