Lake Erie Islands: Historic Travel Destination

A destination bursting with history and culture, and the unlikely locus of the most significant War of 1812 naval battle

I slow my jog to a walk and shuffle down a boat ramp at the roadside to the edge of the Put-in-Bay. White wooden dock posts, some with gulls perched atop, march forward into the turquoise water of the harbor. The rocky northern shoreline of South Bass Island curves gently on either side of me to form the bay’s half-moon shape. As I catch my breath, a wooden water taxi weaves among the mooring balls and idle sailboats that face into the cool northwest breeze at the center of the bay. More than 20 other islands topped with green elms and oaks surround South Bass on all sides to form an archipelago that juts northward from the mainland. Some are large enough to support small vineyards and farms along with a few year-round residents, while others cover only a few acres and remain largely wooded and wild. Their pebbled beaches and small limestone cliffs sit low, emerging like small, stocky humps from the blue water that stretches out to the horizon.

But this isn’t Massachusetts, or Maine; it’s the Midwest, and these freshwater islands are set in the 
western basin of Lake Erie, which forms the United States’ northern border with Canada from Michigan to New York. The lake was carved out by the weight of continental glaciers beginning around 1 million years ago. (You can still see the massive glacial grooves at Kelleys Island State Park, nearby.) It’s the second-smallest of the Great Lakes behind Ontario, but still covers nearly 10,000 square miles—an area larger than the state of Vermont.

I was born and raised in Cleveland, two hours east of where I now stand on South Bass, and spent my childhood summers swimming and sailing in these hidden coves and rock-spattered bays. As I got older, I’d poke my head into the raucous bars that serve sailors from Buffalo to Detroit, arriving to hear Pat Dailey, the region’s booze-sodden poet laureate and Jimmy Buffett analogue who still irreverently claims “when Jimmy starts playing my songs, I’ll start playing his.” In winter, the roughly 1 million seasonal vacationers and tourists once again forget these islands, and the population plummets. When the snow sets in, locals gather on the frozen bay for ice fishing and barbeques, and come January, if the ice is thick enough, residents use their Christmas trees to mark a makeshift ice road to the mainland.

But beneath the natural beauty and unique culture of these islands, there is also an unexpected history. And though each island has its own story, none is more unique than the one that ties them all together: the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. I’ve come back ahead of the battle’s bicentennial this September to rediscover that story, and the other treasures of these islands.

Still cooling down
from my run on South Bass, I squat to splash my face with the crisp, clear water and look out at Gibraltar Island, a small wooded outcropping that rises from the center of the Put-in-Bay. Anchored into the grassy slope of its highest ridge, with panoramic views of the bay and the islands beyond, a 15-room 1865 Victorian mansion complete with a Gothic tower remains available for scheduled tours. On the morning of Sept. 10, 1813, just before the Battle of Lake Erie, Americans under the command of 27-year-old Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry were in position on the island to spot the approach of the British fleet.

To my right, near the middle of South Bass’ curved shoreline, is the tiny town named after the Put-in-Bay. It’s just a few blocks in length, and its streets are checkered with old storefronts, golf cart rentals (the best way to get around this roughly 6-square-mile island), and bars with names like the Round House and Beer Barrel Saloon, which fill to the brim between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Ripe for exploring, the rest of the island boasts historic vineyards, a state park with a swimming beach, and the caves where the American sailors are said to have hidden prior to the battle. For those with a little more relaxation in mind, the island is also dotted with waterfront cottages and pastoral bed-and-breakfasts, such as the Arbor Inn, nestled quietly up the street from the bustle of downtown.

After cleaning up in town, I grab a dinner of deep-fried walleye bites and a perch sandwich at Mossbacks restaurant, a local favorite set across the street from the harbor. As I wash it down with a Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, a regional beer named for the freighter that famously sank in Lake Superior during a 1975 storm, I recall my afternoon detour to an island four miles south of here, where a different war brought its own history.

