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.