In 1854, the Edwards family sold their islands to Jose de Rivera Saint Jurgo for $44,000. Instead of selling off the island’s natural resources, Jurgo decided to plant vineyards. His wines quickly became popular, and soon the Bass Islands had earned the nickname “Wine Islands.” Despite their extreme northern location, the islands surprisingly have the longest frost-free period of any area in Ohio due to the stabilizing effect of the lake.
The next four decades saw South Bass Island’s popularity increase tremendously. Records show an impressive 15,000 visitors in 1859 alone. The island’s heyday truly came in the 1890s, however, with the grand opening of Hotel Victory in 1892.
With the South Passage now acting as the primary navigational route not just for commercial vessels but for passenger and leisure boats as well, there was growing concern about the safety of the waterway. Rocky reefs lay hidden in the shallow waters, and sailing through the area could prove treacherous in the late fall when sudden storms could wreak havoc on Lake Erie.
The United States Lighthouse Board requested $8,600 for a lighthouse on South Bass Island in 1890, but the desired amount was not appropriated until August 18, 1894. This wasn’t the first time money had been set aside for a lighthouse on the island. When Lieutenant Charles T. Platt was examining lighthouses and proposed lighthouse sites on Lake Erie in 1838, he noted that an appropriation of $3,000 had been made for a lighthouse on South Bass Island. To his surprise, the lighthouse was to be placed on the northwest tip of the island instead of the southwest corner where Platt and others thought it should be. So sure was Platt of the superiority of the southern location that he surveyed the island’s southwest cape and carved the letters “LH” into a tree to indicate where the lighthouse should be erected. A lighthouse was established on nearby Green Island in 1855, but South Bass Island would have to wait a few more decades to receive its lighthouse.
Unlike the day’s typical design of a large lighthouse with a small, detached keepers dwelling, South Bass Island Lighthouse consisted of a large, two-and-a-half-story, redbrick dwelling with an attached, twelve-foot-square tower. The tower stood forty-five feet tall when finished and was crowned with a fourth-order, L. Sautter & Cie., Fresnel lens that produced a fixed red light through the use of a ruby chimney in its lamp.
Keeper Harry H. Riley lit South Bass Island Lighthouse for the first time on July 10, 1897. Under his care, the lighthouse would perform its duty daily during the shipping season, which typically ran from early March through late December. Riley’s time on the island was cut short, however, when on September 1, 1898, he was taken into custody by Sandusky police because of problems associated with his mental health. Keeper Riley was convinced he owned a fast racehorse and was inviting everyone to the fairgrounds to see the horse go for a record. Riley passed away the following March at a state hospital. Mrs. Riley took charge of the lighthouse during her husband’s illness.
Keeper Charles B. Duggan arrived at the lighthouse in 1908, after having served five years at West Sister Island. Besides caring for the light, Duggan also cultivated twenty acres of land. A vineyard occupied eight acres, and the rest was devoted to a peach orchard and general farming. In 1915, he helped a crew of eight from the burning steam barge Isabel Joyce land at the station and then cared for them. Keeper Duggan fell to his death from a forty-five-foot cliff on the western end of the island in April 1925. Twenty-year-old Lyle Duggan cared for the light in place of his father until the following year, when Green Island Lighthouse was automated, and its keeper, William F. Gordon, was transferred to South Bass Island Lighthouse.
The characteristic of South Bass Island Lighthouse was changed at the opening of navigation in 1926 to alternating red and white flashes, the former characteristic of Green Island Light. On September 7, 1929, the intensity of the light was greatly increased through the installation of electricity as the illuminant. The white flash went from 1,800 candlepower to 32,000, while the red flash increased from 540 to 9,600 candlepower.
Harry Johnson of Williston, Ohio rented the lighthouse for five years at a rate of $66.50 per month, and then in 1967, the Coast Guard turned the lighthouse over to the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Division of Surplus Property. L.S. Putnam, Director of The Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, located on Gibraltar Island just offshore from Put-in-Bay, recognized the unique opportunity that this presented. South Bass Island was not only close to Stone Laboratory, but it also provided many research advantages. Putnam proposed that OSU’s Board of Trustees apply for ownership. The Board agreed with Putnam, and in October 1967, OSU became guardian of South Bass Island Lighthouse through a thirty-year quitclaim deed.
The lighthouse received another technological addition in 1983 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration determined that it was a good location for a meteorological station. Once completed, the $50,000 structure made it possible for the National Weather Service to receive satellite transmission of weather statistics from the island.
Less than a century after its construction, South Bass Island Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. Seven years later, OSU gained permanent ownership of the property when the original quitclaim deed expired. The Coast Guard, however, still maintains ownership of the skeletal light tower.
South Bass Island Lighthouse is now home to OSU research and academic staff. The lighthouse and grounds have typically not been accessible to the public, but this changed in 2007 when the university started offering tours during the summer. Besides the lighthouse and a modern replacement light tower, an 1899 barn and an 1897 oil house remain standing on the property.
Head Keepers: Harry H. Riley (1897 – 1898), Mary Riley (1898 – 1899), Enoch W. Scribner (1899 – 1900), Colonel Orlo J. Mason (1900 – 1908), Charles B. Duggan (1908 – 1925), Lyle C. Duggan (1925 – 1926), William L. Gordon (1926 – 1937), Frank LaRose (1937 – 1941), Robert E. Jones (1941 – 1944), Kenneth Nester (1944 – 1947), Paul F. Prochnow (1947 – 1962).