Michigan Roadside Attractions: Francis Metallic Surfboat, Douglas
Michigan Roadside Attractions is a periodic feature on Travel the Mitten that will explore the many interesting things that can be found on the highways, byways and back roads of Michigan, ranging from the interesting to unusual.
We enjoy learning about the history of Michigan through the sites honored with Michigan historical marker plaques, and are always looking for new ones that we haven’t seen. I was recently in the Saugatuck/Douglas area for work, and came across the Francis Metallic Surfboat historic marker. This site not only satisfied my love of history, but also had a tie in with lighthouses and lifesaving stations. We love lighthouses, and it was neat to learn about this surfboat and then peer through the window to get a good look at it.
The historical marker tells why this specific boat and others like it were significant: “From about 1854 to at least 1863, this surfboat was used for lifesaving purposes near the Saugatuck Lighthouse. It was one of 48 used on the Great Lakes and one of 137 used nationally. Joseph Francis, owner of the Francis Metallic Lifeboat Company, used his patented press to form the boats’ metal hulls. In 1890 Francis was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal for his many inventions used to improve life-saving. In 2015 this boat was listed in National Register of Historic Places.”
The surfboat is stored in a garage with a window next to the historical marker that lets visitors see it even when the museum isn’t open. When the museum is open you can check out a shipwreck exhibit and “discover the adventures, profits and dangers of Lake Michigan schooner and steamship travel with a visit to the Boathouse exhibition Rowing Them Safely Home—Shipwrecks and Lifesaving on Lake Michigan.”
The history center building is the former Douglas Union School, which is profiled on its own historical marker: “Opened in 1866, The Douglas Union School is one of the oldest surviving multi-classsroom school buildings. With its bracketed eaves and belfry, the school reflects Italian Villa architecture. Two years after the school opened the state superintendent of education reported that “Douglas has a new building, and a good one of a small place.” Incorporated in 1870, by 1873 the village had four general stores, a hotel, several flour and lumber mills, and between 700 and 800 inhabitants. The school served the village and the surrounding area until 1957.” You can find out more about the museum by heading over to https://www.sdhistoricalsociety.org/.
There are plenty of other historic sites in the area, and an Allegan County Heritage Trail sign here gives many details about the history of Douglas, with old photos and a list of a few sites that still survive today. If you find yourself heading to the Saugatuck/Douglas area, make the quick side trip into town to check out all of these great historic attractions.