Navigating the Great Lakes

with Dr. Theodore Karamanski

March 25th, 2021

Host: Ben Fogt

with Dr Theodore Karamanski

Podcast Episode 21 (this episode)


  • Mastering the Inland Seas by Theodore Karamanski

  • Dr Karamanski's bio at Loyola University

For more information

  • Dossin Great Lakes Museum

  • National Museum of the Great Lakes (in Toledo)

Ben Fogt 0:00

This is Episode 21 of what's the deal, grow seal, the podcast exploring the people places history and events that make rosio unique. I'm your host, Ben Fogt. Now, I don't know about you, but the river and the Great Lakes fascinate me. There's something about how they alternate between perfectly smooth and violently turbulent. Sometimes they seem like an escape from the daily grind. And sometimes they remind you of just how industrious our region is.

Over the centuries that people have left their marks on gristle and all of Michigan, we know that the inland seas have taken lines.

Now we can't prevent all those losses. But since the Europeans moved west into North America, people have built beacons and changed the landscape to accommodate marine transportation. My guest today has written about this in his book, mastering the inland seas. Dr. Ted Karamanski, has provided an approachable account of how this massive dangerous resource has been teamed with lighthouses, beacons, channels, locks, and maps. Well, this school year, I've spent a lot of time looking at the Detroit River from the grocery aisle Middle School waiting for my kids to be let out. And as you know, a prominent feature there are these distinct little lighthouse beacons between the north and southbound lanes Livingstone Channel. The first time I noticed them was when I took my kids to wait for the Viking Longboat to pass on the island as part of that 2016 tall ship festival. My guest today is Dr. Ted Karamanski. Dr. Karamanski. His book, mastering the inland seas talks about the history of travel and commerce on the Great Lakes from archaic people to today. And the impact that that's had far from Sure. And so I'm glad you've joined me today from Chicago professor,

Dr Theodore Karamanski 1:46

happy to be here.

Ben Fogt 1:48

So I was looking at your books, and I was just amazed. You've written about all sorts of things you've written about the history of roofing, and you've written about how Chicago experienced the Civil War among many other historical areas. So what inspired you to write about the navigation on the Great Lakes?

Dr Theodore Karamanski 2:04

Well, I kind of got hoodwinked in the American history back in the 1980s, when some of my graduate students, were doing projects for a group that wanted to create a maritime museum in Chicago, and I ended up staying involved. And they would always call me Well, he's our, he's our maritime historian. And they kept saying, No, no, I'm a historian.

I don't know anything about maritime history. But there was in the 80s. And over time, yeah, you know, I actually learned a few things. And so by the time we get to the 21st century, I was doing some work in that field. And the National Park Service came up with a project, they needed someone because as you know, most of the lighthouses on the American side of the Great Lakes have been gradually decommissioned. And there's a process of privatizing those light towers. But the National Park Service wanted to while that was going on, determine should any Great Lakes lighthouses be national historic landmarks that are not there are two already that are, but should there be others? And but they wanted to look at lighthouses from a broad perspective, how the lighthouses might fit into the broader History of the United States. So I got a project with them. I mean, it was a contract for two years to went out and visited tons of lighthouses all across the Great Lakes region, you know, looked at them, looked at their physical condition, studied the history of them, and ended up doing a report for the government. But you know, use reports. It's like Indiana Jones, if you remember the last scene, sure. Everything goes into some giant warehouse or now some Internet Archive. And it's hard for people to access. So I wanted to take some of the things that I found out about while doing the government study, and put them in a more accessible format for folks.

Ben Fogt 4:00

And you've done that for sure. That's, that's really neat. So the book starts with the first people that navigated the Great Lakes and canoes, how did they make traveling on the water safe?

