As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the upcoming bicentennial remembrance of the Battle of Lake Erie that took place near Ohio’s South Bass Island, it seems only appropriate that we also honor the South Bass Island Lighthouse.
It may be hard for us in this modern era to fully understand the significant impact of America’s first Naval Battle victory over the British led by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry just as it might be hard to understand the significance of the South Bass Harbor Lighthouse being built at this location over 80 years after the famous United States Naval Victory over the British.
As America grew, so did the importance of the shipping route that became known as the South Passage and the need for a lighthouse. This became even more evident in the island’s heyday with the opening of the Hotel Victory that grew to become one of the largest, it not the largest, hotels of its time in America.
Visitors today to the South Bass Island Lighthouse will appreciate the beauty of the area, as did those who visited the lighthouse in the early years. The July 28, 1897 edition of the Sandusky Daily Register described the area where the lighthouse was under construction.
“At the tip of a narrow projection which puts out from the south shore is located the new government lighthouse, now in the process of construction. The spot is reached by rambling roadway, which winds its erratic course among rock ledges and through vineyards and peach orchards. The road is very narrow, rutty and rough and terminates at ‘the jumping off place’ where in a lonely but romantic position stands the lighthouse, overlooking a line of rough rocks, fallen masses of which rise in picturesque confusion above the water and covered with cedar stumps, wild vines and mosses.
“It is an elegant and commodious structure provided with spacious apartments for the keeper and every modern facility in the way of water supply, heating, sewage, etc.”
In describing the structure as “Parker’s Point” Lighthouse, so named for the area where the South Bass Island Lighthouse was built, which was previously owned by Alfred and Mark Parker, another newspaper article described the lighthouse in the following way. “Its numerous apartments are ample and airy. They are handsomely finished with gold tinted wall papers and gilded moldings, lovely carpets and richly upholstered furniture. The mantels are beautifully inlaid, bronzed and carved and everything about the place above and below, just as nice as can be. – The kitchen is beautifully shellacked, with ceilings painted to match. A massive new range, with hot water reservoir, is part of the furniture.”
Obviously, if some of the lighthouse keepers in other parts of the country, especially at some of the light stations in remote parts of New England, particularly in Maine, would have read those newspaper stories, they would surely have been jealous and would surely have demanded better living conditions for themselves.
But, even with all the best that the United States Light House Establishment had provided for at South Bass Island Lighthouse, it did not prevent the mayhem at the lighthouse that left the early history of the station steeped in mystery that is part of today’s folklore of the lighthouse.
The first keeper assigned to the South Bass Island Lighthouse in 1897 was U.S. Light House Establishment veteran employee Harry H. Riley, who had previously served on the lighthouse tender Haze. But alas, life for the Riley family at the newly built pristine and luxurious South Bass Island Lighthouse Station did not turn out the way one might have expected.
The various stories about the events at this point in time are all slightly different, yet similar, and may have been changed over the years as fact and fiction blended themselves together. For all we know, the original facts may have also been sensationalized by reporters, as was quite common at the time, especially when newspapers were competing for customers. But they all lead us to the mystery, mayhem, and madness of the early days of South Bass Island Lighthouse.
In 1898 an outbreak of smallpox created a national scare that lasted all the way through 1904. When it was believed that smallpox had been contracted by someone living in the proximity of Parker’s Point, near the lighthouse, the whole area was put under quarantine and troops were assigned to make sure the quarantine was enforced. This may have been somewhat influenced by the wealthy owners of the nearby Hotel Victory to make sure the disease did not affect their employees or guests.
Shortly after the lighthouse was constructed, an African-American, who also worked part-time at the Hotel Victory, was hired as a laborer at the lighthouse and he was given a place to live in the basement of the lighthouse, which was probably better living conditions than what he had at the hotel where the black employees were housed far out of sight of the guests. Although this person was generally referred to as “Black Sam,” his real name was Samuel Anderson.
It seems that Samuel left the lighthouse to go to the Hotel Victory where he believed he would be safe and away from the disease. However, once he left the lighthouse compound, he was stopped by the guards and ordered back to the lighthouse. Although he walked back to the lighthouse, he refused to enter the lighthouse for fear of catching the disease. Instead, he stayed outside the property and it was reported that “he began howling like a wild beast,” something that went on through most of the night. Then there was silence.
In the morning, at dawn’s first light, a search was conducted for Samuel. Eventually his dead body was found on the rocks below, where he had either fallen, was pushed, or threw himself to a suicidal death.
For reasons unknown, Samuel’s death greatly affected lighthouse keeper Harry Riley. Some have even speculated that, in attempting to quell Samuel’s howling and ranting on that fateful night, that keeper Riley might have somehow accidently caused Samuel’s death. Shortly after Samuel’s death a newspaper reported that lighthouse keeper Harry H. Riley had been arrested for being drunk and extremely disorderly in Sandusky, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, the court declared him as being hopelessly insane and sentenced him to an insane asylum, possibly at the Northern Ohio Lunatic Asylum, where he later died. Riley’s wife was appointed the keeper in his place.
