Bass Island Light
A lighthouse with a distinction
By Dave Wobser
The following article
originally appeared the Great Laker portion of Great Lakes & Seaway Review
magazine in 2007.
Every lighthouse has its own
individuality. Some lights have a unique location, some have a special shape
or size, and some have a markedly different history.
In the case of South Bass Island, the claim is that the lighthouse is the
only one owned by a university. The Ohio State University has held title to
the light station since 1967.
In the 1800’s, commerce was booming on the Great Lakes, and particularly
along the south shore of Lake Erie. The first grain elevators had been
erected in Buffalo. Sandusky, Vermilion and Huron were leading builders of
lake vessels. Toledo had become a major port with opening of the Wabash &
Erie Canal to Fort Wayne, Indiana. The Welland Canal was in its third
incarnation. Virtually all of the aids to navigation, on Lake Erie, were
lights that marked the entrances to the various ports.
When traveling between Detroit or Toledo and the Welland Canal, or cities to
the east end of Lake Erie, captains had to choose between the South Passage
or the Pelee Passage. The South Passage was often the most favored due to
protection from the prevailing winds, and the great port activity that was
taking place along the south shore of Lake Erie.
The South Passage requires navigating a narrow passage between the Ohio
shoreline and a series of islands. The most restricted channel is between
the south end of South Bass Island and the “two-headed” Marblehead
Peninsula, an area of only four or five miles in width. The east end of the
peninsula, between Marblehead and Kelley’s Island, had been marked by the
Marblehead light since 1821, but there were no lights marking the passage
between Catawba Island and South Bass Island.
As early as 1838, Congress had appropriated funds to build a light on the
northwest side of South Bass Island, but wiser heads could see that a light
in that location would serve no good purpose. As the islands developed with
vineyards, wineries, and other tourist attractions, the traffic in the South
Passage became overwhelming. It was estimated that 15,000 people visited the
island in 1859. The construction of a massive hotel, in 1892, increased the
attraction to city dwellers. All the increased activity convinced the
government convinced the government to fund a lighthouse on the south end of
In 1895, a 2-1/2 acre site was selected near the Lime Kiln Dock and a
lighthouse and related structures were constructed. The Queen Anne style,
red brick dwelling is as impressive as the 60-foot square matching brick
light tower. The structure is a full 2-1/2 stories high, with a full
basement, and many modern features including a laundry room, cistern,
furnace and a large kitchen with a “massive” range that had a hot water
Wide covered porches are attached to the front (south) and back (north)
sides of the dwelling. The porches featured typical Queen Anne detailing,
but have since been enclosed with glass windows and doors. The interior
features decorative moldings around the doors, windows and stairway. Pocket
doors separate the living and dining rooms, a feature found in very few
The light tower is unique in that access is from the front porch, whereas
most attached light towers have direct access from the dwelling interior.
The tower is topped by a 10-sided metal lantern that previously housed a
Fourth Order Fresnel lens. The lens is now housed at the Lake Erie Island
Historical Museum in downtown Put-In-Bay at the north end of the island.
Additional structures on the site include a square iron oil storage building
and a large wooden combination garage and barn.
The light and a daymark were located on the steel tower in 1962 when the
last keeper neared retirement. The station was been automated at that time.
The skeletal steel tower, that replaced the light in the tower, is located
close to the bluff.
How did the property come under the ownership of Ohio State University? The
Coast Guard rented the dwelling to a private individual for five years after
automation. In 1967, the property was transferred from the USCG to the U. S.
Department of Health, Education and Welfare’s Division of Surplus Property.
The university trustees, who maintain an extensive research operation on the
island, took responsibility for the station with a 30-year quit claim deed.
In 1997, permanent ownership was transferred to the university.
The dwelling is used by researchers associated with the university’s Ohio
Sea Grant College Program, and is not open to the public. Fortunately, an
annual open house provides an opportunity to see this majestic lighthouse.
At other times, a limited view of the station is available while arriving at
the island on the ferry from Catawba Island, or visitors can drive to the
end of Langram Road on the island.
The historical photograph is displayed
courtesy of the Great Lakes Historical Society, Vermilion, Ohio. They were
taken from the Society's 2003 Calendar and were edited by Al Hart. Image may
not be reproduced with the expressed permission of GLHS.
Click on images to
Photograph by Dave Wobser
Additional Photos by Dave
2008 views by Dan Vernier
2011 Photos - Dave Wobser
||South Bass Island, Ohio