Dr Theodore Karamanski 4:10

Well, a couple of ways. One was native people believe, of course, that all things have a spirit. And so we would dismiss what European Americans dismiss as inanimate objects, nonetheless, have a spirit, something like the Detroit River, or any of the green lakes, it's easy for even us to imagine that they have a spirit, sure, because of their turbulent and sometimes changeable nature or placid surface. And so one way to achieve safe navigation was to make sure that you were right with the spirits of the water. And so sprinkling in some tobacco upon the waves before embarking on a long journey would be a way of showing respect to power. or greater than yourself. And to recognize that other ways, his stories, were a way to go ahead and practice safe navigation. And it was a way to go ahead and point out landmarks that by which you could navigate to or places that you should avoid through stories. And so in these ways, Native people who, of course, navigated the Great Lakes for 1000s and 1000s of years, found a way to live, I would say, well, to some in somewhat in harmony with the Great Lakes environment.

Ben Fogt 5:34

So then also, I think you mentioned that they wouldn't go too far from shore,

Dr Theodore Karamanski 5:38

they would try to keep sight of shore is that how they they stayed? To some extent, of course, Native people made long journeys to places like isle royal, you know, the Manitou islands, the area islands, you know, you have to go pretty, you know, out of sight of land,

but you're pretty far from land. Sure. And sometimes when you're making a longer journey like that, who would practice safe navigation, and it's not something you'd start in the late afternoon, winds, or you might do it in the pre dawn hours, sure, but they also might make a larger sacrifice. There's early accounts of Native people sometimes tying the legs of a dog and tossing the dog into the water to pick a live sacrifice before a really dangerous passage.

Ben Fogt 6:30

And I remember you you telling about distance called a pipe.

Dr Theodore Karamanski 6:35

So this is when the Voyager is a French voyagers are going ahead and really propelling the penetration of capitalism for the first time into the Great Lakes region. And the Voyagers would canoe pretty much all day, from five o'clock in the morning, till dusk, and taking only breaks every 10 maybe miles. And they would that distance would be called a pipe, and the guides who traveled this way on a regular basis, they kind of knew where these rest spots were. Sometimes they would just simply stay in the canoe and smoked or clay pipes, or if it was for lunch, they would come ashore, and use some dried peas, and pemmican to make a mushy stew to sustain the paddlers.

Ben Fogt 7:28

Alright, so to zoom in, then on on Grosse Ile and the Detroit River, we've got a great view of the Livingstone Channel out on our east side. And before I dug into the way that freighter traffic's routed through the river, I always assumed that the river was just the same shore to shore that it sort of basin down and was was pretty much smooth across there. But it definitely isn't. Maybe it was at one time, but that that's really the Livingstone Channel at work there. So what is the Livingstone Channel? And what problem did it solve for that to get carved out?

Dr Theodore Karamanski 7:58

Well, the main problem that it solved was in the late 19th century, you begin to go ahead and make the transition from wooden shipping to steel shipping. And as you move into steel ships, you're talking about increasingly larger size. And also the volume by the late 19th century of shipping is just tremendous. On the grave. I mean, the the Detroit River passage from Huron to Erie is one of the busiest waterways by far in the entire world, we more shipping going through there than ever would go into a city. Now great cities like London, for example, in England, and so what they were concerned about was ships colliding with each other. And so they wanted to create a situation where you could have an upbound channel, and a downbound channel, which keep the ships that were leaving Huron and heading to Erie going, and one side of the river and ships heading from Erie up into Lake Huron on the other side, and to do that they needed a wider navigation channel. And when you get over near the Canadian shore, they're around damages and Hertzberg, the bottom of the lake was solid rock. And that was made for very dangerous navigation as the ships got larger. So it was a tremendous project for the United States corps of engineers to build a gigantic coffer dam to really call ahead and hold back the Detroit River, a large section of the Detroit River, pump out all the water that was in the dam the area and then blast away at that hard igneous rock to carve out the Livingstone Channel. crazy thing is that this was all in Canada. Right? The United States corps of engineers. Canadians, of course, they're always happy if we can spend money for them. Sure.

