Lake Erie's Middle Island
Courtesy of Wikimedia
Lake Erie’s Middle Island is Canada’s southernmost possession, lying just south of Pelee Island. Over seen by Parks Canada, the 45-acre island is home to hundreds of heron gulls, thousands of cormorants, even pelicans, and warblers during spring migration.
During Prohibition, Middle Island served as an important way station and haven for rumrunners, smuggling whiskey and premium beers across the lake from Canada to the U. S. mainland. Toledo underworld figure Joe Roscoe, who had ties to the Purple Gang in Detroit, owned a large portion of the island. He built an air strip and a plush hotel that he called “The Lake Erie Fishing Club” although there was little fishing going on. It featured 7 bedrooms, fireplaces, electricity, large, beautifully-situated verandahs. The basement, carved deep into the bedrock, sported a casino.
Roscoe hired his buddies, former convicted liquor smugglers Ted and Bert Angus, to manage the “club house” on a percentage basis from 1928 to 1932. Along with other gangsters, Al Capone is rumored to have stayed at Roscoe’s establishment.
Thomas H. Langlois Collection
Thomas H. Langlois Collection
When Prohibition ended and there was no longer money to be made in smuggling liquor, Roscoe continued his business as a hotel and restaurant, hosting vacationers, fishing charters, and local sailors. As many as 200 boaters a day were treated to sumptuous pheasant dinners.
Roscoe also owned one of the fastest boats on Lake Erie. His “Rainbow” was a 32-foot custom built craft that featured a 500 horsepower, 12-cylinder V-type Liberty motor. After Prohibition, Roscoe used it to commute from the island to Toledo where his wife Ganey and her father, Jack Broadway, managed his 42nd Street Café on Broadway and the Jovial Club on St. Clair.
Some of his gangster friends like Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and Hugh Campbell were not as lucky as Joe. They turned to kidnapping and robbery to make a living. After the kidnapping of Edward Bremer in 1934, Karpis hid out in Toledo for a time. It was Joe who found Karpis and his pal Campbell a place to lay low with his friend Edith Barry, who ran a brothel on Southard Avenue.
Karpis again turned to Joe Roscoe after his gang’s daring mail train robbery at Garrettsville, Ohio in November of 1935. Joe arranged Karpis’ escape via a flight from Port Clinton to Hot Springs, Arkansas.
But Hoover and his G-men caught up to Karpis. He was sentenced to life in prison on Alcatraz, the last of the Depression-era gangsters. It wasn’t until January 1937 that the FBI arrested Joe in Miami. Later that year, he was sentenced to 7 ½ years in Leavenworth for his part in assisting Karpis. Having served his time, Joe returned to Toledo, where he died in 1965. According to his obituary, he sold Middle Island shortly before his death.
Today, swallows are the lone guests at Roscoe’s hotel, now nothing but a mere shell. Only the stone foundation of the burned out lighthouse and the overgrown air strip remain as evidence of those heady days on Middle Island.
To see some fine photographs of Roscoe's abandoned hotel, please go to flickr to view images taken by Ken Bell in 2007.