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No. 6 JUNE 2004

LAKE ERIE’S GREEN ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE


The Green Island Lighthouse as it appeared in 1894. Atop the tower are members of the Jay Cooke family, who frequently held family picnics on the island (from the Jay Cooke Collection).

On New Year’s Eve 1863, Green Island lighthouse keeper Colonel Charles Drake and his family were just sitting down to dinner when, above the howling winds, they heard the crackle of flames. Drake dashed outside to find the entire second story of the house ablaze. Throwing a ladder against the house, he rushed up to the flames with a bucket of water. Close behind was his wife, passing more water scooped from Lake Erie. The worked feverishly to control the fire, but after some 30 bucketsful, they knew it was hopeless. Neither the rain nor the spray from Lake Erie’s pounding waves had any effect on the flames fanned by gale-force winds.

Green Island lies only two miles across Lake Erie from Put-in-Bay, but Drake knew that no one could possibly cross the raging, half-frozen waters in the dark of night. Turning his efforts to saving his family, Drake raced into the burning structure to retrieve blankets and mattresses – anything that would keep them from freezing during the long night ahead. In subzero temperatures, the Drakes huddled together in the island’s lone outbuilding.

Partygoers at the Doller Hotel at Put-in-Bay looked on in horror as massive flames whipped by the winds lit up the night sky. Pitt Drake, the colonel’s son, was among them. He was frantic to reach his family. Only by restraining him were Pitt’s friends able to prevent a rescue attempt they knew would compound the tragedy.

At dawn, Pitt and his friends launched two cutters into the frigid waters off South Bass Island. Using planks, they navigated areas where ice already had formed. When they reached Green Island, Pitt began searching the smoldering ruins – his family’s home for nearly a decade. A shout from the outbuilding brought tears of relief. Although the Drakes were suffering from burns and frostbite, they were alive.

By July 1865, a square-towered, limestone lighthouse with attached two-story keeper’s house awaited the family’s return. The structure is featured in this 1894 photograph. In 1926, the quarters were abandoned, but the light remained active until 1939 when an automated light atop the tower took its place. The Drakes’ second home survived for nearly a century, but in the 1960s it met a similar fate as the first. Today, its burned-out shell lies hidden beneath bushes and trees.

Green Island is a state-owned wildlife sanctuary managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and is closed to the public.