Ben Fogt 9:57

And we've got them building the Gordie Howe bridge now So

Dr Theodore Karamanski 10:01

this is gonna pay us back. Guess

Ben Fogt 10:04

So cofferdams. I think the the way most people these days are familiar with cofferdams is if they watch the the, the secret of Oak Island, they build a coffer dam to search underwater for some things there. But on the island, I believe that that pretty soon we're going to have a coffer dam erected around the piers of our, of our county bridge that's been closed for a year. And that the it will, so they'll build that coffer dam to go down to around the base of those piers to reconstruct those, however, it is that the engineers are going to do that. So we'll see a lot of cofferdams from the island here pretty soon. That's pretty interesting. So some interesting things we can see from the channel are these little mini lighthouses that mark that mark the middle and we talked about that before we started the interview. And and so we'll have to do some more digging on those. But are there are there other parts of the Great Lakes that have a channel similar to that Livingstone Channel?

Dr Theodore Karamanski 11:03

No. No. Livingstone Channel in terms of its size? Yeah, its depth is fairly unique. Now, there has been a lot of navigation improvements also along the St. Marys river, and that's another waterways like the Detroit River that we have to share with Canada. And which leads, you know, to one of the other great navigation, choke points on the Great Lakes, the Sioux Sainte Marie lacs. Sure,

Ben Fogt 11:31

I guess the most similar than would be the locks as far as major construction efforts.

Dr Theodore Karamanski 11:37

Well, I guess they did the same. They did something similar to this, I think about Livingstone Channel, right after the Civil War meeting in the St. Clair flats, okay, because the water was very shallow there. And the channel was very narrow and shifting. It's kind of Sandy, and the channel would shift and it was a lot of ships would get stranded there. So the Corps of Engineers dug out a basically made a canal and put some lights and the top like you were talking about with Livingstone Channel, and that whole project was redone in the 20th century, too.

Ben Fogt 12:13

Okay. And mentioning just canals, that was another big project that would have happened 100 years before that channel was was done. But but the canals had a short life because they they stopped being used when the trains went through, has have trains, the trains impact the the Great Lakes shipping as much as it did the canals.

Dr Theodore Karamanski 12:36

Well, canals were mean, and they get talked about which canal you're talking about. Sure. So like the Illinois Michigan canal was pretty successful. Even though though you can find books that say exactly what you just said, well, soon as the railroad came in the canal was no church. Well, what's not that in the case of that canal? That wasn't true in the case of the Indiana Wabash canal,

while Bashir

was a disaster from word go, sure.

Ben Fogt 13:02

But when I think the Ohio Erie Canal had flooding that that tore it apart, so

Dr Theodore Karamanski 13:09

it Yeah, and that certainly is a recurring problem, even in the with the Erie Canal. Sure. Now, there's lots of floods that would wipe out sections.

Ben Fogt 13:17

And as I remember my my Greenfield Village history, the reason that Thomas Edison ended up in Port Huron is because the canal that that was in his hometown, in laughter remember that one before I go back next month, but his hometown, in Ohio, flooded in the canal got destroyed. And his father had to move and find labor somewhere else. And so they moved up to Port Huron where he put his his labor to work. And so that's how we get Thomas Edison up there. And if he hadn't ended up on the the Grand Trunk railroad, we probably wouldn't have all the things he brought us. So that's a an interesting part of the canals there. Yeah. All right. So now one of the other things that that islanders would have would have realized, would have noticed from from the channel over there is that back a couple months ago, we had a ship called the harvest spirit, it got stuck in a place in the maps called the hole in the wall, which is sort of a cutout in in the channel there. So how did how did ship pilots before we had all this electronic GPS and those sorts of things? How did they avoid obstacles like that?

