World-famous Great Lakes ship collection part of Detroit Mercy legacy

November 29, 2022
An exhibit of some of Fr. Dowling's collection on the left and Fr. Dowling himself sitting at a desk with his hand on a model ship, on the right.

Throughout the school year, Pat Higo fields calls for photos and other materials as an archives and special collections librarian at University of Detroit Mercy.

But there’s a specific collection Higo receives more requests for than any other and it’s been part of the University’s legacy for decades.

“At least a couple of times a month, I get calls for Father Dowling’s collection on ships of the Great Lakes,” Higo said. “More than any other collection, that’s the one that gets the most requests from the outside.

“The major requests are for the pictures. I keep his index behind my desk because I use it so often.”

Fr. Edward Dowling, S.J., an Engineering professor at University of Detroit for decades, kept an expansive, in-depth and world-famous maritime collection of Great Lakes ships. It’s one of the premier collections of Great Lakes ship history in the Midwest, right on Detroit Mercy’s McNichols campus.

Dowling’s collection is well over 50,000 photographs and includes many other pieces, such as reference works, prospective drawings, postcards, ship models, books, journals, negatives and paintings, many of them by Dowling, who was an accomplished painter.

The collection currently resides in the Archives Research Center, on the second floor of the McNichols Library.

Matthew Daley outdoors in front of a big shipMatthew Daley ’97 has worked with the collection ever since first stepping foot onto the campus as an undergraduate student in 1993.

Daley found a job as a work-study student at the library his freshman year and quickly found himself immersed in Fr. Dowling’s maritime collection.

“What was really funny was I got interviewed by a gentleman, Bill McElhone, and on the second day, he said, ‘You don’t know anything about ships, do you, and a guy named Father Dowling?’” Daley recalled. “I loved Great Lakes ships and I said, ‘Yeah, I know Father Dowling and I’m hoping to meet him on campus.’

“Bill said, ‘Oh good, Father Dowling is bringing all of his stuff here and I don’t know anything about it.’ That was in September of 1993, and I’ve worked with the collection ever since.”

Daley had the good fortune of working with Dowling up until his passing in 1996. Knowing his idiosyncrasies has also assisted Daley in combing through his collection from the start.

“One of the challenges with Dowling’s collection is that it’s organized for him,” Daley said. “These ships on the Great Lakes last a long time, it’s fresh water and they don’t rot out like out on the ocean. They change names a lot. They’re like playing cards, they get traded and they’ll have five names.

“He scattered them all through the folders by fleet and you had to figure out where it was. He had these binders and I said, ‘Father, there’s no index,’ and he would say ‘Well, I know where they are.’”

“I’m the one that has to find this stuff,” Daley joked. “So, he created this huge binder and just went through by brute memory and there’s gaps, but that’s been the master control system and most of it is done now.”

Binders of photos, paintings and other artifacts inside of the McNichols Campus LibraryDaley, who teaches Great Lakes and Michigan history at Grand Valley State University and serves on the international board for the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History, has deep knowledge of Dowling and how he fell in love with collecting maritime artifacts of the Great Lakes.

Dowling grew up near the harbor in Chicago in the early 1900s. He had terrible allergies, so his family would take him on ships up Lake Michigan because there his hay fever would abate.

He joined the priesthood and earned a degree from Loyola University Chicago and later was ordained at St. Louis University. In 1940, Dowling was brought to University of Detroit “partially because of the ramp up for the war effort” to teach engineering graphics in the College of Engineering and continued to teach at the University well into the 1970s. He also served as University Archivist for 20 years before retiring.

His collection also features his paintings of ships, which he started at an early age. Dowling worked with watercolors during his 20s and painted throughout his life.

“I don’t think people would call him a brilliant, masterpiece artist, but he was a regional artist of note because most people did not paint in his medium or the ships,” Daley said.

The collection is also significant due to the kind of pictures he kept, such as a World War I ship called a Laker, early steel ships called Whalebacks and many historical pictures of Great Lakes harbors.

Daley, who was hired by former Library Dean Margaret Auer while still a student and worked with the University’s Archives well in the 2000s prior to joining GVSU, has a unique perspective because he’s worked with some of the largest Great Lakes maritime collections in the Midwest.

A binder showcases five black and white photos of Dowling's collectionIn addition to Dowling’s expansive collection, Daley earned his Ph.D. in History at Bowling Green in Ohio, which houses the largest collection of Great Lakes history, and spent time at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit.

“I think that it was a real stroke that Margaret Auer was able to gain the collection for the library and the legacy of Father Dowling, he is a very noted figure,” Daley said. “If you go to most maritime history books you will find Dowling images scattered throughout there.”

The collection has now become part of the legacy at the University, helping preserve and extend one man’s lifelong passion.

“I think that this is a collection that will live on,” Daley reflected. “Dozens of students have worked on it. It’s been a big part of my own career, as well. I’ve been working on it for 29 years now. The library has this sort of facility for it. The Jesuit community has also really cared for the paintings that they have and have made them significant and made them a great supporter of the collection.

“It’s a great memory of Father Dowling and of a person who spent so much of his life here at the University.”

 View Fr. Dowling’s collection online at

— By Adam Bouton. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookLinkedInTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.