A Look at Life Upon the Great Lakes | Review of “Ship Captain’s Daughter: Growing Up on the the Great Lakes” by Ann M. Lewis (2015) Wisconsin Historical Society Press

(I received a copy of this book via a promotion on librarything.com)

We get a little too absorbed in between the lines drawn on maps that we ignore natural features that surround us. I have gotten use to telling people that I grew up and live in Ontario, Canada for so long I have forgotten that the area is surrounded by massive bodies of water known as the Great Lakes. For generations, people have made a living at traversing them but it is easily to taken them for granted. Thank goodness there are memoirs like Ship Captain’s Daughter: Growing Up on the Great Lakes by Ann M. Lewis to enlighten us what life was like at one time near these bodies of water.

Page 1- Introduction

The ship comes in, the ship goes out. As the daughter of a Great Lakes ship captain, I grew up to the rhythm of the transport of iron ore. From the arrival of the shipping orders in March to “lay up” in December, from climbing the ship’s ladder weekly to see my father while he was in port to watching his ship disappear again over the horizon line, my life was dominated by the excitement, the loneliness, the drama and the lure of the shipping industry and the water.

My hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, is located at the western tip of Lake Superior. The water has always been the life of Duluth and its sister city, Superior, Wisconsin, where my father grew up. When iron ore was discovered in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin in the late 1800s, the Twin Ports, with their natural harbor, made it possible for giant cargo ships to carry ore from the mines in the north down through the Soo Locks to the steel mills on the lower lakes in the east. For generations, many local men have worked as shipbuilders, dockworkers, chandlers, uniform manufacturers, stevedores and bridge tenders.

And then there are those men who have worked on the lake. My father, Willis Carl Michler, was one of them. He sailed the Great Lakes for forty-seven years and was a captain of thirteen different ships for twenty-one of those years. Drawn to the water and the big ships as a young man, he followed a dream of becoming a Great Lakes ship captain, and he and my mother and I lived it out together, in all its rich and varied and demanding dimensions.

Lewis written an interesting book here with a clear simple style.  She not only documents the life of her father while he was away at sea, but also her life at home while growing up. This book is a great snapshot of a lifestyle not only of a place but a time as well.

Page 7

Once his ship was fitted out and had set sail, the familiar ritual of calculating his weekly arrival to our area began. The Duluth News Tribune posted the times that the ships passed through the Soo Locks. About twenty-six hours after locking up, he would arrive in the Twin Ports. If he went through the locks at six on a Tuesday morning, which meant Mom would miss her ten a.m. church circle that week. If he left at one on Wednesday to go back down, he would be at the Soo at three p.m. on Thursday in port at ten p.m. on Friday, unloaded by eight a.m. on Saturday, back up bound through the Soo by four p.m. on Sunday, and at a dock near us gain at six a.m. on Monday. Now the school conference for Monday at nine a.m. might have to be canceled, but then again, there just might be a chance that Dad could get off the ship to come with us and meet the teacher, if the weather didn’t delay him, or if someone didn’t decide to quit and have to be officially terminated and paid off. On the day of my eighth-grade graduation, I remember we got lucky. Dad got in at seven a.m. and was able to get off right away. He had to be back by noon, but he got to see my new dress, hear my piano piece and help Mom and me pick lilacs in the backyard for the punch table.

At times, Lewis adds a nice lyrical voice to the story, giving the book a romantic feel to it. A pleasure to read.

Page 70-71 Our Last Trip

By morning the wind had died down and it was clear and sunny. Dad worked on payroll and I sat out on the deck and read. He joined me for a while, watered his flower boxes, and then called for the porter to bring up lunch. Before dinner that night, we walked around the after-cabin a few times for a little exercise, and then we went into the dining room for something I ate only aboard ship – corned beef and cabbage.

When the moon came up, we began to see the outlines in the distance of several ships starting to get in line to go through the river leading up to the Soo Locks. Standing out on the bow, Dad made me look for the North Star just to make sure I remembered how to find “true north.” Since ancient times, he said, Polaris has been the “sailor’ star.” We no have modern navigational devices such as the gyrocompass, but those depend on human power sources that can fail. The North Star never goes out, he laughed. It’s still a sailor’s best friend.

He point out Cassiopeia, important because it’s one of the constellations visible year-round in the northern sky. We stood there silently in a bowl of stars. the ship rocked gently in the night wind. “It’s so awesome out here,” I said. “It feels like we’re floating through time and space.”

“We are, Dolly,” he said, still gazing upward. “We are.”


Ship Captain’s Daughter by Ann M. Lewis provides an interesting read about life on and around the Great Lakes. It is an endearing and simple read.

Link to Wisconsin Historical Society’s webpage for Ship Captain’s Daughter

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