Dr Theodore Karamanski 14:34

Sometimes they didn't. I mean, you know, it was pretty tricky business, navigating the Great Lakes. And so much of it in the period before the Civil War was Uncharted, and with limited navigational aids and, you know, it's pretty dangerous business. I mean, that recent shipped grounding, which, then was like bottlenecked whole Fitzroy River, I'll shut down Midwest Academy for a bit there. days, that was you must have been pretty mortifying to have something like that happen, you know, with all of the electronic aids to navigation you've got going today, and I believe they still have Detroit River pilots should do, should be prevented.

Ben Fogt 15:22

We learned about a lot about that when the Viking ship went through for the tall ship festival. I don't know if that news made it to Chicago. I know the Viking ship did. But one of their problems was they sailed across, they sail across the Atlantic, in this in this recreated Viking ship. And when they got to, when they got to the Great Lakes, they needed a pilot, they didn't realize they had to pay a pilot. And what went along with that was just how much a Great Lakes, Great Lakes ship pilot gets paid. And it is a lot of money. But it's regulated by the Coast Guard. So the Coast Guard sets the value of those jobs. So I immediately tried to find out what I needed to do to get my kids to become those. Sure. Sounds like a lot of fun. Yeah,

Dr Theodore Karamanski 16:11

so major at Michigan State.

Ben Fogt 16:13


it should be it should be. I think the easiest way is to join join the Coast Guard, Coast Guard, I'll give you all the training you need to do that. And so for any future notes on that, join the Coast Guard. Now he talked about how he talked about how the original people the the natives from our area, told the stories of navigating Great Lakes and that through their stories. And of course, that brings up a memory for me. I think one of the ways that that people these days learn the most about how dangerous the great lakes are is from Gordon Lightfoot song. And you've got a story about that in the in the afterword of your book. Do you mind reading from that for a little bit?

Dr Theodore Karamanski 16:53

Yeah, no, it kind of gets to like, I was like to tell the reader at some point like why don't we Why did you write this book? Sure. In May 1976, I attended a concert by the Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot at Chicago's auditorium theater. To the disappointment or many in the audience who wanted to hear Gordon Lightfoot sing some of his best known ballots. He went through the playlist of his latest album, which was titled summertime dream. However, you pause before starting one of the new songs. The folk singer was famously crotchety with our reporters and occasionally audiences is on this occasion. sensing the restlessness among his fans, Lightfoot launched into a lecture berating Chicagoans for living on the shores of the Great Lakes and not knowing anything about their nature or their history. He pointed out that just the year before November, Gale had destroyed a giant Lake freighter. All Hands had been lost. It's a tragedy barely received a ripple of public attention. Those leaks are part of your heritage, who said and then he began to sing. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lightfoot song became a phenomenon that stimulated renewed awareness in the lakes in the Midwest region's maritime heritage. It spawned television documentaries, museum exhibits, plays even a beer. The Great Lakes brewing companies, Edwin Fitzgerald Porter,

Ben Fogt 18:24

It's a good one.

Dr Theodore Karamanski 18:25

The wreck

of the Edmund Fitzgerald burst on the scene at a time when the lakes were just beginning to mount a recovery from industrial pollution mismanagement in the first wave of invasive species. In the late 1960s and early 1970s. Great Lakes beaches were beset with waves of dead fish washing ashore. The invasive sea lamprey destroyed the natural food chain in the lakes, which let populations of silvery little girl wives grow exponentially, only to be washed ashore. Dead perfect in 1967 6 billion of the herring herring like little fish washed ashore on Lake Michigan beaches around the smell of rotting fish or giant algae blooms. spoiled by phosphate pollution kept 1000s of people away from the region's beaches and harbors. By 1976 When the song was released, the introduction of salmon by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to attack the lives and regulations brought about by the 1972 Clean Water Act began to make the lake shore once more a desirable place to recreate. There was a boom in resort development along the lakes and a surge in regional voting. During the same years foreign competition wreaked havoc on the region's industrial economy. litefoot song paid tribute to blue Color crews that work for lakes. While it's mournful dirge, like melody memorialized a way of life that was, if not disappearing entirely, certainly being eclipsed.

