In 1943, Congress ordered a $10 million icebreaker be built to plow through the Great Lakes, keeping the wartime steel industry hopping.
Today, that 290-foot vessel – the Icebreaker Mackinaw WAGB-83 – is now a full-fledged museum, giving visitors a peek into the inner workings of the United States Coast Guard
ALL ABOARD Known as the “Queen of the Great Lakes” during her heyday, the cutter ported in Cheboygan her entire commissioned life. When the ship was taken out of service in 2006, the crew walked off with only personal and perishable items; most everything else was left behind.
With that stage set, the next step was getting the ship museum-ready at its new berth in Mackinaw City, said Lisa Pallagi, the Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum’s general manager.
“The ship came to a dock in Mackinaw City that had housed the Chief Wawatam, a railroad car carrier,” Pallagi said. “It did not need the same types of things that we need, so there was quite a bit of conversion work to be done, mostly providing electricity and installing bollards [or nautical posts] for mooring.”
A walking route was then created to take visitors through the museum’s different areas, from operations to housing.
Pallagi’s own favorite spots on the IMMM are the navigation and bridge areas “where the decisions are made on how to operate,” she said.
“But people seem to always be most impressed with the engine room,” she said. “There are three aboard, but they only tour one.”
Two massive locomotive engines supply power for the ship’s diesel/electric system, and are an important part of the ship’s lore.
The engines were named Jake and Elwood by the crew, a reference to both the “Blues Brothers” movies and another character of actor Dan Aykroyd (who played Elwood.)
The engines, Pallagi explained, had their quirks, sometimes acting like the “two wild and crazy guys” that Aykroyd and Steve Martin played in a “Saturday Night Live” TV show sketch.
It’s not surprising that long tours of duty as crew of an icebreaking ship means a lot of DVD watching. There’s a whole infrastructure of day-to-day life that continued even while the ship was out breaking ice, from leisure time to meals.
Back when the ship was operating, food supplies cost more than $25,000 a month.
“The galley is impressive when you see it,” Pallagi said. “Realize that it fed over 100 people three meals a day, plus a ‘mid-rats’ meal for late shifts.”
Visitors see the captain’s and crew’s quarters and can get hands-on with knot-tying and trying on Coast Guard clothing.
To help interpret the ship’s story, docents are stationed onboard to answer questions. The ship also features a new educational station that is slated to open in June.
There is also interactive signage on Coast Guard terminology, all part of the fun-meets-education appeal of the museum.
“Our mission is to tell the story of the ship, and those who sailed aboard her,” Pallagi said.
The staff and volunteers of the IMMM get a few perks, too. During the past two icebreaking seasons, they had the opportunity to sail aboard the Mackinaw WLBB-30, which Pallagi said helped illuminate what life on the ship was like.
“That is when it really hits you,” Pallagi said. “You see just what icebreaking is all about.”
The Icebreaker Mackinaw Maritime Museum is located in downtown Mackinaw City between the Municipal Marina and the Straits State Harbor. It is open daily at 9am throughout the summer months. Adult admission is $11; kids $6. The museum will celebrate its 70th anniversary on June 28 with special tours and guest speakers. For more visit themackinaw.org.