Richard & Jane Manoogian Ship Model Showcase

Now Open in the Richard and Jane Manoogian Ship Model Showcase

The Detroit Historical Society is home to one of the largest collections of Great Lakes ship models in the country. Most of the more than 150 models are five or six decades old, while at least one dates to 1854. The ship models represent over 300 years of North American fresh water maritime history. In many cases, the models themselves are historic; in other cases they represent significant examples of technological advances that powered social and economic aspects of the region’s history.

The Richard and Jane Manoogian Ship Model Showcase is a changing exhibition space. Once a year, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum curators change the ships on display in order to display this significant collection.

The four models currently on display are:

Walk-In-The-Water
Artist: C. Theodore McCutcheon, 2018
Loaned by the Artist

On August 27, 1818—two hundred years ago this year—Walk-In-The-Water, the first steam-powered vessel on the upper Great Lakes, arrived at Detroit. Built and based on the Niagara River, “The Steam-Boat”—there was only one, so that is what most people called her—carried 29 passengers on this first trip. The vessel traveled at about five miles per hour, and stopped near several towns on Lake Erie on the voyage.

The Walk-In-The-Water’s arrival had an enormous impact on the people of Detroit. A trip that could take weeks by sailing ship or wagon was reduced to less than two days. Detroiters no longer felt isolated on the frontier, and this important access from the East Coast encouraged an explosion of immigration and commerce in the town.

It is not known precisely what Walk-In-The-Water looked like. The vessel ran for three eventful years before being wrecked in a storm near Buffalo, without fatalities. Only one contemporary picture of the ship’s profile exists, commissioned by Mary Witherall Palmer of Detroit, and in the Detroit Historical Society Collection. Unfortunately, while the painter captures the stormy night well, his interpretation of the ship is unsophisticated.

The model seen here was recently completed by Ted McCutcheon, and loaned to the museum for the 200th anniversary. Ted understands naval architecture and is an experienced researcher, so this model represents the most likely interpretation of what the Walk-In-The-Water looked like. 

Sainte Marie
Artist: Detroit Dry Dock Company, c. 1893
Donated by: Great Lakes Maritime Institute

The Sainte Marie of 1893 was the second of Frank E. Kirby’s revolutionary ice breaking rail ferries. The first was the St. Ignace of 1888. Both Wyandotte-built ships had staunch, iron-clad oak hulls meant to battle ice in the Straits of Mackinac. The bow propeller – the brainchild of Kirby and Straits skipper L.R. Boynton – pulled water from beneath thicker ice, collapsing it with its own weight. The tough duty of ice breaking took its toll, and after only twenty years the Sainte Marie was converted into a barge.

This model was reportedly created by the Detroit Dry Dock Company and may have been displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It is known that Finnish engineer Karl Bonsdorff discovered Kirby’s design at that fair, and replicated it in Europe. Soon afterward Russians also adopted the American-style icebreaker.

Philo Parsons
Artists: Frederick W. Hyde, Sr., c. 1930s
Donated by: 
rederick W. Hyde, Jr.

The Philo Parsons was launched in 1861 at the yard of Charles Hinman in Algonac, Michigan. It was typical of the fleet of moderately sized packet steamers designed to carry both passengers and freight. The vessel was originally owned by Michael and Patrick Kean, but within a few years became part of Selah Dustin’s fleet operating out of Detroit to western Lake Erie destination

One hundred fifty years ago, during the American Civil War, the Philo Parsons was hijacked by Confederate agents scheming to capture the USS Michigan and attack the Union prison camp on Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay. The plot was abandoned when the raiders suspected—correctly—that their plans were known to the enemy.

The Philo Parsons ended its career running from Chicago to towns along the Michigan shore. Caught dockside during the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, the ship burned to the waterline. 

Steam-Powered Tether Boat
Artist: H.C. Field, 1924
Loan courtesy of the Kent Lund Collection

The art of model building generally involves reproducing large things in a small form—sometimes before they are constructed, sometimes afterward. In the case of boats model, there are “builder’s models” created prior to construction, and “representational models” developed to capture historic vessels for museums and mantelpieces.Perhaps the most fun are models created to be sailed, like the actual boats themselves. In the days before radio control (RC) technology, there were two types of powered models: “pond models” for sailboats; and “tether boats” for motorboats. Both types were raced on the lagoons of Belle Isle.Tether boats are raced by timing them over a quarter mile distance, much like auto racing dragsters. While these look like toys, their steam or gasoline engines can propel some of them over 100 miles per hour.Races are run by attaching the boat to a cable rotating around a central post. The cable is 52.5 feet long, and every four revolutions equals a quarter mile. The fastest boat wins.

The sport was introduced to North America from England in the 1920s, and became popular among craftsmen and machinists, particularly in Detroit. Most boats and engines were hand-built by the owners. Members of the Detroit Model Power Boat Racing Club staged races on Belle Isle, with competitors coming from across the country. The sport was very popular through the 1950s.