With the snow and ice finally behind us, thoughts can spring ahead and turn to warmer concerns. Everyone will hopefully be able to take advantage of the turn of the seasons to enjoy some fun in the sun, and potentially spend some time with one of the greatest natural wonders available to Milwaukeeans – Lake Michigan. But before you start planning your party boat cruises or considering hauling out the fishing boats, there is one landlocked maritime vessel here at Discovery World that is worth spending a little time considering.
The Challenge has been part of Discovery World since almost the very beginning, and serves as centerpiece for the museum’s Aquatarium building. But there are a cargo holds worth of facts that most people might not know about one half of Discovery World’s fleet, and here are a few of them to put you in the mood for maritime adventure!
- The Challenge was constructed by a team of sixteen volunteers in 2006, including a Master Shipwright named Rob Stevens, who was also one of the builders for the S/V Denis Sullivan. If 2006 seems a little recent of a construction date for such a majestic (and large) sailing vessel, that’s because this Challenge is a replica of the original, which was constructed by shipwright William Wallace Bates in 1852.
- William Wallace Bates built the Challenge at the age of 25 with only an eighth grade education! However, before you tell kids to drop out of school and focus on building ships, it should be noted that Bates was from a family of shipbuilders, and had spent much of his life around ships and shipbuilding. He was able to design the Challenge to be a fairly advanced vessel for its time however, including specialized design elements to let it go into the many different water depths all over Lake Michigan. But only Lake Michigan, as the Challenge was specifically designed to face the challenges of that particular august body of water, and not the different obstacles that the Atlantic Ocean presented.
- Discovery World’s team of volunteers were able to create such a lifelike replica in part because of the records that Bates left behind, including an article he wrote in 1856 about the Challenge. The modern day builders were able to match the size, type of wood used, and even the same type of planking design. They even used period formulas to mix the paint, and the color scheme is taken directly from paintings of Great Lakes sailing vessels of the same type. However, some aspects of the Challenge necessarily had to be changed. Its scale is only about 85%, and the masts are only 22-foot tall instead of the 90 ft that the real Challenge would have possessed. But even the design of the spine of the ship – the keel on the bottom – is accurate to the original vessel.
- Speaking of the original Challenge, Discovery World hears a lot of guesses as to what its role was on Lake Michigan – everything from passengers to food to pirate treasure (this last mainly from our younger guests). But very few guess that its main cargo was wood products. The growing communities of southern Lake Michigan, including Chicago and a little town we all call Milwaukee, needed huge quantities of planks, raw lumber, and even shingles to keep up with the demand from various builders and architects, and the Challenge was a part of the infrastructure that kept those demands fulfilled. The Challenge was designed to go at a speed of fifteen mph without any cargo, and drop to nine mph when loaded with lumber. And while this doesn’t sound very fast compared to our modern modes of transportation, in 1852 this speed was fast enough to earn the Challenge the nickname “The Belle of Lake Michigan” due to her speed and the regularity of her deliveries.
- While the Challenge was certainly a valuable and reliable part of Lake Michigan’s trading web, the vessel would experience her fair share of troubles. Steering a sailing vessel is no easy task, and the Challenge did sometimes run into problems. Sometimes literally. She did run into other ships on rare occasions, and while many vessels can lay claim to the dubious honor of having run into (sand)bars, the Challenge is probably in a smaller category that have run into saloons. While being towed up the Menominee River, the Challenge struck a riverside saloon and carried away 20 feet of the building!
Bonus Fact: While the Challenge does sometimes look rather precarious hanging from a set of ropes attached to the ceiling, don’t worry! Those are mainly for stability and decoration, and the ship is actually resting on a set of three concrete pillars attached to the building structure, giving it a much more secure perch while you explore!
This blog was written by Discovery World’s Leif Mogren. Over the next few months Leif will dive into some of the most popular exhibits at Discovery World and share their interesting stories. Stay tuned next month to learn all about our Van de Graaf Generator.