On September 1, 1900, veteran lighthouse keeper Captain Orlo J. Mason was transferred from Ashtabula Lighthouse where he had served since 1893. Mason, and especially his daughter Maebelle, had gained a certain amount of notoriety when he was the lighthouse keeper at Mamajuda Lighthouse on Michigan’s Detroit River from 1885 to 1893 where they were involved in several rescues that were widely published at the time. Apparently Mason’s life at South Bass Island was rather quiet compared to life at his previous stations and was unmarred by the events and tragedy of the previous keeper at South Bass Island.
Local newspaper reports at the time stated that Mason and his wife kept a good station and they greeted many visitors in the summer months. However, the winter months were extremely quiet with few visitors other than a few friends and family who found “welcome and good cheer” at the lighthouse. Mason left South Bass Island Lighthouse on April 18, 1908 and took over the position as keeper of the Fort Niagara Lighthouse on April 23, 1908 and served there until his death on January 23, 1914.
In 1908, Orlo Mason was replaced as the keeper of South Bass Island by forty-seven year old Charles B. Duggan who, with his wife Bertha, apparently enjoyed a good life at the lighthouse. Duggan was a veteran keeper, having previously served at West Sister Island Lighthouse from September 1903 to April 13, 1908. However, tragedy again struck South Bass Island. After serving there as the keeper for seventeen years, Duggan met a tragic death when, on April 29, 1925, he fell from a cliff on the island. Duggan’s son, Lyle, was assigned as the temporary keeper and stayed through Christmas when the family sadly departed the island for the last time.
In later years, Duggan’s son, Lyle, recalled life at the lighthouse where he arrived at four years of age and spent the next 17 years of his life growing up. He recalled one winter when the ice was piled up so high on the island’s southern point that it blocked the view of Lake Erie from the sitchen window in the keeper’s house.
Duggan remembered a brutal storm that sank a number of barges being towed passed the island on their way to Toledo. A crewman and a woman cook from the barges made it to the lighthouse in a lifeboat at about 1am in the morning and were given shelter, dry clothes, and food. That same winter, the ice and the currents snapped the power cable to the island.
Lyle Duggan said that his growing up at the lighthouse was a great boyhood by all standards. “My mother played the piano a lot and during the winter we would watch for the mail to arrive at the point every day. It was pulled across the ice in an ‘iron clad’ boat with runners.” As he grew older, he was able to help with the chores, such as mowing the lawn, and he worked in the island orchards and vineyards. He eventually got a paper route and delivered papers to the Hotel Victory. “There were seven in my class when I graduated high school in 1924 – four girls and thee boys.”
After lighthouse keeper Duggan’s untimely death, he was replaced by Captain William Gordon, who, like his predecessor, was also a veteran lighthouse keeper having previously served at Toledo Harbor Lighthouse in 1909, at New York’s Buffalo Breakwater (North End) Lighthouse from 1910 to 1914, and then at Ohio’s Green Island Lighthouse from October 19, 1917 to March 31, 1926 when the government closed Green Island. Although Gordon had been transferred to South Bass Island Lighthouse, he was still be in charge of routine maintenance for the light at Green Island even though the house had been closed. Although maintaining Green Island Lighthouse over the years from South Bass Island was generally routine, keeper Gordon came close to losing his life on several harrowing occasions when the elements nearly took his life, but each time, God was on his side. Capt. Gordon served at South Bass Island for 13 years until his death in 1939.
The last keeper from the old United States Lighthouse Service to serve at South Bass Island Lighthouse as a United States Lighthouse Service keeper was Frank LaRosie, who arrived there after the death of Captain Gordon. LaRosie began his Lighthouse Service career in the early 1920s at Conneaut River Lighthouse, and he served at Fairport Harbor West Breakwater Pierhead Lighthouse from 1925 until his transfer to South Bass Island where he served until his retirement in 1941. LaRosie was followed by two Coast Guard lighthouse keepers, Robert E. Jones and Kenneth Nestor. In spite of searche,s we were unable to locate photographs of keepers Duggan, LaRosie, Jones, or Nestor. Hopefully, after this story appears someone will come forward with photographs of the men.
In 1947 when 55-year old Paul F. Prochnow was transferred to South Bass Island from the Sandusky Bay Inner Range Lighthouse, where he had served since 1930, little could he have known that he would be the last person to be a lighthouse keeper at this historic lighthouse. Although Prochnow had originally been a United States Lighthouse Service keeper, when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, he declined a military commission and elected instead to be a civilian Coast Guard keeper. Prochnow, along with his wife, Anna, whom he described as his “best unpaid assistant,” lived at South Bass Island for 15 years, until his retirement at the age of 70 in 1962.
