Thom Holden: Captain of the maritime museum

The horn of a cargo ship just blasted its call to the Aerial Lift Bridge. A smile spreads across Thom Holden's face. The familiar sound is like a "hello" from the ship to him. "After working here 30 years, I have come to love and recognize each s...

The horn of a cargo ship just blasted its call to the Aerial Lift Bridge. A smile spreads across Thom Holden's face.

The familiar sound is like a "hello" from the ship to him.

"After working here 30 years, I have come to love and recognize each ship," he said.

Holden has been the supervisor and a park ranger at the Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center for three decades. The museum, which receives more than 300,000 visitors a year, is like a second home for this fan of history and shipwrecks.

"I really enjoy history," Holden said. "I started out with an interest in Isle Royale, became interested in Isle Royale shipwrecks, and from there it just blossomed into an interest in all shipwrecks and ships."


The only audible noise in the visitor center may be the ship's crew talking over the marine scanner, but surely, if you turn the corner and peek at the desk, Holden will be there to greet you with a smile. This man may be quieter than a mouse, but when asked a question about shipwrecks, he can talk for hours.

Holden points out one of the museum's most prized displays, a plate and saucer that contains what looks like a giant marshmallow with a piece of wood stuck in it.

"This is preserved food from the shipwreck of the Schooner Lucerne," Holden said. "It's most likely a pot pie."

Holden knows these facts like he knows the back of his hand. He can shoot off facts and dates with more precision than a laser.

The shipwreck from the Schooner Lucerne contains some of the most uncommon artifacts in the museum.

"The special thing about this shipwreck is that it was covered in sand very quickly after it sank, which preserved the artifacts very well because it kept out the oxygen," Holden said.

The Schooner Lucerne was shipwrecked in November 1886 and came out of Washburn, Wis.

The display also contains a half-preserved hat. The hat was also partially covered with sand.


Time is standing still inside the Lucerne display case. Wool socks with an old-fashioned iron standing next to them are waiting for someone to finish ironing them.

"The brushes were even made with real horsehair," Holden said. "We're fortunate to have this display here at the museum."

The U.S. Corps of Engineers is in charge of Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center. The museum is the most visited attraction in the Lake Superior Basin. Many displays and artifacts, including the steam engine of the tug Essayons on display in the middle of the building, are a part of the museum. The artifacts are from individuals and the Lake Superior Marine Museum Association, which was established in 1972 (a year before the visitor center opened).

Holden does a lot of the administration work and spends much of his day on the phone or on the computer with e-mails, but his real passion is working with kids.

Beth Duncan, who has worked with Holden for more than 25 years, agrees.

"He's really into shipwrecks," she said. "But I think that what he really enjoys is working with the kids."

Holden responds with a smile.

"They're the carrot that keeps me here," he said.


Holden has done a lot of program work for the museum. He founded the Compass Rose program for Girl Scout troops around the state.

In the program, Girl Scouts are given the opportunity to earn a badge by learning about navigation skills, a visit to the maritime museum and participating in a focus group.

He started the program in 1991. The program has since handed out more than 600 badges.

"My own daughter was in the Scouts," Holden said. "My wife and I thought it would be fun."

Holden also spends time with kids in kindergarten through eighth grade giving presentations.

There are more than 20 educational programs offered through the visitor center. From a program called "Who's in Charge?" -- which talks about a ship's crew and their life onboard ships -- to another called "With All Hands," which is a program that focuses on the Edmund Fitzgerald, Holden's educational presentations help instill a piece of history in the younger generations.

Over his 30 years of working with children in the program, he has seen history happen before his eyes.

"When I first started, the kids that came in here had lived through the event when the Edmund Fitzgerald went down," he said. "Now not even kids' parents were alive when that happened. I've really seen a change in audience perspective."


His love for history and shipwrecks will likely touch many more visitors in the years to come.

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