Watching Great Lakes Freighters in Southwest Michigan | Southwestern Michigan Tourist Council

Watching Great Lakes Freighters in Southwest Michigan

A freighter passing near the lighthouse in St. Joseph, MI

It is captivating to watch big freighters and barges arriving to and departing from St. Joseph. Because they do not arrive on a daily basis, it is a special occurrence. You often see cars pull over to watch and Great Lakes shipping enthusiasts congregate along the river channel. Watching a ship navigate past the railroad swing bridge is particularly fascinating. It is hard to imagine how such a large vessel, fighting the river current, can so precisely navigate through the narrow space alongside the bridge. At night, it is even more dramatic to watch as they navigate the channel by spot light. I am in awe of these impressive vessels and their hardworking crews.

Why I love watching ships on the Great Lakes

My interest in watching ships on the Great Lakes stems from the stories I heard from my grandfather who piloted several ships on Lake Michigan, including the S.S. Spartan and S.S. Badger. His experiences were fascinating from jumping overboard to save a captain's dog, spotting a seiche and turning the ship before getting swamped to discovering a passenger using a bottle to mimic the sound of a foghorn during a foggy night. He would also tell stories about being on the Great Lakes during storms and how he learned to navigate a ship in a river channel and past obstacles. The stories instilled a deep appreciation of adventure and dangers of the Great Lakes in me.

As a child, I looked forward to looking for ships during stops on our family vacations to places like Mackinaw and Sault Ste. Marie. But as I got older and spent less time near the shore of the Great Lakes, I forgot about the ships. It was not until I moved to St. Joseph that my interest was reawakened. Seeing the ships and barges brought back the memories of my grandfather's stories and reminded me of my childhood dreams of adventures on the lakes. Even now, after living in St. Joseph for a number of years, I get excited at the sound of an approaching ship. The office I work at faces the St. Joseph river channel, and when I can, I stop what I am doing to go over to a window to watch.

A ship docked at Marnia Island in St Joseph photo Joshua Nowicki.

A very brief history of shipping in St. Joseph & Benton Harbor

Shipping in the St. Joseph and Benton Harbor area grew throughout the 1800s with ships transporting building material and agricultural products. Additionally, they brought vacationers from the Chicago area to relax in Southwest Michigan’s small towns, enjoy the attractions at the House of David and experience the excitement of Silver Beach Amusement Park. However, over the years, the number of ships has decreased. From spring to fall, ships and barges delivering concrete and aggregate for construction can still be seen. Great resources for learning about the maritime history of Southwest Michigan are St. Joseph Maritime Heritage Trail and the Michigan Maritime Museum

The best places to watch freighters

From just about anywhere along the shoreline, you have an opportunity to see ships on Lake Michigan. However, they are usually miles out and only faintly visible on the horizon. The best views come as the ships arrive at and depart from St. Joseph. The south side of the St. Joseph River, Silver Beach County Park and the south pier are great viewing locations as well as Tiscornia Park and the north pier on the northside of the river. Various locations along Lake Bluff Park also offer scenic views of ships as they pass by the lighthouses and turn bridge. When the ships are in the channel, Margaret B. Upton Arboretum is a perfect viewing location. From the arboretum, you can watch the ships dock at either Lafarge North America or Marina Island. The Inn at Harbor Shores is in the perfect location to watch ships in the turning basin near Marina Island. As they turn, the ships get extremely close to the Inn and you can truly appreciate their massive scale. 

Two ships in the St Joseph River.

Tips for watching the freighters

  • Use the MarineTraffic website to track the location of vessels on Lake Michigan.
  • Follow the St. Joseph and Benton Harbor Shipping News facebook group. 
  • Binoculars or a telephoto camera lens will assist you in identifying ships. 
  • Come back to enjoy the view at night. The lights from ships docked at night can be quite beautiful and make for great photographs. 
  • If you are in the downtown area, be sure to listen for a ship sounding off. They travel quite slowly in the river channel, so you should have plenty of time to walk to a viewing location. 

Book a ship watching stay

There are two hotels in St. Joseph where you can watch the ships from the comfort of your room. The Boulevard Inn is located on Lake Boulevard, and the lake view rooms offer a breathtaking scene of Lake Michigan, Silver Beach and the lighthouses. The Inn at Harbor Shores located on the shore of the St. Joseph River is the perfect location to view ships in the turning basin. Moreover, from the Inn’s restaurant, Plank’s Tavern on the Water, you can relax with a drink and a meal while you enjoy the action.  

Book your stay

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