Digest>Archives> April 2002

Thunder on Lake Erie

By John Grant


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial ...

While the Great Lakes have served the practical needs of westbound settlers and commercial interests for efficient transportation, they have also dazzled people with their extraordinary beauty. Generations of sightseers and vacationers have flocked to the lakes simply to enjoy themselves. To this day, a favorite destination for outings is Lake Erie’s South Bass Island, about seventy miles west of Cleveland and a few miles north of Sandusky. Since the 1850s people have been coming here just to have fun. The island also has served the needs of business. Completed in 1897, the South Bass Island Lighthouse helped guide an early twentieth-century boom of freighter traffic through Lake Erie’s strategic South Passage. No longer active, the handsome brick structure is now owned by Ohio State University and used as a research facility.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The South Bass Island Lighthouse, Ohio, from a ...

There was no lighthouse on the island when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry brought his small, wooden-hulled battle fleet to Put-in-Bay on the north side of South Bass Island. Vessels have often taken shelter from the weather in the protected waters of the bay, but that was not the Commodore’s purpose in coming here. Instead, he intended to stir up a storm on the lake, and that’s exactly what he did.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Ohio’s Marblehead Lighthouse is probably that ...
Photo by: Ronald Davis

When the War of 1812 broke out, the US and Britain knew there was unfinished business between them and that it would now be settled. “The American Revolution ended in 1783,” says Brian Dunnigan. “It ended with the British still controlling most of the forts on the Great Lakes.” The prospects for an American victory in the war were not good. “The British Navy was the largest and most powerful in the world at that time,” says Dunnigan. “The US Navy, although good, was very small. But tensions between the US and Britain reached the boiling point in 1812, and Congress declared war. The British were not just powerful at sea. They also maintained a substantial fleet on the Great Lakes. Unless it was defeated, the US would likely lose control of the entire lakes region, and with it much of the Midwest. US military officials placed the unenviable task of confronting the British fleet in the hands of Perry, a young and little known naval officer. There was no American fleet on the lakes, but Perry’s men managed to build a few modest warships at Erie. Perry waited for the right opportunity. On September 10, 1813, after the British entered just to the west of Put-in-Bay, and one of the most important naval battles in American History commenced. “Perry’s vessels were armed with extremely powerful, but very short-ranged weapons known as carronnades,” says Dunnigan. “The British had longer-range cannons, so it was critical for Perry to get into close quarters.” It is said the raging cannon duel could be heard all the way to Cleveland as much as 70 to 80 miles to the east. Some on shore thought they were hearing thunder from a late summer storm breaking over the lake.

“Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence, was badly damaged, and many of its crew killed or wounded,” says Dunnigan. “Perry decided that his only hope was to transfer to his other large brig, the Niagara and continue the attack from there.” Pulling down his “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag, Perry abandoned the stricken Lawrence, and rowed across to the Niagara in a small boat. Once onboard, he rallied the American fleet. Perry ordered his hawk-eyed riflemen into the rigging from which they were able to clear the decks of the enemy ships. Soon the British were forced to surrender and Perry was able to dispatch his famous, though sparsely worded message: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop.” “In one afternoon the British lost control of Lake Erie and with it the upper Great Lakes,” says Dunnigan. “Perry’s victory was stunning. An entire British squadron had fallen to an American squadron.”

A 352-foot granite column on South Bass Island now commemorates the battle and Perry’s victory. The remains of both American and British officers killed in the battle are buried beneath the column, which serves as an international peace memorial. So tall and distinctive is the column that passing ships use it as a daymark. Grandfather Light at Marblehead on the mainland, several miles from South Bass Island, is a war/peace memorial of a very different sort. Johnson Island, just off Marblehead, Ohio, was used as a prisoner of war camp for Confederate officers during the Civil War. From the camp, the Southerners could easily see the beacon of the Marblehead Lighthouse, and it may have seemed to them that the lovely, flashing light was calling them to Dixie. Although many of the 10,000 Johnson Island prisoners died before the end of the war, most eventually made it back home. No doubt, they took with them aching memories of the light. Some say they also took with them the sport of baseball, which at that time was not widely known in the South.

The Marblehead Lighthouse still shines today, more than 180 years after the station was established to guide vessels into Sandusky Bay. The oldest still-active lighthouse on the Great Lakes, it is now part of an Ohio State Park. Each summer Mills Brandes tells visitors about the part he and his family played in the light’s history. “I used to live here with my grandfather, Mr. Charles A. Hunter,” says Brandes. “He came here in 1903 and served as keeper of the Marblehead Lighthouse for thirty years.” “His first concern was that this is a very dangerous place to navigate. You have a rocky shore here with many reefs and very strong currents, so the light had to operate properly at all times. Mr. Hunter would stand watch—watching the light to make sure it was working and watching the lake to make sure there were no ships out there in trouble.” Charles Hunter had the longest tenure of any keeper in the history of Marblehead Lighthouse. He was also the station’s second to last keeper. After he retired in 1933, the light was automated. He retired in 1933.

Just down the road from the tower, the memory of Marblehead’s first keeper is being kept alive. Inside the original 1822 keeper’s cottage, Ro Chapman and Karin Messner offer a living history demonstration for park visitors. Their performances are based on real events lifted from the lives of the cottage’s first residents. “I play BenaJah Wolcott, first keeper of the Marblehead Lighthouse,” says Chapman. “And I play Rachael Wolcott, the keeper’s second wife,” says Messner. Marblehead Lighthouse became a central aspect of their lives together. “Rachel probably did love this place as much as he did,” says Messner. “This house,” adds Chapman, “was built for Rachel by Benajah, as a wedding present.”

Some parts of the drama are by no means lighthearted. “It was the year 1832 and there was a cholera epidemic,” says Messner. “In those days, when people contracted cholera, there was no cure, so they were put on boats. When they died, the bodies were just thrown overboard. The bodies began washing up on the shore by the lighthouse. Benajah came to Rachael one day and said he couldn’t stand seeing this any longer. He was going to give them a Christian burial. After touching the bodies, he contacted cholera himself and died.”

After the tragic death of her husband, the government named Rachael Wolcott keeper of the Marblehead Light. “Rachael was the first woman lighthouse keeper on the Great Lakes,” says Messner. “She had to be very strong because the job was lonely and very demanding. Carrying whale oil up those steps was no small matter, and I believe she did it three times a day. Her children were quite young at the time.”

Like the many visitors who come to Marblehead to take pictures, Chapman and Messner appreciate the beauty of the old lighthouse. But they are convinced that its history is even more valuable than its photogenic appearance. “It is beautiful,” says Chapman. “It is probably the most frequently photographed place in the State of Ohio. But you also have to realize that there were many lonely hardworking souls who kept lights like this one burning.”

About the author - John Grant is president and executive producer of Driftwood Productions, Inc. He created and produced both Legendary Lighthouses series seen on PBS-TV and is coauthor of the books Legendary Lighthouses and Legendary Lighthouses II. The videos and the books are available from Lighthouse Depot at www.LighthouseDepot.com or by calling 1-800-758-1444.

This story appeared in the April 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History