(Orig. Published 7/7/2007)
Put-In-Bay is the favored summer vacation retreat of thousands of Ohioans. Located on South Bass Island on Lake Erie, it offers quaint restaurants, shops, touristy sites and pubs to those willing to take a 15 minute ferry to its shores. Yet, less than two miles south of this sunny tourist town you will find the site of one Ohio’s most fascinating–and darkest–hauntings.
Lake Erie ghosts are often said to wander Ohio’s lighthouses. And it would seem that the lighthouse on South Bass Island is no exception. Those who have stayed at the lighthouse report the sounds of eerie footsteps, doors slamming on their own accord, and strange, unexplained noises. Most activity is said to come from the basement.Who haunts the South Bass Island Lighthouse and what is the basis for its alleged haunting?
In the summer of 2007, we traveled to the lighthouse to find out more.
The lighthouse was built in 1897 and operated until 1962, guiding boats and ships that sailed along Lake Erie’s waters. It is most unusual for a lighthouse, as the tower is attached to the living quarters. Most lighthouses are detached and free-standing.
In 1967, it was purchased by Ohio University, which uses it to conduct research. Recently, the University opened up the building for tours.
As the photos on the right show, the lighthouse does not differ much from the old photo shown above.
The lighthouse is a very attractive structure. Upon completion of its construction in the summer of 1897, the local newspaper described the lighthouse as picturesque, handsome, beautiful and “light and airy.”
It hardly foreshadowed the strange events soon to come.
The first lighthouse keeper was Harry H. Riley. Riley and his wife moved into the lighthouse on July 10th, 1897. In need of help, he hired a caretaker by the name of Samuel Anderson on August 9th, 1898. Samuel was an eccentric individual who lived in the basement of the lighthouse, where he kept a collection of live snakes captured from the island. In the summer of 1898, smallpox broke out in the surrounding area and the island was under quarantine. As the legend goes, Samuel grew increasingly paranoid of the epidemic. On August 31st, 1898–just 22 days after moving to the island–Samuel was found dead, having fallen off a cliff near the lighthouse. It is unclear whether he committed suicide, or if his death was accidental. Some say he killed himself out of fear of contracting smallpox, and the lighthouse board later ruled his death a suicide.
Just two days after Samuel’s death, on September 2nd, 1898, Harry was found wandering nearby Sandusky and arrested. He was soon declared “hopelessly insane” and committed to an insane asylum in Toledo, where he later died. His wife ran the lighthouse for another year until Harry was formally “discharged.” Although no official connection has been made between Samuel’s death and Harry’s sudden insanity, some have speculated that Harry was so distraught from Samuel’s death that he simply went insane.
But did Samuel really commit suicide? Or did Harry know more about Samuel’s death than what was reported? These are questions that only the lighthouse ghosts could answer. And on this day, they were not speaking.
During our visit to the lighthouse, both tour guides had to be pressed about the ghost stories. Although both were familiar with the legends, neither had experienced any encounters themselves.
While we also did not encounter anything unusual, we did notice that the house felt claustrophobic and the rooms were dark and small. Also, the floors felt uneven and creaky. Perhaps this would explain some of the occurrences experienced by past guests.
The lighthouse contains many artifacts and furnishings, almost none of which are original to the house. Which is a shame, since this organ would have added a provocative dimension to the haunted legends. How badly we wanted this thing play by itself while we were there….
The kitchen. The door ahead leads to the infamous basement. However, we were denied access to this haunted hotspot. As explained by the guides, the basement was “too vintage.” Right.
The staircase leading up to the second floor. As with the basement, it was off limits.
A distinct pattern was emerging from these evasive guides.
That, or it had something to do with the deteriorating condition of the upper floors.
The doorway to the spiral staircase, which leads to the top of the lighthouse tower.
As with most spiral staircases we’ve climbed, this one was narrow and treacherous. Indeed, the management will not allow children under 10 or more than 4 people at a time in this area.
We understand why.
The hatch leading to the top of the lighthouse tower. The last few steps are especially rough. It is difficult to imagine a lighthouse keeper trudging up these stairs with buckets of whale oil to light the lantern.
The view from the top. Access to the outside platform was also not allowed, for safety reasons.
Another view from the top, looking out onto the lake.
SOURCES and LINKS:
OSU’s official website on the South Bass Island Lighthouse.
Cleveland Plain Dealer’s article “Lighthouse on South Bass,” by Susan Glaser.
Gannett webpage posted by Central Ohio.Com, “Open to the Public: Lighthouse Now More Accessible to Visitors,” by Kristina Smith, which contains some interesting details about the hauntings.
OSU’s Ohio Sea Grant Communications, by Nancy Cruickshank, a PDF article with detailed historical information regarding the mysterious circumstances of Harry Riley and Samuel Anderson.