Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-02-13.
During the War of 1812, the British immediately seized control of Lake Erie. This seizure allowed them to cut off supply routes to Detroit, which ultimately led to control of the city. By 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had been appointed to command Lake Erie. The Commodore amassed several vessels at Presque Isle.
By August of 1813, Commodore Perry had established an anchorage at Put-in-Bay, Ohio which is the area around South Bass Island. For the next five weeks, he proceeded to block all supplies bound for Amherstburg, Ontario. Robert Heriot Barclay, Commander of the British Squadron on Lake Erie had no choice but to face Perry. This would later be known as The Battle of Lake Erie.
U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo
On the morning of September 10, 1813, the British Squadron sailed towards the American Fleet. Both squadrons engaged in conflict. After several hours of intense fighting, the Lawrence, was in poor shape having taken a steady pounding from the British long guns. Perry, removed his flag, disembarked from the vessel, and rowed a half mile through gunfire to the Niagara.
Shortly thereafter, Barclay was wounded and his first lieutenant was killed. Most of the British fleet were disabled or destroyed. The British, having witnessed Perry's transfer to the Niagara expected Perry to retreat, but that did not happen. He regrouped his schooners, and went in for the kill. After taking additional fire, the British had no choice but to surrender.
After victory, Commodore Perry sent the following message to General William Henry Harrison with the famous words: "We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop."
During the 1800s, there was a lot of activity along the Great Lakes. The openings of the several canals lead to increased activity. The Erie Canal increased commercial activity in Buffalo, NY and points east, such as New York City. The Wabash & Erie Canal took Great Lakes traffic, and provided access south to the Gulf of Mexico.
For vessels traveling in Lake Erie, there is a significant obstacle to navigation in the lake's western basin. An archipelago sits between Sandusky, Ohio and Leamington, Ontario. There are two strategic passages in which to navigate between the islands. There is the Pelee Passage on the north side or the often preferred South Passage near the Ohio shoreline.
Most captains preferred the South Passage due to its protection from the elements, but it was not without its troubles. The narrowest section was between South Bass Island and the Marblehead Peninsula. The eastern end of the passage, between Kelley's Island and the Marblehead Peninsula, had been marked as early as 1821 by the Marblehead Lighthouse.
By the mid-1850s, the island's owner, Jose de Rivera Saint Jurgo, had established vineyards and began producing wine. As his reputation as a vintner grew, so did the visitors. In the year 1859, estimates put the number of people visiting the island at 15,000. The popularity of the island continued over the years culminating with the opening of the Hotel Victory in 1892.
Although recommendations for a lighthouse on Bass Island appear in documents as early as 1838, the Lighthouse Board wouldn't recommend a lighthouse until 1890. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:
South Bass Island, Lake Erie, Ohio - This passage is much used in place of the north passage by vessels bound to and from Sandusky and Marblehead, or to Toledo from the east, and during heavy blows from the northwest. There are several dangerous shoals in it, which are only marked for daylight passage, and such passages are not always practicable; hence night passages are becoming necessary. It is therefore recommended that a light be established on the southerly end of South Bass Island to range with Green Island light and Marblehead light, at an expense not to exceed $8,600, and that an appropriation of that amount be made therefore.
The same entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1891. The Lighthouse Board had authorized the establishment of a lighthouse on South Bass Island by an act approved on February 15, 1893. An appropriation was made on August 18, 1894 which would provide the necessary funds for the construction of the lighthouse.
By 1895, the following entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year shows that land was purchased, but title problems delayed the transfer:
South Bass Island, Lake Erie, Ohio - By the act approved August 18, 1894, an appropriation of $8,600 was made for the establishment of this light-station. A lot containing about 2 acres of land on the extreme southwestern point of South Bass Island was purchased for a site. Delay in completing the transfer of this property to the United States was due to the time required by the grantor for the preparation of the abstract of title, so that it was impracticable to commence the erection of the station buildings in this fiscal year.
