PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — Midwesterners aren't likely to consider northern Ohio a war zone, but in the War of 1812 it certainly was. To this day, remnants of the Battle of Lake Erie remain here on South Bass Island, due east of Toledo.
In the Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial lie the graves of three British officers and three U.S. officers killed in the naval battle, which raged almost exactly 200 years ago, handing the Americans a decisive victory.
"When I look out from the top (of the memorial), all I see is blue sky and water all the way to Canada," said Blanca Stransky, superintendent of the memorial. "When I worked along America's southern border, all I saw was chain-link fence and barbed wire. To me, (Oliver Hazard) Perry's greatest legacy is the open border."
(Well, the Canadian border is "open" in comparison with the Mexican border, but people crossing it still have to pass customs.)
Today South Bass Island, also known by the village name of Put-in-Bay, is a popular summertime destination with restaurants, shops and wineries, and this Labor Day weekend it will become even more popular as history buffs and tall-ships fans descend on South Bass to commemorate the battle.
Festivities for the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial run from Aug. 29 through Sept. 10, with the salute reaching a crescendo Labor Day weekend with the spectacle of about 15 topsail schooners calling in the ports of Lake Erie's Western Basin. Add to that some concerts, fireworks and a historic re-enactment, and you have a party.
More on that in a minute, but first, understand that this battle was significant, though the war itself was so unsexy that historians couldn't even come up with an intriguing name for it.
At the dawn of the 19th century, America's world standing was wobbly, its borders amorphous and its sailors fair game for feeding the navies of warring superpowers England and France. Much commerce was transported via the Great Lakes and its tributaries, a region still dominated by British might. So to assert its rights, the United States decided to send its nascent navy against a vastly superior British fleet. Some "Westerners," such as Kentucky's Henry Clay, were lusting after Canadian territory as well.
On Sept. 10, 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry, the U.S. commodore, took on British warships about seven miles northwest of South Bass Island. The rest is history: After heavy bombardment disabled Perry's flagship, the USS Lawrence, Perry and his men rowed to the USS Niagara, then fired directly into the enemy line. Afterward, Perry sent a famous dispatch stating, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
The victory eventually led the British to the negotiating table, and the resulting treaty secured commerce on the Great Lakes and lasting peace among the United States, Canada and Britain.
Visiting the National Park Service's memorial is worth the short ferry ride from Catawba, Port Clinton or Sandusky on mainland Ohio. The memorial is a 352-foot Doric column rising above Lake Erie, with an observation deck affording spectacular views of the other Bass islands, Kelleys Island and Canada's Pelee Island. The nearby visitors center has interesting exhibits, a video about the battle, plus a towering replica of the commodore.
As for the bicentennial highlights, the arrival of the tall ships probably is the marquee event. They come in Sept. 1, the same day Ohio State University's 225-member marching band parades through town to the memorial for a free concert.
Tours and day sails aboard some of the tall ships will be available, then get ready for evening fireworks. The battle re-enactment is Sept. 2. Visitors may sign up to play the role of one of the original sailors or soldiers.
For bicentennial events or to participate in the re-enactment, see battleoflakeerie-bicentennial.com. See nps.gov/pevi/index.htm for National Park Service events.
If you go
Miller Boat Line runs ferries to Put-in-Bay every half-hour from Catawba. Fares are $14 round trip for adults; $3 for children 6 or older, otherwise free; $30 for cars and $4 for bicycles; (800-500-2421, millerferry.com). Jet Express offers high-speed catamaran service for passengers only from Port Clinton and Sandusky. From Port Clinton, adult tickets are $30 round trip; $5 for children 6 to 12, free for younger. Sandusky-to-Put-in-Bay rates are $39 for adults and $11 for kids 6 to 12 (800-245-1538, jet-express.com).
Cars are permitted on the island but aren't necessary to get around and may be more of a hindrance with large crowds over Labor Day weekend. Many visitors rent golf carts or bicycles, which are easily obtained at the Lime Kiln Dock, where the Miller Ferry lands, and in downtown Put-in-Bay. Bus service is available between downtown and the Lime Kiln Dock. In summer a bus leaves the bus depot 20 minutes before and 10 minutes after the hour (Island Transportation, 419-285-6161, putinbaytrans.com).
Put-in-Bay lodging for Labor Day weekend will be limited, but plenty of options remain on nearby islands and on the mainland in Catawba, Port Clinton, Sandusky and even Cedar Point. Visitors staying in these locations may ferry over for each day's festivities. For more information and camping options, call 800-255-3743 or visit shoresandislands.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun