Port Dover Harbour Museum

Port Dover Harbour Museum is the perfect introduction to the maritime history of Lake Erie. It’s also a great example of imaginative – and appropriate – museum architecture.

Like something out of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the Port Dover Museum in Port Dover Ontario is “not too big, not too small, it’s just right”.

Port Dover Museum, front door

It’s actually made up of two buildings and part of it is a ship. One building looks new, and the other with its dark red siding (a former fisherman’s shanty) looks like it’s been there for a couple of hundred years, even though it’s only about half a century old.

The entry to the museum is through the newer building, but even before you get inside, you’ll want to stop and admire the curious artwork around the door.  Look at the teeth!

fish, Port Dover Museum

There are some great pictures on the “portholes” on the doors too.

Once inside you’ll see a large room full of exhibits dealing with the maritime history of Port Dover and by extension the Great Lakes:

inside the Port Dover museum

You can probably whip through most of the displays in an hour but we were there for nearly two hours. If you’re keen on some subjects, just chat with the museum staff and they can tell you more. Some of the topics you’ll find include:

-fishing (inside the fisherman’s shanty you’ll find information about local fish and the fisherman’s tools of trade)
-shipbuilding in Port Dover (did you know that one of the Maid of the Mist boats was built here?)
-scuba diving: including a local invention
-great old black and white photographs of local fishermen

Shipwrecks are, sadly, part of life (and death) in a lakeside community. The Port Dover Harbour Museum has a couple of exhibits on shipwrecks on Lake Erie: a general overview and then a specific one devoted to the famous Atlantic shipwreck of August 1852. This wreck was caused by a collision with another ship; more than 200 lives were lost in this tragedy. Legal battles over who owned the rights to this wreck over the years dragged on for decades, finally being settled more than a century after the disaster. The museum now has several artifacts from the wreck on display.

Wreck diving is a popular but controversial activity not just on Lake Erie but around the world; just look at the ongoing debates over the commercialization of the Titanic. Looking through this exhibit made me think about the whole idea of “disaster tourism” and “grief tourism” or “dark tourism”. I have mixed feelings about these subjects. At least there aren’t many personal items here in the Atlantic section (aside from a pair of child’s boots and a few other items). Most of the artifacts on display are more impersonal, like ship pictures and a model of the ship, dining room dishes and the Atlantic’s bell.

Back in the 1800s there were about 5,000 small ships out plying this lake at any time. Today it’s more like 500 (but they’re much bigger). Five thousand! Can you imagine? What a traffic jam! The lake must have looked like downtown Toronto at rush hour. And we think of the past as a “quieter” time.

Creative architecture at the Port Dover Harbour Museum

Part of the museum, which juts out at the back, is made from a restored 1912 lake freighter.

Harbour Museum, Port Dover

I was so fascinated by this structure that I asked curator Ian Bell about it.

He explained that “the initial design and architecture of the Port Dover Harbour Museum was done by The Design Group – Tom Lehari and Max Morrison. The Museum was re-opened in 2000. The idea for the wheelhouse actually came from members the Dover Mills Heritage Association. The William P. Snyder Jr., built in 1912, had been scrapped in Port Colborne in the 1980s. A Port Dover resident had purchased the wheelhouse and brought it here with some scheme in mind. As the new museum was being planned the wheelhouse was sitting in the shipyard next door. The Heritage Association purchased it and had it incorporated into the design.”

Photo above is courtesy of Port Dover Harbour Museum; all other photos on this page are by Guylaine Spencer

Kids will love this because they can stand at the wheel and pretend they’re captains of a ship. You can look up the river and see the pier at the end, and spot part of Long Point way off in the distance. You might even see some ships out on the lake, proving that the maritime history of Port Dover is far from just a thing of the past.

Practical details

The Port Dover Harbour Museum is located at 44 Harbour Street. It’s close to the beach and the pier. There is free parking.

The museum sells maritime-themed artwork, handicrafts, books, music CDs and postcards.

There is no restaurant on site but you’re right near the landmark Erie Beach Hotel restaurant (home of local perch and delicious “celery bread”) and the vintage Arbour hotdog stand.

For more information

For current operating hours, see the museum’s website at www.portdovermuseum.ca.

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