By 1896, the Lighthouse Board was putting together contracts for the construction of the structures which consisted of a brick dwelling, tower, and woodshed. The ironwork for the oil house was already under contract. But it appears that there were problems with the contracts. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1897 had the following entry:
1240. South Bass Island, Lake Erie, Ohio - The contract made for the construction of the buildings for this station was not carried out. The bidders failed to execute the required bond. All of the bids received in response to a re-advertisement of the work were rejected, as excessive and not within available funds. The construction of the keeper's dwelling and tower by hired labor and open-market purchases of material was, therefore, undertaken, and with the close of the fiscal year the work was practically completed. The illuminating apparatus, a fourth-order lens, was installed in the tower lantern. A square iron oil house was erected.
Constructed near the Lime Kiln dock was a two-and-one-half-story red brick dwelling with Queen Anne styling sitting over a full basement. Attached to the dwelling was a sixty-foot square brick tower topped off with a ten-sided iron lantern outfitted with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The tower was completed, and first lit on July 10, 1897.
Unlike many other light stations, South Bass Island featured many amenities that other stations did not have. One such feature was space. Dwellings at many other lighthouses typically featured a single story or a story-and-one-half, where South Bass Island featured two-and-one-half stories for a single family. Other such amenities were a laundry room, full basement, kitchen range, pocket doors, furnace, cistern, hot water reservoir, and a hydraulic force pump.
Many keepers would call South Bass Island home over the years. The first keeper was Harry H. Riley. Rumor has it that he had hired a laborer by the name of Samuel Anderson in August of 1898. It is reported that Samuel Anderson committed suicide by jumping from a nearby cliff.
Keeper Riley, distraught with grief, was found wandering the streets of Sandusky drunken and disorderly on September 2, 1898. He was arrested and after the court declared him "hopelessly insane," he was committed to an asylum in Toledo. His wife was appointed keeper in his absence.
The next keeper to be appointed the South Bass Island Lighthouse was Captain Orlo J. Mason. He was transferred from the Ashtabula Lighthouse and would serve the location until April 18, 1908. On April 23, 1908, he was transferred to the Fort Niagara Lighthouse and served there until his death in 1914.
Charles B. Duggan took over keeper duties in 1908. His life would come to a tragic end on April 29, 1925, when he fell off a cliff on the island. Lyle Duggan, Charles's son was appointed keeper for the rest of the year until his replacement, Captain William Gordon arrived in December.
Several other keepers would serve the station until 1947 when Paul F. Prochnow was appointed keeper. Along with keeping the South Bass Island light, he was required to maintain the light at the top of the Perry Victory Memorial tower and the light on the skeletal tower on Green Island. When Keeper Prochnow retired on October 31, 1962, the Coast Guard decided to retire the station as well. The light was moved to a steel skeletal tower visible in the picture above.
The Coast Guard put the lighthouse up for rent to the highest bidder. The winner of the five year lease was Harry H. Johnson with a bid of $66.50 per month. In 1967, the Coast Guard transferred ownership of the lighthouse to the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare's Division of Surplus Property.
Given the location of the property to The Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island, the lab director, L.S. Putnam, prepared a proposal to acquire the property and presented it to the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees agreed, and filed a formal application to obtain the property in June of 1967. The application was accepted, and the property was transferred to Ohio State University in October of 1967 by a thirty year Quit Claim Deed. The deed ended in 1997 when the station was permanently transferred to the university.
More recently, the university has opened the lighthouse to tours. According to their website, tours are run on Mondays and Tuesdays from 11:00am to 5:00pm, June 17 through August 13.
Directions: While on Route 2 near Danbury, OH, head north on Ohio Route 53 and follow it to the end. It will end at Miller Ferry Lines at Catawba Point. From here you can board a boat to take you to South Bass Island. The light is visible from the ferry landing or can be accessed via a short walk.
Access: Grounds and tower open during tours. For more information on the tours, please visit Stone Laboratory website.
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