SOUTH BASS ISLAND, Ohio – Most visitors to party-happy Put-in-Bay don’t realize that there is an old lighthouse on the island, one with its own ghosts.
The South Bass Light Station is tucked on the island’s southwest corner. It’s not far from the Miller Boat Line Ferry dock. But most ferry passengers head the other way, into town for fun at one of Ohio’s top travel destinations.
The red-brick lighthouse with its 60-foot-high tower operated from July 1897 to October 1962 at a site called Parker’s Point off Langram Road in Put-in-Bay Township. For those 65 years, it operated from early March through late December, the Lake Erie shipping season.
Its lens could produce a fixed red signal visible for up to 13 miles from its bluff-top location. It never had a fog signal or horn.
It is located between the lighthouse on Green Island to the west and the Marblehead Lighthouse to the east. It helped guide boats on the southern passage through the Lake Erie islands between Sandusky and Port Clinton.
The 10-sided lantern reportedly came from Gibraltar, Mich., and the Fresnel lens from France. It was originally fueled with oil, later converted to electricity.
It is owned by Ohio State University and is listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. The university acquired the lighthouse, outbuildings and three acres of land in 1967 from the federal government. It has used the property with nearly 900 feet of shoreline in support of academic programs at Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island at Put-in-Bay.
The lighthouse was replaced in 1962 by the U.S. Coast Guard with an automated light in a scaffolding-like tower next to the old lighthouse. The lens was removed and is now found in the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum in Put-in-Bay.
The South Bass Light Station is different from your typical lighthouse; it’s attached to a stylish 2½-story Queen Anne-style house with red bricks and a slate roof. There are three bedrooms, a full basement and antiques from the Cooke Mansion on Gibraltar Island.
Jay Cooke was President Abraham Lincoln’s Civil War financier. He built his 15-room mansion on Gibraltar Island in 1865. Today it is slowly being refurbished.
The South Bass Light Station looks the same as it always has, except for the addition of screened-in porches.
Many of the historical records associated with the lighthouse were lost in a fire at a storage facility in Washington, D.C.
Lake Erie is eroding the bluffs and inching its way toward the old lighthouse, where reports of ghosts frequently pop up. The most likely candidate for the wayward spirit is reportedly Harry Riley, the first lighthouse keeper, who went insane and died in a state hospital in 1899.
Another possibility is island visitor Harry Anderson, who was quarantined because of an outbreak of smallpox and committed suicide by jumping from a dock into Lake Erie in 1898.
The South Bass Lighthouse is one of only three Lake Erie lighthouses open to visitors. There are 19 old lighthouses on the lake in Ohio.
It has been open to the public since 2007. It is 42 steps to the top, and the last eight are not easy as you maneuver through the opening in the wooden deck.
The best views from atop the lighthouse are to the south: three miles across the lake to Catawba Island. Port Clinton is to the west and Marblehead to the east.
Tours are available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays from June to August. You can also arrange a tour from April through November. Admission is $3 for adults and $1 for children 6 to 12. The grounds are open from dawn to dusk for free.
Property markers are stone slabs with the letters: USLHE for United States Light House Establishment, a federal agency created in 1789 by the first Congress. It later became the U.S. Lighthouse Board and later the Bureau of Lighthouses.
Congress allocated $8,600 to build the lighthouse. The federal government bought the land from Mary and Alfred Parker.
For more information, contact Kelly Dress at Ohio State’s Stone Lab at (419) 285-1800.
An older lighthouse
Nearby is another Lake Erie lighthouse open to visitors: Marblehead Lighthouse State Park on the northeast corner of the Marblehead Peninsula.
It is the oldest lighthouse in continuous use on the Great Lakes. It is 182 years old and is a Lake Erie icon. The limestone tower has appeared on postage stamps and on Ohio license plates. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It was originally 50 feet tall, later raised to 67 feet. Its base is 25 feet in diameter with walls that are five feet thick. It narrows to 12 feet at the top with two-foot-thick walls. You’ll walk 77 steps to the top.
The light at the mouth of Sandusky Bay in Ottawa County began operations on Rocky Point in 1822 fueled by whale oil. It was converted to kerosene and later to electricity, and automated in 1958. It had 15 keepers, including two women.
It now produces a green signal that flashes every six seconds and is visible for 11 miles. The state of Ohio took ownership of the lighthouse in 1972, and it became Ohio’s 73rd state park in May 1998.
Since 1998, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has invested more than $3 million to rehabilitate the lighthouse and the keeper’s house. There is a small museum in the old keeper’s house at the base, operated by the Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society. It features the original Fresnel lens which magnified the light of whale oil lamps. The specialized, curved glass lens created a highly visible fixed white light.
The first keeper was Benajah Wolcott, a Revolutionary War veteran and an early settler of Marblehead. He was paid $350 a year. Nightly, he would light 13 whale oil lamps. Metal reflectors helped project the light across the lake.
Wolcott built a limestone house 3 miles away at 9999 Bayshore Road. It is the oldest house in Ottawa County and is managed by the Ottawa County Historical Society. For information, call (419) 798-5832 or see www.thekeepershouse.org.
He died of cholera in 1832 and his wife, Rachel, assumed the job.
A single kerosene lamp magnified by the Fresnel lens was installed in 1858. A new keeper’s house was built next to the light in the 1880s.
Tours are offered between noon and 4 p.m. weekdays from late May to late August and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the second Saturday of the month from June through September. Tours are also offered at the Lighthouse Festival on the second Saturday in October.
The park is located at 110 Lighthouse Drive in Marblehead. The phone is (419) 797-4530. For more information, contact Marblehead Lighthouse State Park in care of East Harbor State Park at (419) 734-4424.
For tourist information, go to www.themarbleheadpeninsula.com or call (419) 734-9777.
You can also check with the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association in Mackinaw City, Mich. It has information on 225 Great Lakes lighthouses. Go to www.nps.gov/history/maritime/greatlt.html.
The third Ohio lighthouse open to the public is east of Cleveland in Fairport Harbor. It is the lighthouse on land, not the one on the rock jetty in the harbor.
The Fairport Harbor Marine Museum and Lighthouse is open from May to September. It is operated by the Fairport Harbor Historical Society at 129 Second St. There are 69 steps to the top of the replacement light built in 1871. It operated to 1925. For information, call (440) 354-4825 or visit www.fairportharborlighthouse.org/.