Green Island came to notoriety in 1820 when celestite, a source of strontium, was discovered during a boundary survey by Major Joseph Delafield. This natural crystal structure was located primarily in the cliffs along the east side of the island. The primary use of strontium in the 19th century was producing sugar from sugar beets.
On March 3, 1851, Congress allocated $5,000 for the construction of a lighthouse on the western end of Green Island. The site for the lighthouse was purchased from Alfred P. Edwards in December 1851 for $500. The lighthouse was originally scheduled to be finished by July 1, 1854, but was delayed due to an outbreak of cholera. The contractor finally finished the work in late November 1854, and a fourth-order revolving lens was installed in the lighthouse’s lantern room. Due to a defect in the revolving machinery and the lateness of the season, the light was not operational until 1855.
The Green Island lighthouse was constructed of brick, and consisted of a cylindrical tower with a 6 foot diameter. The tower was topped with an octagonal lantern room from which a fixed white light, varied every 150 seconds by a bright flash, focused at a distance of forty-three feet.
The most famous keeper of Green Island Lighthouse was Colonel Charles F. Drake, who lived on the island with his wife and children when the lighthouse caught fire on New Year’s Day in 1864. This was the eve of a terrible storm with temperatures dipping down to -25 degrees. Heavy rain and strong gale force winds plagued the island from the northwest as night wore on. At some time during the evening, Green Island’s lighthouse caught fire. With the wind howling fiercely outside, Colonel Drake and his family did not notice that their home was on fire until they heard flames crackling loudly above them. Soon the entire upper story of the structure was on fire.
Colonel Drake attempted to douse the roaring flames with water as his daughter and wife filled pails with lake water and passed them to him, but after emptying more than thirty pails of water, the family realized that there was nothing more they could do to save their home.
With temperatures well below 0 with heavy wind chill they knew that they did not stand a chance surviving the night outside without protection from the bitter cold. Due to the storm, there could be no help from the mainland or surrounding islands until the winds and waves subsidized
Colonel Drake and his family took refuge in an outhouse and huddled up together covered by only a comforter to stay warm.
Fortunately Colonel Drake’s son Pitt had gone to Put-in-Bay to attend a party He watched from the Island as the flames from Green Island lit up the sky. The storm had grown so violent that the surf reached thirty feet high and froze as it fell onto the shore.
The next morning when the storm had passed, Drake and a small crew of men set out toward the island to see what was left of his home and his family. When they reached Green Island, they saw that the only remaining structure was the tiny little outhouse. Pitt was soon delighted to find the Drake family huddled inside and although they were suffering from exposure to the extreme temperatures, they were alive and well.
Following the New Year’s incident work quickly began on a new lighthouse in 1864 early 1864. This new two-story lighthouse began operation on July 1, 1865. This time, limestone was used to build a nine-foot-square tower with an adjoining keeper’s house. Charles Drake continued as keeper of this new lighthouse until leaving Green Island in 1871.
New Lighthouse as show in 1885
Photograph Courtesy of the National Archive
In 1887T the light’s characteristic was changed from fixed white varied every two minutes by a white flash to fixed white varied by a red flash every minute. In 1889, a boathouse was built on the east end of the island with boatways extending into the water to a depth of five-and-a-half feet. A protection crib was built for the ways, and an iron winch was provided for launching and retrieving the station’s boat. A brick-lined, iron oil house was added to the station in 1902.
An article in an 1898 edition of The Sandusky Star notes that the mother of Joseph Gibeaut, keeper of Green Island Lighthouse, was taken to jail by Marshall Weidgates. Mrs. Gibeaut was believed to be demented and an inquest into her sanity was to be held.
A 1901 newspaper story noted that then keeper of Green Island Lighthouse, John Safe, had a beautiful team of Italian greyhounds that he used to pull a sled across the frozen lake to take his children to and from school at Put-in-Bay. The fleet-footed canines could reportedly cover the distance in just five minutes.
In 1905, Keeper George Ferguson was transferred from Lorain Lighthouse to Green Island, where he lived alone with his wife Bertha. When her husband started suffering from much ill health, Bertha thought nothing of jumping in a boat and rowing to Put-in-Bay for a doctor. Later, a system of flag signals was used to communicate with the keeper on South Bass Island during the day, and at night, flashes of lights were employed instead of flags.
Decommissioning and Recent History
William L. Gordon, who served as the final keeper on Green Island, built a radio set that helped keep him in touch with the world. He expressed the enjoyment he received from the set in the following letter that appeared in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin in 1922:
I thought you might be interested to know that I have a small homemade radio set from which I receive, through WWJ, wireless broadcasting station of the Detroit News, the latest world news, the time, reports of sporting events, etc., musical concerts, and a talk every morning by the household editor, giving recipes for each day’s dinner, also on the care of flowers and the home. From WCX, of the Detroit Free Press station, we hear concerts, speeches, and the news. On Sunday morning and evenings we hear the services of the St. Pauls Cathedral of Detroit, Mich., through the broadcasting of WWJ. As we do not get ashore very often we enjoy all this very much. I think a radio receiving set is a wonderful thing for isolated stations.
In 1926, the Lighthouse Service automated Green Island Lighthouse and transferred Keeper Gordon to nearby South Bass Island Lighthouse, where his responsibilities also included the automated lights on Green Island and Ballast Island. The light atop Green Island Lighthouse was active until 1939, when the Coast Guard replaced it with an automated light on top of an eighty-foot, steel, skeletal tower, located 960 feet southwest of the old lighthouse.
In 1961, the federal government transferred the lighthouse property to the State of Ohio, when the entire island became a wildlife refuge, managed by the Department of Natural Resources. In April 1974, two fishermen landed on Green Island and started a small fire that soon got out of control. A forty-foot utility boat was launched from Marblehead Coast Guard Station, but lack of docking facilities made it hard to land men on the island. The fire raged for a full day leaving behind only a shell of the old limestone lighthouse, which is now surrounded by thick vegetation. The remains of the old oil house still stand behind the lighthouse, and what looks like a well is located in front of the lighthouse.