South 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 the island

The lighthouse
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 reservoir.

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 keepers dwellings.

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.

GLHS Photo

Click on images to enlarge

Photograph by Dave Wobser

Additional Photos by Dave Wobser

2008 views by Dan Vernier

2011 Photos - Dave Wobser

Location: South Bass Island, Ohio
Date Built: 1897
Active: No

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