Friday, August 22, 2008

Lake Erie's Ballast Island



The Cochran Cottage on Ballast Island, 1888


Lying a mile northeast of Put-in-Bay is Ballast, one of Lake Erie’s twenty islands. According to legend, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry used rocks from the island to provide ballast for his ships before sailing out to meet the British fleet during the War of 1812. A shallow reef connects the 13-acre island to a sliver of land known as Lost Ballast.

Life on Ballast was shaped by one of its earliest owners, commercial shipping magnate and two-time Cleveland mayor George W. Gardner. At age nine, he ran away from home to sail aboard a lake schooner bound for Buffalo. While still a teenager, Gardner became head clerk of the Northern Transportation Company, managing the accounts and cargoes of the firm’s Great Lakes vessels. After a 5-year stint in the banking business, Gardner purchased two tugs that plied the Cuyahoga River. In partnership with John Rockefeller and others, he shipped grain throughout the Great Lakes, making Cleveland one of the largest grain markets on the Great Lakes.


Cottage on Ballast's North Cliffs, 1888

Few men loved the water more than Gardner. Well before the Civil War, he founded the Ivanhoe Boat Club, bringing rowing to the Cuyahoga River. He later founded the Cleveland Yacht Club and organized the Inter-Lake Yachting Association. He canoed the Mississippi River from Cincinnati to New Orleans.

In 1874, Gardner purchased Ballast Island and a short time later sold undivided interests to his friends who enjoyed sailing nearly as much as he. Eventually, the cooperative association of wealthy friends built nine cottages along the east and west shores of the island. The Gardners’ cabin was built of logs from hackberry trees found on the island. A hotel and dining hall were constructed on the cliffs to the north. The families planted vineyards and fruit trees. At the invitation of Commodore Gardner, the Western Canoe Association transported its boat house from Ross Lake, Michigan to Ballast.


Lost Ballast Island, 1888


Those at Ballast formed their own canoe association, naming it the Longworth Canoe Club after the father-in-law of Alice Roosevelt Longworth. According to Commodore Gardner’s great granddaughter, Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley, Garfield, and Cleveland all visited at Ballast. And, each summer the resident canoe club and other canoe associations held their annual races in the sheltered waters surrounding Ballast.

Eventually, an ice house, caretaker's home, and work shed were added. All were protected by a curving breakwall made of log cribs filled with stone. Passing steamers and Ballast's proximity to South Bass Island made travel to and from the island convenient. Good friends, good conversation, and great sailing made summering on Ballast in these early years an idyllic time.

9 comments:

cam said...

my family owns ballast island and it is a very fun place to go to. I'm only 13 so i don't know much about the island but what i have heard from my family is pretty amazing.

wind3 said...

This last comment must be from one of my many cousins. Yes my family owns Ballast Island and has well before I was born. The island I know and the one from this article are very different. The island has changed a lot. There is no more ice house, no caretaker house, no dining hall and the hotel has since burned down, there is now a three bedroom house there. The small cottages are also gone; there are seven houses one of which is a cabin. I knew some things about the island but this article has taught me a lot more about this great island. This island is really an amazing place. It is truly great to have a place with so much history.

KatieB said...

My grandmother, Isabel Bray Gardner, was the daughter of Kirtland Cutter Gardner. So, Commodore Gardner would have been her grandfather. I've grown up in the Boston area, never visited Cleveland, and though my grandmother wrote fondly about Ballast Island, I've never visited. I hope someday to see it!

Nan Card said...

How nice to hear from all of you who either have or have had a connection to Ballast. While I have never visited the island, I have sailed passed it many times. I thought you might like to know that these and several other cabinet card images of the island (all taken in 1888) were donated to the Hayes Presidential Center years ago by Cochran descendants. I presume the family was one of those invited by Commodore Gardner to purchase lots on Ballast. I found much of the information about the island's development in an article by Mrs. Gardner in Inland Seas.

Kay said...

I have many fond memories and stories of Ballast Island. Some of them came from my parents, William S. Gilmore and Helen Roell Gilmore. Others are from my personal experiences there as a young child. I am now 80 years old and am happy to share some of those memories.

About 1925 the island started to go to seed. The original families started to move away. G. W. Gardner died and the depression came along. People from surrounding islands would sneak on to the island and steal things from the cottages which were fully furnished.

The first time I went there was 1935. I used to go there every summer until 1941. World War II came along and gas rationing kept people from going to Ballast. At that time there were only 4 cottages left on the island. My aunt, Rosie Gillmore ,and her mother, Ellen T Gillmore (daughter of G W Gardner), lived there. We stayed with them. They took care of their cottage, but others did not. The island families were organized and improvements were made. A caretaker was hired to live there all year long, and the looting of island cottages stopped.

After 1945 we would go every other year. At that time the log cabin was owned by Kenneth W Gardner and his wife Connie. Kenneth was the grandson of G W Gardner.

The last time I was at Ballast Island was in 1954 when I was 26. My sister Mary Ellen Gilmore Colwell was there with her 3 children, Kenneth W, Kay Lynn and Terry Lee, who were visiting from Emporia Kansas for 2 weeks. My parents, William S. Gilmore and Helen Roell Gilmore, were there as well. We arrived on a sturdy Clinker built boat from Cataba Point.

Robert W. Gilmore
4617 Rolling Hills Road
Pittsburgh, PA15236

cathiesharp00 said...

Mr. Gilmore--I don't know what possessed me to think about Ballast Island last night, but I did. And, I don't remember the name of my relative who invited my family to the island but it was 50 years ago or so. All I remember, was that my family was invited to stay in what I remember as a big white house that had no furniture. We stayed the night and slept on the floor. The house had big slender windows that almost went to the floor. I remember these windows because my uncle? had a fishing line moored in the big boulders lining the island and when the storm started raging, he ran across those rocks just like a jack rabbit to get to his pole.
Could you help me figure out who that relative would have been 50 or so years ago? Both my parents are gone and there is no one to ask.
My name is Cathie Ostrowski. Thanks so much for any help you can give me.

Shirley said...

This is so cool! I have heard so much about the island. When my mom tells me stories about the island. a Mr. Sandy who ran Union Carbide I think owned it in the 1960's. My grandparents, James and Thelma Bowling, served as island caretakers. My mom tells me that my grandmother planted rose bushes all over the island and how she took a ferry boat to get to school.

whitbit said...

my family owns ballast island as well. Hello Cameron..this is my cousin. Gardner was our great grandfather. The island is one of the best places ever to go. I enjoy spending time there. Growing up I would spend my summers there. There is so much information that is involved in the island and its pretty cool to be a part of something so wonderful

Nan Card said...

it is nice to hear from more of you with a strong connection to Ballast Island! How wonderful that all of these memories of wonderful summers on Lake Erie have continued through the generations!