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An Eventful Night - Thrilling Story of the Burning of Green Island Light House in '64

1898 text from reference (14) in the Bibliography. followed by an account of the fire from a local newpaper

Click the following for a picture of the Second Green Island lighthouse.


"That cold New Year's night," is the way the old folks put it when they refer to the time wherein occurred the events here narrated. The night was that of the outgoing of  '63 and the incoming of  '64, and is remembered as the coldest ever known in this country. Among the islands, exposed as they are to the fierce blasts which sweep Lake Erie, this particular cold snap was especially noted.


December 31, 1863, was mild as an April day. Heavy rains had fallen, filling ditches and lowlands with water, while the lake was entirely free from ice. With the cessation of the rain, however, a gale sprang up from the Northwest which steadily increased in violence. As darkness fell and night advanced, the sea rose in its strength and swept the shores with a deafening roar. The gale became terrific in force and its breath cut like daggers, so that pedestrians along the island roads could scarcely face it. Within a few hours the mercury dropped from 60 degrees above to 25 degrees below zero.


At Doller's Hall on Put-in-Bay, a party of young people had assembled to dance "the old year out, and the new in," but owing to the extreme cold they had deserted the dancing floor and had formed a gathering around the stove. Suddenly the group was startled by a glimmer which shot up over the tree-tops, faintly illuminating the windows of the hall.


"It's the moon rising," suggested one. But no, there was no moon, and in a moment a bright flame arose, mounting higher and higher, while the sky was a lurid glare of light. A few moments later came the news:


"Green Island light-house is on fire!"


This intelligence struck a chill to the hearts of all who realized its import to the isolated keeper and his family on that bitter night; for in the wild storm raging without, the boiling sea and the midnight darkness, no human aid could reach them.


While at Put-in-Bay the alarm was spreading, Colonel Drake, the light-keeper at Green Island, and his family were gathered in the sitting-room of the cottage which flanked the tower, and formed a part of the structure. The hour was late. They were watching the old year out. No apprehension of danger came to them until above the roar of the wind they heard the crackling of flames. A moment later the whole upper portion of the building was discovered to be all ablaze.


With characteristic coolness Colonel Drake attired himself in boots, hat, and overcoat before making any attempt to fight the fire, but seized with consternation his wife and daughter rushed at once from the house - the latter bareheaded, barearmed, and with feet protected only by thin stockings and slippers.


By means of a ladder Colonel Drake mounted to the roof with a pail of water. Miss Drake caught up a pail in each hand, and filling them from the lake, passed them to her mother by whom they were carried up the ladder to the burning roof where the keeper was making a brave effort to stay the flames.


Over thirty pails of water were in this manner transferred to the roof, but though they worked with the energy of despair the fire steadily gained and colonel Drake was forced to beat a retreat down the ladder.


The family now turned their attention to the saving of their valuables, some of which were secured, but already the interior of the house was burning and smoke met them at the door in stifling volumes. A sudden thought of his family's precarious condition almost turned the brain of Colonel Drake. Unless he could succeed in saving a bed or two with which to protect them from the intense cold, they must inevitably perish, since no assistance could reach them from adjacent islands until the sea went down. He darted into the burning structure. Tongues of flame licked his face, singed hair and beard, and the smoke blinded and choked him. With a desperate bound he gained the door of an adjacent room. The flames had already communicated to this apartment, but the bed was still untouched. Upon it was a tick filled with feathers and another with straw. Hastily rolling them into a comforter, he shouldered the bundle and succeeded narrowly in making an exit from his perilous situation.


The scene now presented was one of the wildest grandeur. Blown by the howling blast, the fire surged, and roared, and by its vivid light could be seen line after line of white breasted waves rushing tumultuously shoreward, and breaking with a thundering sound at the base of the tower. Clouds of blinding surf mounted thirty feet into the air and showered upon the steps, freezing as it fell, and forming a glaring pavement of ice upon the very threshold of the burning structure. Wind and sea, fire and darkness had united, and seemed to vie each with each other in painting a picture of savage sublimity.


To the houseless family the situation was one of horror. Under strong, nervous pressure Miss Drake had exhibited unwonted endurance, but when nothing more could be done, strength deserted her and she sank into an almost insensible condition. An examination revealed the fact that her ears, arms and legs were frozen stiff. The bed was removed to an out-house which remained standing, and with father and mother the girl was tucked carefully between the ticks, and thus through the remaining hours of the night they endeavored to keep each other warm.


Pitt Drake, son of the light-keeper, was at Put-in- Bay, having formed one of the party assembled at Doller's Hall. Frenzied with apprehension concerning the fate of his kindred, the young man could hardly be restrained during the night from setting out by boat for Green Island - an undertaking which could have resulted only in his being drowned.


With the dawn of New Year's day came a lull in the storm. The unprecedented cold had thickened the waters of the channel with slush ice and frozen drift, and although a heavy sea was still rolling a few miles beyond, the channel between the two islands was becoming rapidly crusted with thin ice.


Pitt Drake was now determined to hazard a passage to Green Island, two miles distant, and in the enterprise was re-inforced by a number of hardy and courageous men. Two cutters were procured, together with ropes, pike poles and several long planks. The ice was not sufficiently strong to bear men and cutters, and the way was bridged with planks which were projected forward and each as it was passed over was taken up to be again placed in position. Several times the shifting and sinking of these planks threatened disaster, but the party reached their destination without serious mishap.


With a feeling of dread Pitt Drake now approached the smoldering ruins of the light house. No signs of life were visible; the little island seemed empty and deserted.


Had the family perished in the flames, or had they suffered the slower agony of death by freezing?


While with a beating heart he sought for a solution of this problem, a shout was heard from the outbuilding - the only one which the island now contained. The unfortunates had been discovered, and in a moment young Drake had clasped the hands of his kindred and was shedding tears of gladness and relief unspeakable. The family was removed to Put-in-Bay - by means of the cutters employed - where they were taken in and cared for at the nearest habitation. They were all more or less prostrated and medical aid was summoned for Miss Drake whose sufferings from the exposure of the previous night were terrible. Col. Drake also suffered both from the cold and from burns received.


The Drake family subsequently removed to the mainland. Thirty-five years have passed since the occurrence here recorded. Green Island lighthouse was substantially rebuilt at a later date by the U. S. government, but the old residents of neighboring islands have never forgotten the night when the original structure went up in flame and smoke.  


Account of the fire from the Sandusky Daily Commercial Register, January 5, 1864


GREEN ISLAND LIGHT-HOUSE BURNED - The Light-House on Green Island was burned between 7 and 8 o'clock on Friday evening last.


The light was a recent one, being built in 1854 from an original appropriation of $5,000 made in 1851. It has been repaired and improved from time to time - some additions having been made last fall. The light was a "flash light" with a costly French mirror, and was very important to lake navigation. The structure was somewhat like the one on Cedar Point, being a light tower and dwelling conjoined. The light was kept by Col. Chas. F. Drake, formerly of this city, who is a severe sufferer - he having saved only two beds, a marine clock and some small articles.


The loss to the government will be from $6,000 to $8,000.

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Revised: 21 Jul 2008 06:55:12.

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