There is no question that Prochnow typifies the perfect example of the tenacity of the early 1900s immigrants to the United States. Born and raised in Germany, he served in the German army as a corporal in World War I. At the conclusion of the war, with the rise of the Spartacist threat causing turmoil in Germany and the early years of the Nazis, Prochnow fled Germany and immigrated to the United States where he settled in Sandusky, Ohio securing a job as a commercial fisherman. Quickly learning English, he decided that a job with the government would offer him a stable life, and he applied for a lighthouse keeper’s job and was hired by the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
The Prochnows found life at Bass Island Lighthouse rewarding and fulfilling, but not without its hardships and a certain amount of risk. As well as his responsibilities of maintaining the beacon and the property at South Bass Island Lighthouse, Prochnow also was required to maintain the navigational aid at the top of the Perry Memorial Monument and the navigational aid at Green Island Lighthouse where the light had been removed from the old lighthouse tower and placed atop a skeletal structure.
Although the navigational aid at Perry’s Monument was a seasonal light for vessels, the light was required to be on year round to warn low flying aircraft away from the tower. During the winter months when the elevator to the top of Perry’s Monument was not working, and once every two to three weeks Prochnow was required to climb up the approximately 440 steps to check on the lights at the top of the monument. When he retired in 1962, Pochnow said that was one part of his job that he would not miss.
Life as a lighthouse keeper for Prochnow was always fraught with danger of some sort or another, such as painting the lantern room, installing and reinstalling the Weather Bureau wind cups on the roof of the lighthouse, operating the boat, and more, including his encounter with a rattlesnake. Sometimes the danger was not work related. Once, while ice fishing from a Model A Ford out on the bay, the ice gave way and the car sank in 30 feet of water. Prochnow and a fishing companion, somehow, in the bitterly cold water, made it safely to shore. It was a life threatening altercation with death that Prochnow never wanted to experience again.
As time went on, the Bass Island Lighthouse lost its usefulness to commercial boat traffic and was used more by pleasure craft, and it was no longer necessary to keep the beacon lighted during the winter months. However, Prochnow generally kept the light burning anyway to assist rescuers at night to save those who might fall through the ice, which was more common than not, and to allow rescue crews to use the beacon as a homing beacon, as was done when a small plane crashed on the ice at nighttime.
Prochnow was widely respected by everyone who knew him as a dedicated professional who always went above and beyond his assigned duties. This was obvious when, at a ceremony at the lighthouse, Vice Admiral A.C. Richmond, Commandant of the Coast Guard, and Rear Admiral Joseph A. Kerrins, Ninth District Commander of the Coast Guard presented him with commendations. One citation, which came with a bonus check, singled out the “devising and installation of a superior fire safety system” at the lighthouse which Pochnow made “with materials available around the station.” In this unique system, Prochnow devised an overall plan that installed five hydrants on the light station property, a plan the Coast Guard said it was going be copied and implemented at 60 other light stations in the Ninth Coast Guard District.
Upon Prochnow’s retirement on October 31, 1962, the Coast Guard also decided to retire the South Bass Island Lighthouse. The Chronicle Telegram wrote at the time, “With Prochnow’s departure will go a way of life. The property, worth more than a million dollars, will be disposed of by the government and an automatic light on aluminum and steel structure will be installed, foretelling the future of lighthouses everywhere.”
The Toledo Blade wrote, “But the six red and white lenses will not dust themselves, there will be no one to log the wind and weather and sunshine and cloud cover four times per day, and no one will be there to polish the brass, the same French-built mechanism which was installed when the lighthouse was built in 1897.”
The newspaper went on to say, “Mr. and Mrs. Prochnow are moving to Sandusky where they will spend their retirement. For many years they had planned and saved for a trip to revisit friends and relatives in Germany. But the Iron Curtain has long since destroyed that dream.”
The Coast Guard then put the lighthouse up for rent to the highest bidder. A local man, Ottawa County Commissioner, Harry R. Johnson, won a five year lease on the lighthouse with a bid of $66.50 rent per month. Although Johnson had been out-voted on the island for his job as County Commissioner by a vote of 11 to 3, he was not deterred from living at the lighthouse and making friends with those who voted against him.
In 1967, Ohio State University’s Board of Trustees ratified an agreement that gave the property to the University under a 30-year lease. Later that same year the ownership of the property was transferred under a quit claim deed.
Recently, Ohio State University decided to expand its educator role to tourism, opening the structure for lighthouse tours. If you do visit South Bass Island and its historic lighthouse, while on the island, be sure to visit Perry’s Lookout where sentries for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry spotted and announced the arrival of British ships sailing from Detroit that ultimately resulted in a pivotal naval battle of the War of 1812 that took place on September 13, 1813.
For more information on South Bass Island Lighthouse tours go to www.StoneLab.OSU.edu.
Author’s Note: My sincere thanks to Nancy Cruickshank of Ohio State University who shared with me her extensive research on South Bass Island Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2012 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2018 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.