Ship Watchers Can Nerd Out in New Interactive Exhibit [VIDEO + PHOTOS]

Detroit’s new Portal View opens window on maritime history.

Detroit’s RiverWalk gets a lot of foot traffic. John Loftus, who runs the Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority, estimates 3 million people use the riverfront trail every year. He wonders how many of them know the history of the Detroit River and its main industry–shipping.

“Our Detroit River is one of the busiest commercial waterways in the world,” Loftus says. “But people don’t really recognize that that’s what they’re looking at.” 

Loftus says he and many other people have dreamed of having something on the riverfront that would educate people. The new Portal View, located in front of the Port of Detroit office, is the realization of that dream.

The Portal View consists of a small metal building furnished by Three Squared Inc., a Detroit company that turns shipping containers into living spaces. This particular container features a panel that opens, providing a full view of the river. The lights and the porthole windows inside the container came from scrapped Great Lakes vessels. And the centerpiece is a large, interactive computer kiosk with a constant link to BoatNerd, a web site that tracks ships on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. By touching the screen, one can identify which ships are passing through the river, where and how fast they’re going, and how long they are. 

John Loftus introduces the Portal View

Bishop Peter Beckwith blesses the Greater Detroit anchor

The Portal View, built and designed by Three Squared Inc.

Portholes from scrapped ships offer a unique view

The oceangoing bulk carrier Maccoa passes the Portal View

Interactive display connects to BoatNerd web site

Portal View features maritime history

Loftus says maritime history and culture should be celebrated.

“It’s something school kids can use, adults can use, it’s just something I think is going to be really of value to the entire community,” Loftus says.

Sitting next to the Portal View is an artifact from the S.S. Greater Detroit, a luxury passenger steamer that sailed between Detroit and Buffalo from 1924 to 1950. When crews scrapped the ship, they severed the forward anchor, which landed on the bottom of the Detroit River. It was raised in November 2016. A forklift placed the three-ton anchor on a concrete slab in front of the Port of Detroit on May 19, 2017. Loftus says it’s a shame the anchor is the only remnant of the Greater Detroit.

“The ship itself was absolutely gorgeous,” Loftus says. “It’s just so unfortunate that we didn’t have the foresight to preserve a vessel like that for historic purposes, but we burned it and scrapped out the metal.”

The Portal View will be open most of the year. Loftus says it will probably be closed during the winter to protect the electronic equipment inside. He says the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy played a major role in the project, which General Motors paid for with funds left over from construction of the Port Authority building. The Great Lakes Maritime Institute and the Maritime Recycling Corporation also supported its creation.

Click on the audio player to hear the conversation with WDET’s Pat Batcheller.



  • Pat Batcheller
    Pat Batcheller is a host and Senior News Editor for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news, traffic and weather updates during Morning Edition. He is an amateur musician.