Commodore Perry plays tall role on Ohio's South Bass Island, Put-in-Bay

December 16, 2013

This aerial view was taken from atop Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay. The battle was fought 10 miles away to the northwest.

PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — It’s hard to ignore Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and what he did.

Especially with the 352-foot-high Doric monument that dominates the skyline of South Bass Island in Lake Erie off Ohio’s North Coast.

It was built with 78 layers of pink granite from Massachusetts, topped with an 11-ton bronze urn. It is the major landmark in Put-in-Bay, the touristy village that is one of Ohio’s top summer getaways.

The island has about 500 year-round residents and about 500,000 summer visitors. It appeals to all kinds of weekend islanders and boaters. Put-in-Bay is widely known for its bar and party scene. Some laud its sunsets. Some call it Lake Erie’s Key West.

The monument has a fancy name — Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial — and sits on a 25-acre site at the edge of downtown Put-in-Bay. It marks Perry’s naval victory over the British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812; the 200th anniversary was celebrated earlier this year.

Perry built two brigs and four schooners on Presque Isle near Erie, Pa. Five smaller vessels came from Black Rock (now Buffalo). He recruited 500 men to sail the ships.

Perry’s fleet moved to western Lake Erie. In effect, the fleet had cut off the British supply route to its forces in Detroit. The American naval presence forced the British to take action.

On Sept. 10, 1813, Perry’s fleet defeated the British in a key battle fought 10 miles west of Put-in-Bay.

The British under Robert Barclay had guns that were most effective at long range. Perry used mostly carronades that are most effective at close range, so he needed the wind at his back.

The 27-year-old Perry was forced to abandon his ship, the U.S. brig Lawrence, after it became disabled two hours into the battle. He shifted to the Niagara, its sister ship.

All the British commanders were killed or wounded. Two British ships collided and were locked together. Perry took advantage, and 15 minutes later, the British surrendered.

It was an important, but costly battle. The Americans lost 27 men with 96 wounded. The British had 41 killed and 92 wounded.

The victory assured American control of Lake Erie and opened the door for Gen. William Henry Harrison to capture British-held Detroit and to invade Canada. That enabled the United States to control the Northwest Territory, including Ohio.

Perry’s message to Harrison is famous: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

It was the first time that an entire British fleet had been captured, and Perry became a national hero. It was one of few American victories in the war.

Today Put-in-Bay visitors can go to the top of the monument in a small, old-style elevator. The fee is $3 for those 16 and older.

The observation deck is 317 feet above Lake Erie. You gaze down at downtown Put-in-Bay that is best known for its partying and alcohol-fueled revelry, the boat-filled harbor and surrounding islands. It’s a very impressive view.

On clear days, you can see where Perry battled the British to the west of Middle Bass Island.

It is the third-highest national monument, behind the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Mo., and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

It was built between 1912 and 1915, funded by money raised from a nine-state commission with matching funds from the federal government. It cost $480,000. It became part of the federal park system in 1936.

The remains of three American and three British officers killed in the Battle of Lake Erie lie under its rotunda. Today the monument also marks the peace between the United States, Canada and Great Britain.

The monument was largely closed to the public from 2006 to mid-2012, after a 500-pound piece of granite fell from the observation deck. That triggered major repairs by the National Park Service.

But more work is needed, especially on the foundation, the sides of the memorial and a plaza, said superintendent Blanca Stransky. That work will cost "in the millions of dollars," she said. The park service will kick off a new study in the next year to look at options.

A first-rate visitor center sits at the edge of the grassy area surrounding the monument’s base. Monument hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from May to October, and by appointment. For information, contact Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, 419-285-2184,

Put-in-Bay has been a tourist attraction for a long time. The island drew an estimated 15,000 visitors in 1859, when grapes and wines were the biggest attractions.

It became a major destination after the 625-room Victory Hotel opened in 1892. It was hit by a major fire in 1919. Other hotels followed.

Vacationers come for the beaches, the walleye and perch fishing, and the Victorian-style homes, shops, restaurants, bars and galleries.

Getting to South Bass Island is one of the attractions. You can take ferries from Catawba Island (actually a peninsula), Port Clinton, Sandusky and Lorain from April to November. You can also fly in.

There are few cars on the island. Most visitors travel on foot, by bike, on golf carts, by bus and cabs.

You’ll find hotels, bed and breakfasts and a state park campground on the island, a historic carousel, tram tours, parasailing, miniature golf and pirate cruises.

Here a few suggestions of what to do in Put-in-Bay:

—Nature lovers should check out the Lake Erie Islands Nature and Wildlife Center. It offers family-friendly nature excursions from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May to September at 255 Meechen Road. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for children 6 to 11 and senior citizens. Call 419-285-8301 or

—Ohio State University and Ohio Sea Grant operate the free Aquatic Visitor Center with live fish and hands-on displays about Lake Erie and its fishery. It is on a point on the far side of the Put-in-Bay harbor, housed in a historic state fish hatchery. The site is owned by the Ohio Department of Natural resources. Free fishing for youngsters. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays in the summer. Call 419-285-1800 or see

—Kayakers can rent boats from Kayak the Bay Ltd. and paddle the harbor and around the 1,382-acre island. It is a 12-mile trip. The water can be choppy with strong currents, but the sheltered harbor area can be fun. Singles and doubles are available at 760 Bayview Dr. Call 419-967-0796 or see

—Heineman’s Winery and Crystal Cave at 978 Catawba Ave., 419-285-3343. The winery was established in 1888. Tours are offered daily. Go to or call 419-285-2811.

—Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center. The cave was discovered by Perry in 1813. For details, go to

—You will find the Cooke Castle on Ohio State’s Gibraltar Island in the Put-in-Bay harbor. The 15-room structure was built in 1865 as the summer home of Jay Cooke, a noted Civil War banker in Philadelphia. It is a National Historic Landmark. See

—The Lake Erie Islands Historical Museum with island and Lake Erie artifacts, displays and photographs is downtown on Catawba Avenue. Admission is $3 for adults and children and $2 for senior citizens. 419-285-2804 or

For tourist information, go to or 888-PIB-STAY.


Bob Downing:



Associated Press