Maritime Miniatures: The Mayflower

In January 2022, The Dossin Great Lakes Museum will host a display of more than 100 Great Lakes model ships. The Detroit Historical Society maintains an extensive collection of models of multiple types, including intricately detailed steamers and schooners, half-hull models, pond models, and more. The oldest model in our collection, that of the steamer Mayflower, was built at the time the ship was active, and is a prize-winner! 


A Real Winner 

Built in 1854 by James R. Cunningham, the model provides us with an accurate vision of the ship, and transportation of the time, as it was built during the ship’s last year of service 167 years ago. Cunningham entered his model into competition at the 1854 Michigan State Fair, where he won the silver medal in recognition for his craftsmanship. That medal is now mounted to the ship’s front deck, making this model particularly special. While other models in the Society's collection depict ships that are older than the Mayflower, most of those models were built in the 20th century.  


The Source of Inspiration 

The actual steamer Mayflower was operated by the Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR) as transportation between Detroit and Buffalo, New York. Built in Detroit by J. Lupton in 1849, the ship was 288’ long, and had capacity for 800 passengers. It ran aground— meaning it hit the bottom of the lake, during a December gale in 1851, but was subsequently repaired, only to run aground again amidst a November fog in 1854 at Point Pelee. The ship was wrecked permanently, but all passengers were rescued by the Ocean, another MCRR passenger ship. The steamer was well-liked by those who traveled aboard it, and at a meeting of those who were rescued, they exonerated the captain and crew of any wrongdoing, and praised both the crew of the Mayflower and rescuing Ocean 


A Picturesque Beauty 

Also in the collection is an oil painting that was created for the ship by artist Frederick E. Cohen in 1850. Titled Mayflower, the painting is an allegory for the ship itself. Represented as a woman, the Mayflower rests on a boat, pulled by a swan towards the “Temple of Plenty.” She is surrounded by cherubic figures representing Navigation, Faith, Fame, Watchfulness, Hope, and Industry – all qualities indicative of a successful steamship, according to a Detroit Free Press interview with the artist. Many other passenger steamers were bedecked with beautiful features, like that of the City of Detroit IIIs Gothic Room smoking lounge, which now greets visitors as they enter the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.  

Collecting and building models has been an important part of the city’s maritime museum since the beginning, when it was found on board the schooner J.T. Wing where the Dossin now stands. The museum was supported by the Great Lakes Model Shipbuilder’s Guild, whose publication Telescope has been keeping maritime and modelmaking enthusiasts up-to-date since 1952. Early editions of the periodical describe calls to action for members to go about documenting ships that will soon go out of service, like the Put-in-Bay, so that it could be rendered in three dimensions, and grant future generations the opportunity to get a better sense of the ship, like Cunningham did with the Mayflower. The Mayflower model will be one of many on display this winter at the Dossin, along with a more modern model, made c.1990.