Jim and I rented bicycles to get around the island, but you can also rent golf carts.
Head Over Heals With Historical Lake Erie
By Ria Nicholas
South Bass Island is the southernmost member of a small archipelago in the shallow waters of Lake Erie’s western end. There the charming community of Put-In-Bay makes the perfect summer get-away: away from the city and the oppressive summer heat. Although the island is accessible by boat or small plane, we chose instead the 20 minute ferry ride from Catawba Island*. The ferry makes it possible to bring your car, however, if you do, here are some guidelines to keep in mind. You won’t actually need a car to get around Put-In-Bay. Most attractions are within walking distance, and there are plenty of other convenient options for getting around.
*Catawba Island is the name of a township. It isn’t actually an island.
From active outdoor recreation, to romance, to entertainment for young families, or memorable senior moments, Put-In-Bay seems to have something for everyone!
Once on the island, Jim and I rented kayaks and paddled out onto Lake Erie. The water was crystalline, fresh, and cool, but not too cold. Because of ship traffic on the lake, we hugged the shore, paddling in and around rock formations known as sea stacks. We enjoyed riding out the occasional but impressive wakes made by passing ships.
Looming above us on a cliff, as if tossed there by an exceptionally large wave, sat the Benson Ford Shiphouse looking down on us. This particular nod to the area’s maritime history was once the forecastle of a cargo ship built in 1924 for Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company. Today, it serves as a private vacation home that has been featured in various magazines and on several television programs, including HGTV’s “Extreme Homes.“
South Bass Island is a paradise for travelers interested in water-based outdoor adventure. Other activities available at Put-In-Bay include chartering a fishing boat, renting jet skis, and parasailing over the lake, where you can take in stunning views from high above the water.
Back on shore, we stopped at a restaurant, one of several overlooking the harbor and marina at Put-In-Bay’s famous Boardwalk. Afterwards, we rented bicycles for a leisurely self-guided tour of the 5 by 2.5 mile island. (Renting a golf cart is another popular option for getting around.)
The island is dotted with quaint, colorful wooden houses and larger Victorian mansions, many of them of historical significance.
As we made our rounds, we were surprised to come across a vineyard. In fact, Put-In-Bay is home to a couple of wineries. German immigrant, Gustav Heineman was the first to establish the industry here, and Heineman’s Winery has been producing wine since 1888. Heineman’s also offers tours of its Crystal Cave, with crystals up to 3 feet in length.
Another option is the Put-In-Bay Winery, which hosts wine tastings at the historic Doller House and offers tours of the House and Island Life Museum.
For family fun, visit Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. Named for Oliver Hazard Perry (more about him below!), the centerpiece of this attraction is – as the name suggests – a cave. Rumored to have been discovered in 1813 by Commodore Perry himself, the cave is home to an underground lake that rises and falls with the tides of Lake Erie. The Fun Center also offers a maze, miniature golf course, gemstone mining, a rock wall, a butterfly house, and more.
Another excellent destination, the South Bass Island Lighthouse serves up a heaping helping of history and nostalgia. Commissioned in 1890, its first keeper finally lighted its oil lamp in 1897. Soon after, the lantern room was fitted with a Fresnel lens. Since then, a collection of snakes in the basement, a bizarre suicide (or was it murder?), the keeper’s sudden descent into madness, and, years later, a tragic, fatal fall have all stirred up rumors of paranormal activity at the lighthouse.
Today, the facility belongs to The Ohio State University, and visitors come to tour the lighthouse and relax among the monarch butterflies, which visit its summer gardens.
For more on lighthouses, see our article: “Saving America’s Epic Lighthouses.” You can also visit the Marblehead Lighthouse, a 20 minute drive from Catawba Island. The image, left, is of Marblehead, which also boasts a museum in the keeper’s cottage, as well as a reconstructed vintage rescue station with boat. Image by Ria Nicholas.
In addition to the lighthouse tour, history and science lovers may choose from among several of The Ohio State University’s other educational adventure tours, including the Aquatic Visitors Center, Stone Lab’s Lake Erie Science Tours, or a visit to Cooke’s Castle on Gibraltar Island. Cooke’s Castle was constructed in 1863 / 1864 by Civil War financier, Jay Cooke, as a summer residence on the islet in the bay. It is on the National Register of Historic Landmarks.
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If you are fortunate enough to visit the island during very select days of the year, you may also be able to catch a ride aboard an historic 1928 Ford Tri-Motor airplane! Debuted in 1926, the Tri-Motor was considered the first dedicated passenger airliner, marking the beginning of commercial flight as we know it.
On other days, when the airplane isn’t on tour, you can visit the Tri-Motor (and other vintage aircraft, vehicles, and watercraft) at the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio, a short 15 minute drive from Catawba Island on the mainland.
The iconic Round House Bar has been in business here since 1873! It is THE place on the island to enjoy adult beverages and live music. Here Mike “Mad Dog” Adams and his country rock comedy performances have been a staple for over 40 years. Don’t even think about entering the place unless you are over the age of 21. Photo by Ria Nicholas
“South Bass Island Evening,” a song by Mike ‘Mad Dog’ Adams.
The friendly and welcoming atmosphere of this relaxed tourist village belies its original claim to fame. During the Napoleonic Wars in Europe (1803-1815: ultimately Britain vs. France), both Britain and France disrupted American merchant shipping. Britain, in particular, also kidnapped American merchant marines and impressed them into service in the British Royal Navy. When diplomacy failed to correct this problem, President James Madison declared war on Great Britain (the War of 1812)*.
* See our article titled “Tour the French Quarter With NOLA’s Original Bad Boy!” to learn more about how the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 affected New Orleans – and find out about some cool places to visit there!
But Britain’s Navy was the most powerful in the world. After the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, England’s King George III turned his entire military strength against the fledgling United States.
His plan was to mobilize British forces in Canada and, together with troops traveling up the Mississippi River from New Orleans, to “shove the Americans into the Atlantic Ocean.” In fact, the British managed to march on Washington, D.C., capture the city, and burn the Presidential Mansion (it wasn’t called ‘White House’ yet), the Capitol, and many other government buildings. Only a freak rain storm saved the capital from utter destruction.
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Meanwhile, Britain controlled all of the Great Lakes, and the Americans sustained a series of humiliating losses in battles and skirmishes around the region. Eventually an American fleet under the leadership of 27-year-old Master Commandant Oliver Perry (not to be confused with his younger brother, Commodore Matthew Perry) secured a victory against Captain Robert Barclay that turned the tide. Perry’s success in the “Battle of Lake Erie” made it possible for General William Henry Harrison to invade Canada and defeat the British at the River Thames in Ontario in October 1813. It was a significant turning point in the war.
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 352-foot granite Greek Doric column, commemorates Commodore Oliver Perry’s victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. The structure is open every day during the summer season, and, on a clear day, you can glimpse Canada from the observation deck.
Put-In-Bay has now been a summer resort for more than 100 years, complete with restaurants, live music, hotels, boating, fishing, parasailing, golf cart rentals, caves and, of course, the Perry Peace Memorial.
While Put-In-Bay doesn’t close (it’s a community), the tourist season runs April 1st to October 31st. Average high and low temperatures are as follows:
At times, Lake Erie freezes over, making it impossible to access – or leave – the island by boat.
During the summer months, the island is accessible via ferry boat from Catawba Island, Ohio by way of the Miller Ferry.
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