Maritime Museum

Visitors watch the Heroes of the Storm program
Maritime Museum, US Coast Guard Station, Wheelhouse Exhibit
Firing the Lyle Gun on the beach by the Maritime Museum

*Pets are not permitted on the Maritime Museum grounds.

Visit the Maritime Museum to learn about the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, U.S. Coast Guard, and Great Lakes shipping. Walk through the boathouse next to the museum and see the life-saving equipment used during the early 1900's.

The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum is located just west of Glen Haven. It is the original Sleeping Bear Point U.S. Life-Saving Station which was moved to its present location because the encroaching sand dunes were beginning to bury it in sand.

Exhibits cover the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Great Lakes shipping history. A room on the second floor is outfitted as a Steamer Wheelhouse with a panoramic view of the Manitou Passage shipping channel.

Firing the Lyle Gun
Firing the Lyle Gun on the beach by the Maritime Museum

The Lyle Gun was used to fire a rescue line from shore more than 400 yards to a ship in distress to retrieve crew stranded on the ship.

Historic Photo of surfboat and crew
Historic photo of surfboat and crew

Navigating the nation's coastal waters, whether the oceans or the Great Lakes, has always been a risky business. Courageous volunteers performed most of the early rescues, but often their efforts were hampered by inadequate training and poor equipment. As the nation grew in the post-civil War era, shipping also increased. On the Great Lakes, both sailing vessels and steamers were numerous, carrying cargoes of lumber, grain, iron ore and other products.

During the severe winter of 1870-71, 214 people lost their lives in shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. Shipwrecks were common along the Atlantic Coast. The need for professional rescue crews was evident, and in 1871 Congress appropriated money for this purpose. The U.S. Life-Saving Service was the government agency charged with carrying out rescues from shore.

Each station had a keeper, often called "Captain," who had overall responsibility for the station. He was chosen for his skill as a boatman coupled with his ability to read and write. The keeper supervised a crew of six to eight surfmen hired from the local community. The main qualification for a surfman was the ability to row an open boat in a storm. The surfmen were ranked by skill, the best man being #1, while the least experienced would be #6, #7 or #8, depending on the size of the crew. The men worked their way up through the ranks. On the Great Lakes, the surfmen worked during the shipping season from April to mid-December, while the keeper worked year-round.

Areal photo of US Coast Guard Station and Maritime Musem
Aerial view of the US Coast Guard Station Maritime Museum

The Sleeping Bear Point Life-Saving Station
By the turn-of-the-century, there were about sixty life-saving stations along the Great Lakes. This included one at Point Betsie, about 19 miles southwest of Sleeping Bear Point, and one on North Manitou Island about 15 miles north of Sleeping Bear Point.

The Manitou Passage, the channel between the Manitou Islands and the mainland, was a heavily-used shipping lane. Ships traveling between Chicago and the Straits of Mackinac favored the Manitou Passage over the open waters of Lake Michigan because of the shorter distance and access to the harbor-of-refuge on South Manitou Island. However, the waters of the Manitou Passage could be treacherous and shipwrecks occurred frequently. In 1901, two identical life-saving stations were constructed to guard the Manitou Passage, one on South Manitou Island and one at Sleeping Bear Point.

Over the years, technological developments such as radios, radar and helicopters reduced the need for many life-saving stations. The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station closed during World War II and stood idle until 1971 when it served briefly as the visitor center for the newly-established Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. For several summers rangers led tours in the empty station, interpreting the U.S. Life-Saving Service and Great Lakes maritime history. Then in 1982 and 1983 the site underwent historic restoration. The grounds and the buildings were restored to their 1931 appearance, except for the interior of the boathouse and the crew's bedroom which were restored to the way they looked in the early 1900s, during the first few years of the station's existence. In the spring of 1984 installation of exhibits and furnishings was completed and the former Coast Guard station re-opened as a maritime museum. The official dedication took place with a gala ceremony on Coast Guard Day, August 4, 1984.

The life-saving stations played an important role in local communities, assisting in many ways beyond their official functions. The surfmen became folk heroes, greatly respected for their courage and skill. Neighbors often came by to watch their drills, especially the boating practice. This involved not only rowing in the surf, but also intentionally capsizing the boat and then righting it. The constant practice paid off in a crisis. From the time of its establishment in 1871 until it became part of the U.S. Coast Guard in 1915, the U.S. Life-Saving Service rescued over 178,000 people. Its success rate was an astounding 99%.

School groups or other large groups may make arrangements prior to their visit for a ranger to guide them through the museum and boathouse. Please call 231-326-4700 for more information.

Last updated: July 22, 2022

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Mailing Address:

9922 Front Street
Empire, MI 49630


231 326-4700

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