The Great Lakes Historical Society's 160-year-old Kelleys Island lifesaving boat is the oldest Great Lakes boat known to exist in its original construction, but at the society's old museum in Vermilion, Ohio, it was just too big to display.

The Great Lakes Historical Society’s 160-year-old Kelleys Island lifesaving boat is the oldest Great Lakes boat known to exist in its original construction, but at the society’s old museum in Vermilion, Ohio, it was just too big to display.

Not so at the new National Museum of the Great Lakes the society is developing in the Toledo Maritime Center on Front Street, where the boat was one of a handful of lakes artifacts already in position when the society opened the building today to about 120 invited guests to update them on the project’s progress.

Building retrofits to accommodate museum exhibits are about 85 percent complete and should be finished within two weeks, said Christopher Gillcrist, the society’s executive director.

By the first week of December, he said, about 90 percent of the exhibits should be in place.

“It’s going to happen quickly, going to happen dramatically over the next few weeks,” Mr. Gillcrist said during a short Maumee River cruise aboard the Jet Express II ferry boat, an opportunity he also used to pitch an $85-per-plate fund-raising dinner scheduled for Dec. 14 and a $100-per-ticket raffle drawing to be held at that event.

The society so far has assembled $10,475,000 of the museum project’s $12,875,000 estimated cost, including $1 million in private donations or in-kind support and $6,075,000 in state grants. Its fund-raising campaign has a $2.5 million goal, with donors of $10,000 or more offered naming rights to facilities or exhibits at the museum.

Public opening is planned for April, although special events may be held before that.

“There’s no point in opening the museum during the dead of winter,” Mr. Gillcrist said.

But once it opens, local leaders expect it to be a significant cultural asset for Toledo and the surrounding area.

"I like what I see. It seems to be coming along nicely," said Toledo Deputy Mayor Paul Syring, noting an original schedule that called for opening two months ago but agreeing with the society's decision to wait until spring "considering the project's size and scope."

"It will undoubtedly be a point of destination for young and old alike," Mr. Syring said.

"These are real artifacts, not a visitor's center with reproductions, and it will be very interactive," said Mark Sobczak, a society board member and business manager for Teamsters Local 20. "It will be another good reason to come to Toledo."

"It's going to be great for the region," said John Jennewine, a Sylvania Township trustee, "and I can't think of a more appropriate place to have it than on the greatest tributary to the Great Lakes."

Jodi Johns, principal of the Toledo Maritime Academy, said the museum will be “an amazing resource” for her school’s students, for whom it will be a short boat trip away from their downtown Toledo classrooms.

“It’s an instant field trip,” she said. “This backs up and reinforces everything we teach about the maritime industry.”

The society anticipates $250,000 in donations, $150,000 in memberships, and $100,000 in grants annually to support a $1,225,000 annual budget at the museum. A museum feasibility study estimated at least 41,000 annual visitors spending $12.50 each for admission and gift-shop purchases to produce $500,000 in direct income.

The museum’s centerpiece, moved from International Park about a year ago to a new slip on the Maumee River’s east bank just upstream from I-280, is the restored lake freighter S.S. Col. James M. Schoonmaker. The city of Toledo owns the 1911-vintage freighter but has entrusted it to the historical society’s management after being on the verge of abandoning it for financial reasons a decade ago, which likely would have led to scrapping.

“This project started as a significant challenge of managing the Schoonmaker and the Maritime Center for the [Toledo-Lucas County] Port Authority,” said Paul C. Lamarre III, a society board member and the Schoonmaker’s director. “It has been a humble honor to be involved in this project from its inception to its final stages of initiation.”

Besides the museum ship outdoors and a handful of artifacts already on-site inside the building, the society set up for the event computers and televisions showing several of the museum’s audio-visual exhibits explaining elements of Great Lakes history. A number of interactive activities also are planned.

The Maritime Center was originally built by the port authority during the early 2000s as a local terminal for passenger ferries and cruise ships, but since its opening only a scattering of ferry charters and no cruise ships have called there.

Port authority president Paul Toth said the museum exhibits will not interfere with the center’s original intended use. They will be laid out “so we can still process passengers through here as that opportunity presents itself,” he said.

The ferry cruise during the event today was donated by Jet Express, and company president Todd Blumensaadt said one of its vessels likely will return to the site for the museum’s spring opening.

“There’s a lot of history on the Great Lakes, and we want to be a part of it,” he said.

Contact David Patch at: or 419-724-6094.