The History of Put-in-Bay Island
Put-in-Bay has several theories as to the origin of its name. According to an 1879 journal, the Harbor on South Bass Island was “shaped like a pudding bag with a soft bottom”. However, the origin most likely came around because the excellent refuge the bay provided in its protected harbor, and according to history, “put in the bay” is what sailors would do when it was too rough to sail on the lake’s waters.
The first people to use the island known as Put-in-Bay were the Indians. The Indians used the island to protect themselves while crossing Lake Erie as they provided shelter from sudden squalls. Records from early historic times show relics of Mound Builders, pre-historic people. The pre-historians inhabited North America and their remains were uncovered when the soil was turned by plows. The Senecas, Eries, Shawnee, Iroquois, Miamis, and Ottawas were among the mainland tribes coming to the Lake Erie Islands. In Indian, Ottawa is translated into the English word “trader”.
The first large vessel to ply the great lakes, the Griffon, was sailed by Robert LaSalle and his thirty-two men in 1679. Just to bring back furs, they sailed in route from Queensland, Ontario to Green Bay, Wisconsin. Stopping at Middle Bass Island, Lasalle and the Belgian missionary Friar Hennepin, celebrated the first Mass in the Mid West. The island was named, Isle des Fleurs, due to all the flowers he found while there. History was made, and for the next 200 years, this name was kept.
In 1803, Pierpont Edwards, a Connecticut U.S. District Judge, and businessman bought a part of the Connecticut Western Reserve tract that included Middle Bass, South Bass (Put-in-Bay), and the Sugar Islands. Becoming a shareholder in the Connecticut Land Company, Edwards was entitled to a tract comprising Lorain County. However, the irregular shoreline did not provide the amount of land to which he was entitled to, so he was also given the Lake Erie Islands to offset the deficiency.
The Islands stayed in the Edwards family for over 50 years and saw much history. However, Pierpont himself never saw them. Edward’s agent, Seth Done, who organized many French Canadian squatters to clear and improve the land was sent to the islands in 1811. One hundred acres of wheat had been planted but then destroyed when the Indians, supported by the British, ran them out in the War of 1812.
The only time a British fleet had ever been defeated in history was Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory against the British on September 10, 1813. The 352 foot high Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial erected at Put-in-Bay commemorated the victory. Between 1913 and 1916, the massive Doric column was constructed for the centennial celebration. Three British and three American officers killed during the battle lie beneath the floor of the rotunda in the center of the monument on this Lake Erie Island. This would become perhaps the most famous time in Put-in-Bay History.
Jose De Rivera St. Jurgo, a wealthy Spaniard, bought South Bass, known as Put-in-Bay, and Middle Bass in 1854 from Edwards. De Rivera built a sawmill, brought in hundreds of sheep, and had Put-in-Bay surveyed into 10-acre plots. In 1860, De Rivera introduced grapes as a crop for making wine. By then, German Rhine-landers had arrived bringing Catawba, Niagara, Concord, and Reisling grapevines. Land prices raised from $10 to $1500 an acre within ten years of the wine proliferation.
William Rehberg, a German Count, later bought Middle Bass from DeRivera and brought experts in winemaking from Germany to help with the industry. The Golden Eagle winery was the largest wine producer in the U.S by 1875. In 1844, The Lonz family acquired the winery and would make history many times in the coming years. After a disastrous fire, George Lonz built a two-story castle-like building with the addition of a marina. This building is still easily viewed from the Put-in-Bay harbor.
On North Bass Island, winemaking was also a big money maker. French Canadians Simon and Peter Fox bought 500 acres for grapes from island owner Horace Kelly in 1853. With two large wineries and ships to Detroit, Cleveland, and Toledo, success peaked in 1890.
The island is virtually controlled by Meier Wine Company of Cincinnati, Ohio; wine is the main industry. North Bass Island’s first inhabitant, a hermit named George, was honored with being the reason North Bass was once called Isle St. George. More recently, the island was purchased by the State of Ohio for a future state park.
Five luxury hotels were built along the beautiful shores of South Bass Island Put-in-Bay by 1888. Opening July 4, 1892, The Hotel Victory symbolized the pinnacle of the luxurious 1890s.
It was the largest summer resort in U.S. history at the time, and it operated 27 years prior to being destroyed by a fire on August 14, 1919. If you visit the South Bass Island State Park today, you can see that the remains of some of the foundation and its swimming pool are still visible parts of Put-in-Bay History.
South Bass Island soon became a port where cedar logs could be taken on as fuel for the vessels with the introduction of steamboats. Although Cedar trees once covered the Island, only a few can be found today. Tour boats from Detroit, Toledo, and Port Clinton brought tourists for daily outings of wine and sunshine in the early 1900s. The Put-in-Bay steamer served Detroit, Put-in-Bay, and Cedar Point and carried approximately 150,000 passengers a season. The steamer operated from 1911 to 1950, and at one time twelve steamers stopped at Put-in-Bay a day. Steamers are now history on the Great Lakes.
1918 was an affluent year on South Bass Island with the great arrivals of new people. However, the following year prohibition took effect, and the Lake Erie Island economy took a plunge. The Great Depression followed, tour boats stopped, and the Lake Erie Islands remained inactive.
The prohibition was repealed in 1933 and in 1939 World War II was just starting. The war helped deflect the grasp of the depression, labor was scarce, and more money became available. After the war, people started to travel and spend money more freely, private boats began to visit the Lake Erie Islands like no time before in Put-in-Bay history, and real estate started to move. The area near the state park on South Bass Island was developed as Saunder’s Resort with cottages, a motel, swimming pool and golf course in the mid-fifties.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, harsh lake pollution kept many people away from Put-in-Bay. However, college students and adolescents were persistent visitors. By the late 1970s, water quality had improved dramatically and sports fishing became a strong attraction. To this day, Put-in-Bay attracts and draws avid fishermen for some of the best Perch and Walleye fishing in the world.
Because of its location near major metropolitan areas, Put-in-Bay attracts many people. Whether you’re on a daily excursion by ferry, car, camper, on a boat, or even by plane, Put-in-Bay is always a place where you can enjoy the atmosphere and unique attractions of the Islands. Over the last few years, Put-in-Bay has seen the addition of Luxury hotels and resorts. Visitors also can enjoy a wide array of vacation home rentals. Visitors coming for a day trip can ride the Jet-Express ferry boat from either Sandusky Ohio or Port Clinton Ohio with late-night service on the weekends.