Legacy of the Lake

It’s easy — and fun — to flit from beach to winery to restaurant when the weather’s fine. But Lake Erie offers so much more. Why not take a trip into the past to explore our region’s rich history. And don’t worry, there’s still ice cream involved.
18,000 years ago
A massive glacier moves across the Midwest, carving out the Great Lakes and the Lake Erie islands. Along the way, it creates 400-foot-long grooves in the limestone bedrock of Kelleys Island. These Glacial Grooves are the largest in the world and have been designated a National Natural Landmark. kelleysislandchamber.com

On Sept. 10, nine ships — six of which were constructed in Erie, Pennsylvania —defeated a British squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie, which became a pivotal point in the War of 1812. The U.S. Brig Niagara became the most famous of the ships after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry left his own badly damaged ship and transferred to the Niagara, leading the British to think they had won. Instead, using the smaller Niagara, Perry led the Americans to victory. These days, a reconstruction of the Niagara is based in Erie. The tall ship often can be seen sailing in Presque Isle Bay or moored behind the Erie Maritime Museum (814-452-2744, flagshipmiagara.org). The battle also is commemorated at the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial Visitor’s Center (419-285-2184, nps.gov/pevi) on South Bass Island (Put-in-Bay) in Ohio. 
The Marblehead Lighthouse in western Ohio guides its first sailors. This summer, make plans to tour the structure, which is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Great Lakes. While there, don’t miss the onsite Marblehead Lighthouse Historical Society Museum and the Lifesaving Station. 419-734-4424, parks.ohiodnr.gov/marbleheadlighthouse

The Erie Canal is completed, which allows Midwestern grain to be cheaply transported to the East Coast. The only problem? Because the canal is not very deep, the grain has to be unloaded from lake boats and loaded onto smaller canal boats — a time-consuming and dangerous process done by Irish immigrants, who risked lung damage and worse from the suffocating and potentially explosive grain dust. The construction of the first grain elevator in 1842 revolutionized the process and, by the end of the Civil War, Buffalo was said to be the world’s largest grain port. While the opening of deeper waterways have all but killed the city’s grain industry, many of the elevators still stand and can be toured. One of the most dramatic ways to take them in is by kayaking “Elevator Alley,” the stretch of the Buffalo River that runs between the massive silos. In addition to the kayak tours, Explore Buffalo leads outings inside two of the grain elevator complexes. 716-245-3032, explorebuffalo.org

The Eagle Tavern, a stagecoach stop between Detroit and Chicago, opens its doors to weary travelers. Henry Ford buys the tavern in 1925 and moves it to Dearborn, Michigan, to become a part of his historic Greenfield Village. Today, the tavern offers an authentic dining experience straight out of the 1800s, including dishes like savory noodles with roasted squash and drinks like corn whiskey. 800-835-5237, thehenryford.org

The Rev. Josiah Henson, who is believed to have inspired the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” follows the Underground Railroad to escape slavery with his wife, Charlotte, and four children. A decade later, he and a group of abolitionists purchase 200 acres of land near Dresden, Ontario, and establish a settlement for refugee slaves. Even after emancipation, Henson and his wife choose to stay in Canada in the two-story house that now sits on the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, which is open from late May through October. 519-683-2978, heritagetrust.on.ca

Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb and many other devices that make our modern lives fuller and simpler is born in Milan, Ohio. Tour the home where he and his family lived throughout his childhood. The onsite Thomas A. Edison Birthplace Museum features a collection of rare Edisonia, including early inventions, documents and family mementos. 419-499-2135, tomedison.org

The schooner Ivanhoe, with its 300 tons of coal, collides with another schooner around midnight on Oct. 4. Its 11 crew members escape on a yawl and head for the Black River as the ship sinks. It’s estimated that some 2,000 ships have sunk in Lake Erie and that most have yet to be discovered. The Ivanhoe is one that can be explored. Interested? Sign up for a scuba-diving tour with the Cleveland-based Discovery Dive, which leads groups to more than a dozen underwater sites. 216-481-5771, discoverydive.com

