The story behind the beautiful Queen Anne-style lighthouse and tower on South Bass Island near Put-in-Bay, Ohio and its proximity to the site of a key Lake Erie naval battle during the War of 1812 tells of its place in early American history.
On the other hand, the curious tale behind the deaths of the tower's first keeper and his assistant is a mystery we'll probably never solve.
Revolutionary War veteran Pierpont Edwards purchased South Bass, Middle Bass, Green, Sugar, Ballast, Gibraltar and Starve Islands 1807 for $26,087.
After the War of 1812, Edwards developed South Bass Island, shipping its natural resources like timber and limestone to the mainland for sale.
The Edwards family sold the islands to Jose de Rivera Saint Jurgo for $44,000 in 1854.
The 1892 opening of Hotel Victory at Put-in-Bay, then one of the largest hotels in the United States, brought even more visitors and private boats to the island.
The increase in tourist traffic during the late 1800s finally led the Lighthouse Board to request $8,600 for a light station on South Bass Island in 1890. The appropriation for the money finally came through in 1894.
The government purchased two acres on the southwestern tip of the island for $1,000 in 1895.
The lighthouse consisted of a 2-1/2-story dwelling with an attached 60-foot-tall light tower. The home had many features not common among other lighthouses like a laundry room, full basement, kitchen range, pocket doors and a hot water reservoir.
The station seemed like a lovely home for the keeper and his family...but the mysteries still unsolved soon marred the idyllic atmosphere.
The first light keeper, an experienced naval officer named Harry H. Riley, assumed his duties with the initial July 10, 1897 lighting of the light. A Fourth-Order Fresnel lens costing $1,500 soon replaced the original oil lamp.
Details of what happened next differ a bit from source to source, but the basic story and its sad result remains the same.
Riley hired a man named Sam Anderson, who also worked part-time at Hotel Victory, to help maintain the grounds and light at South Bass.
Anderson was at the lighthouse for about three weeks, living in the basement with some live snakes he collected on the island, when the area fell under quarantine because of a small pox outbreak during the summer of 1898.
An agitated Anderson reportedly tried to leave the lighthouse for a safer area, but troops sent to enforce the quarantine order sent him back to the lighthouse.
Anderson walked back to the lighthouse, but he refused to enter it. He stayed outside, howling for most of the night according to at least one report.
The noise suddenly stopped late that night.
Searchers found Anderson's body at the bottom of a cliff near the lighthouse the next day.
Two days later, police in Sandusky, Ohio found light keeper Riley wandering around town, and they arrested him on drunk and disorderly charges.
Officials soon committed the distraught light keeper to a state mental hospital, and his wife temporarily took over his lighthouse duties.
The Lighthouse Board ruled Anderson's death a suicide. They relieved Riley of his post on February 23, 1899, and Riley died in the mental hospital later that year.
Speculation swirled around the mysterious story. Did Anderson really commit suicide? What set Riley off, and did he know more about Anderson's death than he could tell anyone?
A story in a 1907 issue of Ohio Magazine mentioned rumors about the connection between the deaths and stories that Anderson's ghost supposedly haunted the lighthouse basement.
Another death occurred near the lighthouse in April of 1925 when Charles B. Duggan, who assumed duties as the light keeper in 1908, died after falling from a cliff on the west end of the island. His 20-year-old son Lyle temporarily assumed his father's duties until the Christmas after his father's death.
Paul Prochnow, the last light keeper at the South Bass lighthouse, retired in 1962.
The Coast Guard replaced the South Bass light with an automated beacon atop a steel tower beside the lighthouse after Prochnow's retirement, sending the Fresnel lens to the Lake Erie Islands Historical Museum, where we saw it last year.
In 1967, the Coast Guard offered the lighthouse for sale.
Ohio State University became the lighthouse's guardian under a 30-year quit-claim deed to use as a research site with the school's Stone Laboratory on nearby Gibraltar Island.
The school assumed permanent ownership in 1997, making the South Bass Island Lighthouse possibly the only light house in the U.S. owned by a university.
In 1990, the South Bass Island Lighthouse earned a spot on the National Register of Historical Places.
The South Bass Island Lighthouse is one of the first things visitors see as they approach the island via ferry, and it is just a short walk from the Lime Kiln Dock.
The lighthouse is still home to researchers and students in OSU's Sea Grant College program, and students began offering tours of the lighthouse in recent years during limited hours.
Tour the lighthouse and climb the tower from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays from mid-June through mid-August. Cost is $3 for adults and $1 for kids. The grounds are also open to the public from dawn until dusk for free.
Want to learn more about Ohio lighthouse history? Check out Ohio Lighthouses by Wil O'Connell and Pat O'Connell.
Thanks to the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Visitors Bureau and Miller Ferries for sponsoring my visit to Put-in-Bay, providing lodging, ferry transportation, help arranging visits to South Bass Island and Put-in-Bay attractions for my review, with no further compensation. I was free to express my own opinions about the stay and experiences, and the opinions expressed here are mine.
© Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved