South Bass Island Lighthouse

(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.

A view down the hallway from the front entrance.

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 living room.

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.


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.

One thought on “South Bass Island Lighthouse

  1. This story is actually several stories in one. It starts out with my best friend from grade school. When I first met him, he had told me stories about how his mom had seen figures and heard voices in the back bedroom of their house. He said that supposedly an older woman had died in the back bedroom of this house before they moved in.

    The next house that they moved into had several odd things happen in it. One night my friend was sleeping in the basement, and he woke to what he thought was a black bird or something flapping its wings against the ceiling. He glanced at the clock when he didn’t see it anymore and it was 3am. The next morning his mom told him that his aunt had died that morning at 3am.

    The next story I actually experienced myself. My friend and I were in his basement one night, and everyone was gone except for us. We were watching television when all of a sudden we heard a loud thud on the wood floor above us and it sounded like a bowling ball had fallen on the floor and rolled all the way down the hall, stopped, and then rolled back. We thought his brother had come home and was just messing with us, but we ran upstairs to find that nobody was home. We checked the closet where their bowling balls were, and none had been moved.

    So about twenty years later, I went to South Bass Island on Lake Erie in Ohio. I went there with several friends to play in a annual volleyball tournament. We had rented a cabin at a state park there( not sure which park). As we were first driving to the cabin, we started up this hill on the road that led to the cabin. As we started going up the hill, I started feeling a burning sensation on the back of my neck as if the sun was shining down on the back of my neck. The sun was not out on this day. As we got closer to the top of the hill my neck felt hotter and hotter. When we got to the top of the hill there was a stop sign. We stopped at the sign and across the road was an old cemetery. I really didn’t think anything of it at the time, but in hindsight the burning neck sensation across from the cemetery may have some meaning.

    We turned down several roads, and finally got to our cabin. We got all settled into our cabin, and we all gathered in the main living area of the cabin. We started talking and somehow got on the subject of ghosts and ghost stories. I started telling the story about my friend’s houses and encounters that we had that I wrote about earlier in this story. I started telling the story about the sound of a rolling bowling ball and suddenly the television that was sitting in the cabin came on all by itself. We all looked at each other. One of my friends reached over and turned it off and said “ that was weird”. I continued my story and the television came on again. There was no picture on the television. It just had a white static picture. This time my friend unplugged the tv and he said “ if it comes back on this time, we are leaving”. It didn’t come back on and I finished my story. Nothing else happened that night, but I got up the next morning to discover that the cemetery that I had seen when we were driving to the cabin was backed right up to our cabin.

    Nothing else happened the two days that we were there. When we went to leave we cleaned the cabin up and packed all of our stuff into the car. My friend threw me the key to the cabin to lock it because you had to use a key from the outside to lock the door. I stuck the key into the lock and turned it to lock it. When I tried to pull the key back out, it wouldn’t come out. I turned the key every way I could and it wouldn’t come out. I yelled to my friend to tell him I couldn’t get the key to come out. He came up to the door grabbed the key and it came right out. I stood there puzzled. I grabbed the key back from him and stuck it back in the lock. I tried to pull it out again and it wouldn’t come out. Once again, I tried everything I could to try to pull the key out, and it wouldn’t come out. My friend grabbed the key and pulled it right out again. I am not sure what or who it was that was trying to communicate with me, but I believe it was something paranormal.

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