Hiram Walker opens his whiskey distillery in Windsor, Ontario. With the onset of Prohibition in 1920, Canadian Club begins making its way over the Detroit River in barrels and becomes one of the most smuggled whiskies in the United States. Today, you can tour the basement Speakeasy Room at Canadian Club Heritage Center, where meetings once were held with Al Capone, and end your experience with a formal whiskey tasting. 519-973-9503, canadianclub.com/us

The United States War Department chooses Johnson’s Island in Western Ohio as a prisoner of war depot. During the 40 months it was in operation, over 10,000 Confederate soldiers were confined in the island’s 12 prison blocks. Anyone was free to leave the island by taking an oath of allegiance and serving one year in the Union Army, but only about 50 prisoners ever did so. Four prisoners famously left another way — by walking across the frozen lake to Canada. Visitors to the island today can tour the Confederate Cemetery, with its 206 marked headstones and four memorials. A $2 fee is charged to cross the causeway to the island. 419-625-2454, johnsonsisland.org
The 156-foot-long Mechanicsville Road Covered Bridge is built over the Grand River in Ashtabula County, where there are now 18 covered bridges — more than anywhere else in the state. 440-275-3202, visitashtabulacounty.com

On a warm August day, a group of Methodist preachers unload their axes and shovels to begin clearing a tract of land for what would become Lakeside Chautauqua on the Marblehead Peninsula in Ohio. A lot has changed since then and, this summer, guests can look forward to a lecture series, author events, art classes, shuffleboard, sailing, entertainment nearly every night and even a new outdoor swimming complex schedule to open in July. Animal lovers will want to mark their calendars for June 18 when celebrated zookeeper Jack Hanna presents “Into the Wild.” 866-952-5374, lakesideohio.com

U.S. Rep. James Garfield buys a nine-room farmhouse on 140 acres of property in Mentor, east of Cleveland, as a home for him, his wife Lucretia and their five children. Garfield was elected president in 1880, thanks in part to a front-porch campaign, but served only three months before his assassination. Lucretia and the children returned to the home, adding on to memorialize Garfield for posterity. Today, the James A. Garfield Historic Site offers tours of the home and grounds, including a museum devoted to the 20th president. 440-255-8722, nps.gov/jaga

Gustav Heineman, an immigrant from Germany, buys land on South Bass Island and opens Heineman's Winery. Linger over a glass of the famous Pink Catawba in the outdoor wine garden, then tour Crystal Cave, which is the world’s largest geode. 419-285-2811, heinemanswinery.com

Frank Robison builds League Park at East 66th Street and Lexington Avenue in Cleveland to serve as the home of his Cleveland Spiders. The Spiders were replaced by the Indians, who played on the field until 1946. Today, it’s home to the Baseball Heritage Museum and boasts a renovated baseball diamond with the same dimensions and configuration as when the Indians played there. 216-789-1083, baseballheritagemuseum.org

Chris and Matilda Toft take to the streets of Sandusky, Ohio, to sell raw milk from their horse-drawn wagon. Toft Dairy evolved over the years to include ice cream, but all the milk used to make the more than 70 flavors of ice cream still comes from 20 local farms. So what’s new? Black raspberry chocolate chunk and peanut butter cheesecake. Taste for yourself at the Sandusky headquarters, where tours of the facility also can be taken. 800-521-4606, toftdairy.com

On her 63rd birthday, Annie Edson Taylor crawls into a barrel and allows herself to be set adrift on the Niagara River. The currents carry her over the Horseshoe Falls, and she becomes the first person to ride the Falls in a barrel — and survive. Since then, 16 others have attempted the feat. Learn about these daredevils —and see the contraptions they built — at the Niagara Daredevil Exhibit at the Niagara IMAX Theatre in Niagara Falls, Ontario. 866-405-4629, imaxniagara.com

William M. Miller and Harry Jones start a local ice business based in Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Each winter, they harvest about 1,000 tons of ice. In the summer, they sell it to island hotels and restaurants and use their 18-foot wooden delivery boat to take it to yachts moored in the bay. In 1945, Lee Miller takes over the business from his father and launches auto/passenger ferry service between the mainland and Put-in-Bay that still exists as Miller Boat Line today. 800-500-2421, millerferry.com