Before boarding the ferry to South Bass that afternoon, I had visited Johnson’s Island, tucked neatly below Catawba Island at the mouth of Sandusky Bay. Between April 1862 and April 1865, more than 260 Confederate soldiers (mostly officers) died in the Union prison there. Those who survived spent their time playing the newly popular game of baseball or organizing the “great rat hunts” of 1864, after their rations were halved in response to Confederate mistreatment of Union soldiers in places such as Georgia’s Andersonville Prison. Now, all that’s left of the prison—once built of wood from trees like the hickories that sway in the breeze above—is a tranquil iron-gated graveyard bearing marble gravestones for the 206 sets of remains that were identified.

I wake the next morning
to a cold rainstorm on South Bass and schlep past the town’s rare 1917 Herschell amusement carousel to Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. Set on the thin waist of the island, the 352-foot Doric column is the tallest in the world, and as the name suggests, celebrates not only the American victory in the battle, but the lasting peace between the United States, Canada, and Great Britain that followed the war. I’m met there by National Park Service ranger Michael Young.

“[The Battle of Lake Erie] was a very important battle in a war that often gets overlooked,” he says, leading me out of the blowing rain and into the marble rotunda in the hollow base of the column.

The walls inside are adorned with engravings bearing the names of the American sailors who were killed or wounded during the battle; a copy of the international agreement that followed the war and remains in effect today limiting the size of warships on the Great Lakes; and an enameled plaque with a transcription of a speech President Kennedy gave, just weeks before his death in 1963, recognizing the peace on the Great Lakes that has followed the battle. Young explains to me that in preparation for the bicentennial celebration this September—a highlight of which will be a full-scale tall-ship reenactment—the Park Service recently completed a partial restoration of the monument itself, including the replacement of a two-ton fascia stone, part of which had cracked and fallen from the face of the observation deck, where we now head.

After climbing the curved staircase that wraps around the column’s elevator shaft, and riding the 1938 elevator, we emerge 317 feet above the bay where Commodore Perry ordered his 585-man crew to set sail and engage the British fleet.

Young points through the rain to the spot—seven miles to the northwest in the open water beyond Rattlesnake Island—where the battle took place. Squinting off to the horizon, I try to picture the cumbersome tall ships (nine American, six British) that maneuvered into position at 10 a.m. and prepared to fire their massive cannons at close quarters. Five hours later, Perry’s battle flag, emblazoned with the phrase “Don’t give up the ship,” still flew, and as his fleet anchored near West Sister Island another eight miles northwest of the battle, he scrawled his famous letter to his superior, General William Henry Harrison: “Dear General, We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

“The British say the battle doesn’t count because it was on fresh water,” says Young. “They say other 
than that, they’ve never lost a naval fleet.”

Back on the ground, and with an afternoon to kill before my ferry back to the mainland, I decide to visit the 19th-century winery on the southern shore of Middle Bass Island, just across a small strait from the Put-in-Bay. Originally founded as the Golden Eagle Winery, what later became Lonz Winery claimed to be one of the largest in the country by 1875, and remained a popular destination until July 1, 2000, when a terrace collapse killed one visitor and injured 75 others.

After making the 10-minute boat ride across the strait with Eric Booker, a lifelong local who is ferrying 
schoolchildren back to their homes on Middle Bass, I find the winery’s windows have been boarded up, and its central stone tower is showing signs of aging. I wander through the yard where I used to play on crude seesaws crafted from planks of wood and wine barrels and peep into the winery’s once-packed dance hall through holes in the darkened windows.

Booker isn’t expecting me back for a few more minutes, so I sit on the grassy hill next to the winery and stare out across the water as the sun begins to sink toward the tops of the tall masts inside the calm harbor of the Put-in-Bay. No matter how many times I visit these islands, I can’t get over their beauty or the pleasures of the lifestyle they offer. But now, looking at Perry’s memorial rising above the shore of South Bass, its marble gleaming gold with the sun, I realize that it’s the area’s singular history that makes the Lake Erie Islands most worthy of a visit.

Online Exclusive: The Battle of Lake Erie: By the Numbers

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