Ben Fogt 20:12

That's, that's wonderful. And I think I think we're still in the in the effects of that that movement as the Detroit River gets cleaned up and we start appreciating the the natural wonder around us more and more, the the fishing is coming back in in huge swings, actually, that's going to start here in a couple weeks, we'll have 1000s of fishermen come from all over the country to catch the the walleye run. So, yeah, I

Dr Theodore Karamanski 20:41

mean, you talk about the Livingstone Channel to back door. That, you know, was a fantastic improvement for navigation purposes. I mean, it's critical even today, but it really destroyed a marvelous white fish fishery in the Detroit River.

Ben Fogt 20:58

Sure. Absolutely. Yeah. Well, and and there were a lot of other things happening at the time that didn't do any good for us either. So But hopefully, we're turning that we're turning that we've we've talked earlier with John Hardigg, from the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge, and talked about that, and we'll talk with them a little bit more here. In a few more episodes, I really want to thank you for sharing all this with me today. And I've learned a lot from our conversation and from the book. And I definitely recommend it, we'll have links to all that to do that. And, and I especially recommend it for anybody who's listening, that likes to go down and watch the ships float by in the fog, I always find that to be one of the most amazing things is to watch the ships sort of in the morning, when the fog is still there. And the ships float by it's like a skyscraper just passing you by it's, it's really amazing. So do you have any more books that you're anticipating coming out?

Dr Theodore Karamanski 21:51

Well, I'm about halfway through a book, and the sort of environmental and social history of Lake Michigan. Wow. And everything else after that, it's just speculative.

Ben Fogt 22:03

And we talked before that, the COVID. And the pandemic has really has really changed the environment for book publishing, that's for sure. And so we should see an end of that, and maybe see some more uptick in in that. But I think a lot more people are reading too, when you're stuck at home, and you can't, can't bear to turn on Netflix one more time, maybe you'll pick up a book. So. So usually my interviews end with with me asking the guests to make a wish for our community of the region, you can make it for all the Great Lakes if you'd like. But if you could have a wish, granted, what would it be

Dr Theodore Karamanski 22:39

you folks in Detroit got a marvelous Maritime Museum, the docent Museum, we do, and you know, across the whole region, we've been we're lucky to have these small little museums that kind of fight a losing battle against the antipathy of the apathy, excuse me, of some people in the public. So my wish would be that the people of the Great Lakes region take an opportunity to learn something about the history of the region, because I think the more we know about this place that we live, the better job will be taken care of in future.

Ben Fogt 23:20

I agree. Gree entirely. Well, thank you so much. And I want you to know that I appreciate you and I appreciate all the people who helped us contextualize the importance of events and tools that we so often overlook.

Dr Theodore Karamanski 23:33

You're welcome.

Ben Fogt 23:34

Dr. Karamanski and I spoke before the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament began, and since then Loyola where he teaches, has once again upset the seeding to join the sweet 16 in Indianapolis, we see the Ramblers navigate themselves into the Final Four or a national championship. We'll find out very soon. They're the second highest seed remaining in the Midwest region. I wish them well especially since Purdue took an early exit Episode 22 is shaping up to be quite a revelation. Make sure to listen next Thursday for some interesting developments. And if you want to hear more behind the scenes and get some early access to shows and upcoming events during the Facebook group links are in the Episode Notes. What's the deal gross deal is recorded and produced by me then you can keep in touch with me through the what's the deal gross email Facebook page, or email me at what's the deal you can share episodes from Facebook or hear them from the website. What's the deal and of course it never hurts to subscribe so you can get the latest episodes through your favorite podcast delivery tool like Spotify, Apple podcasts, pocket casts, and so many others. Our intro and credit music is mocktails in the rain by Auntie Ludo, which is used through a Creative Commons license. Find more of his music on soundclick calm as Anthony's instrumentals thanks for listening to What's the Deal, Grosse Ile?