Mackie’s opens for business on the beach in Port Stanley, Ontario. By the 1930s, the quiet fishing village is hopping thanks to two dance halls that draw the likes of Guy Lombardo and Duke Ellington. While the dance halls are gone, the beach is as fun as ever — with beach volleyball and live music — and Mackie’s still is famous for its orangeade drink and fries. portstanley.net

Lucille Ball is born on Aug. 6 in Jamestown, New York. She is celebrated there each year at the Lucille Ball Comedy Festival. This year’s event (Aug. 3-6) will be headlined by comedian and father-of-five Jim Gaffigan. 716-484-0800, lucy-desi.com

Island Airlines begins using Ford Tri-Motor airplanes to service the Lake Erie islands in what becomes known as the “World’s Shortest Airline.” Originating in Port Clinton, Ohio, the flight landed on Kelleys, South Bass, Middle Bass and North Bass islands in a 17-mile round-trip flight that took just 45 minutes. The airline’s Tri-Motor was retired in 1986, but the legend of the airplane (of which only 200 were made) lives on. Nicknamed the Tin Goose because of its all-metal construction, the Tri-Motor has become a collectible. Visitors to the Liberty Aviation Museum in Port Clinton, Ohio, can see one in the midst of a restoration that began in 2004. The museum also boasts a B-25J Mitchell Bomber, a World War II PT boat and more. 419-732-0234, libertyaviationmuseum.org

Frank Lloyd Wright completes his first Usonian house in Ohio. Wright built about 60 or so of these middle-income family homes across the country. The Weltzheimer/Johnson House in Oberlin is noted for its hundreds of stained croquet balls that form the roof dentil ornamentation. It’s open to the public on the first Sunday of every month from April through November. Tours ($5 per person) begin on the hour from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. 440-775-8665, oberlin.edu/amam/flwright

[Art available on the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s Flickr page] https://www.flickr.com/photos/allenartmuseum/sets/72157618326550599/

The Blue Streak opens and becomes the only rollercoaster at Cedar Point. The wooden coaster, which cost $200,000 to build, launches a coaster boom at the park that leads to the Gemini, Corkscrew and Cedar Creek Mine Ride. Decades later, it’s still a park favorite, even though its 78-foot climb is dwarfed by Top Thrill Dragster’s 400-foot drop. cedarpoint.com

On Sept. 23, the HMCS Ojibwa is commissioned into the Royal Canadian Army. The 295-foot-long submarine joins the Cold War, pitting its skills against the Soviet fleet. The sub was decommissioned in 1998 and is now the main attraction at the Museum of Naval History in Port Burwell, Ontario. Three tours of the 5-story Ojibwa are offered, including a 3-hour “Greater Depths” tour for the true enthusiast. 519-633-7641, hmcsojibwa.ca

The Pennsylvania Limited Winery Act passes, allowing Pennsylvania wineries to sell wine directly to customers and paving the way for the more than 200 wineries in the state today. Doug Moorhead, an Erie County grape grower, is known as the father of the modern wine industry in the state and was instrumental in getting the Act passed by overcoming hurdle after hurdle put in place by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. Raise a glass to Moorhead’s achievement at his winery, Presque Isle Wine Cellars. The 82-year-old, who still owns and operates the vineyard, will be most happy to join you in a glass. 814-725-1314, piwine.com

The Cuyahoga River becomes so polluted that it catches on fire, spurring a massive pollution control effort. Today, the river —and Cleveland’s waterfront — is thriving. Head to the Flats East Bank to enjoy waterfront dining and bars or just a stroll along the boardwalk, complete with city skyline views. flatseastbank.com

The Lake Erie Foundation is formed to advocate for the health of the lake, especially in the struggle against algae. The good news is that the problem is fixable. The western basin turns over every two months, meaning that when algae sources are reduced, any blooms present will quickly dissipate. But it will require political will to make those changes happen. Want to get involved? Visit the Lake Erie Foundation’s booth at the Catawba Island Boat
Show (April 28-30) in Port Clinton, Ohio, or contact the foundation directly. 419-691-3788, lakeeriefoundation.org