Digest>Archives> June 1998

A Forgotten Lighthouse Now Nearly Obscure

By Timothy Harrison


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The Green Island Lighthouse in January 1963, ...
Photo by: Harold J. Germann

Located on tiny Green Island in Ottawa County, Ohio, in Lake Erie, stands the remains of a lighthouse that is not mentioned in most books, and not even some of the true lighthouse buffs know about.

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An aerial view of Green Island showing both the ...
Photo by: Thomas H. Langlois

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The ruins of this old out building at Green ...
Photo by: Melissa Hathaway

Green Island is one of 21 small islands of the Erie, Archipelago in western Lake Erie with the nearest land area being South Bass Island which is one mile east.

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The first Green Island Lighthouse, which was ...
Photo by: From the collection of Ronald L. Stuckey

Crystallized celestite, or strontian was discovered in the cliffs along the east side of the island by Major James Delafield, an agent of the International Boundary Commission, established by the Treaty of Ghent, on a visit to the island in 1820. Subsequently, the island was the principle American source of specimens of celestite for mineralogical collections throughout the world and became known in the geological literature as "Strontian Island." The supply of crystals was exhausted by 1898.

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Another view of the Green Island Lighthouse, ...

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One side of the gutted Green Island Lighthouse ...

In December 1851, the United States Government purchased Green Island from Alfred P. Edwards. A frame lighthouse was completed in November 1855 at the west end of the island.

This structure was destroyed by a fire on New Years Eve, Dec. 31, 1863. The story surrounding the fire has been told many times with many variations. However, the following is the way it was reported in the The Ohio Illustrated Magazine at the turn of the century:

A day of summer mildness had ended with a sudden change. A gale of terrific fury having sprung up, the mercury dropped within an hour from 60 degrees above to 25 degrees below zero. At one of the island halls, a New Year's Eve dance was in progress, but the cold drove the dancers from the floor to the big ten plate stove, about which they crowded, trying to keep warm, while the tempest shrieked without and the building shook. Suddenly, the windows were illuminated by a flame that shot up over the distant tree top, and soon was heard the cry, "Green Island Lighthouse! Green Island Lighthouse is on fire!"

"A thrill of horror swept over the group, as swift upon each dawned the full significance of such a disaster to the light keeper, Colonel Charles F. Drake, and his family, all alone upon the little isle, the wild storm, the darkness, and the tremendous sea cutting them off from all human aid. The keeper's son, who was present at the, dance became frenzied with forebodings concerning their safety and only with the greatest difficulty could he be restrained from launching forth a small boat, which would have meant, to him, certain death in the violent storm.

"A night of suspense, shared by the whole island population, drew at last to a close. Although bitter cold still held Lake Erie in its grip, the water, heavy with slush ice, gradually and rapidly froze, until the two miles between the islands was thinly bridged . . . . . Dragging a light cutter and a boat and provided with wraps and blankets for the unfortunates, if still alive, the rescue party reached the island. The lighthouse was found in ruins. That the family had perished by fire, or freezing, was the grim conclusion forced upon the seekers. Later, however, Colonel Drake, the Keeper, his wife, and daughter were found in an outhouse, tucked all together under a feather bed, which alone had saved them from freezing to death.

"Col. Drake then recounted the peril to his rescuers . . . Gathered in the family sitting room, no thought of evil had come to the station dwellers, until above the gale they heard the crackle of flames. The whole upper portion of the structure was found ablaze. Col. Drake prepared to fight the fire, while his wife and daughter rushed in consternation from the house; the latter with bare head, arms and feet. Mounting a ladder, Col. Drake made a brave effort to stay the flames. With clothing wet from showering spray, Miss Drake dipped and carried water from the lake, her mother carrying many pail fulls up the ladder, but with the fire steadily gaining, Col. Drake was forced to retreat.

"They then gave attention to the saving of valuables, a few which were secured at great risk. Thoughts of his family's precarious condition suddenly flashed upon the Keeper. Unless he could secure bedding with which to protect them from the cold, they must inevitably perish, since no help could reach them until the sea went down. He darted into the flaming structure. Flames singed hair and beard, and smoke blinded and choked him; but he reached a bedroom, and with two mattresses, one filled with feathers, the other with straw, rolled into a comforter, he succeeded in escaping. His hands and face were badly burned, although he felt it not. Blown by the blast, uncurbed flames now leaped to full height, and in the vivid glare, lines of breakers, snowy white with foam, could be seen rushing shoreward. Breaking at the tower's rocky base, spray rose to a height of forty feet, freezing as it fell in showers upon the steps and forming a literal pavement of ice along the fire's margin. This weird illumination, coupled with storm and darkness; and the roar of waves and flames, combined to form a scene of the most savage grandeur.

"When nothing more could be done, Miss Drake, who had shown remarkable endurance, sank into an almost insensible condition. Examination found that her ears, arms and limbs were frozen stiff.

"The bedding was then carried to the outhouse, which had been left standing. Between father and mother, the girl was carefully tucked, and thus, throughout the remainder of the night and part of the next day, they managed to keep from freezing to death. The rescuers removed the family to Put-in-Bay where they eventually recovered."

In July, 1865, a new two story lighthouse was completed. In a story in 1905, it was reported that a George Fergueson held the position of Keeper and a "faithful wife had been his only companion" on the isolated island.

Another keeper on the island was reported to have had a splendid team of Italian greyhounds. It was reported that the dogs made daily trips in the winter time pulling a sled across the ice with the keeper's children, transporting them to and from school on the mainland.

A small barn was erected for the keeper's livestock, which included a 3-acre partially wooded fenced in pasture. An inspector was impressed in a 1916 visit to the island because, "the chickens were confined, and there were apparently no other animals to clean out the underbrush." This was in great contrast to nearby West Sister Island and Middle Island, which had been grazed over by poultry and cattle.

A boathouse was built at the northeastern corner of the island in 1889 and was connected to the lighthouse by a wooden plank walk, which was replaced by concrete around 1920.

The U.S. Lighthouse Service abandoned the quarters in 1926. However, the light in the tower remained active until 1939, when the Coast Guard installed an automated light atop an erector tower.

The island then came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as a wildlife refuge. Signs posted indicate that the island is off limits to the public. However, some individuals do not obey signs and are intent on destroying history. A fire started by trespassers gutted the old lighthouse and all that remains today is a burned out shell of limestone walls.

The historic lighthouse that was built to guide vessels safely through South Passage around the Lake Erie Islands is overgrown with brush and trees. Like the jungles of South America, the vegetation has obliterated the lighthouse to the extent one hardly knows it's still there.

This story appeared in the June 1998 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.

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