1812 Bicentennial: The fine — yet fickle — waters of Lake ErieWritten by Frank Kuron | | email@example.com
I’ll never forget it — the day my brother-in-law, nephew and I rented a very small, aluminum rowboat somewhere near Port Clinton and headed a mile or four into the heart of Lake Erie. The goal was to catch our share of the perch in residence. Any boater in our region knows that the spirits of the lake can turn evil as fast as a tug on your line, but we first learned this nautical lesson on that day.
The sunlight above was overrun by a sudden rolling blackness, laden with flashing bolts of electricity. We pulled in our lines and started and restarted and restarted the lawnmower engine attached to the back of our floating metal lightning rod. The race to shore was on, propelled by dozens of still unkept promises to our heavenly Father. Amid the smoke from our sputtering engine, those ever-heightening white-bonneted waves and the sloshing of ankle-deep water in our hull, we finally arrived at the dock ahead of our thunderous pursuer. Many U.S. troops faced the same type of nautical trepidation in the fall of 1813.
Commodore Oliver Perry met the enemy and made them his on Sept. 10 in the northwestern waters of Lake Erie, right between the islands and British Fort Malden at the mouth of the Detroit River. In the weeks following, the American land forces funneled into the Sandusky Bay area, which is now Port Clinton, to prepare the attack on Fort Malden, which harbored Tecumseh’s warriors and Henry Proctor’s 41st Regiment.
Some of Perry’s less damaged ships were used in the first leg of the journey to transport the men to Put-in-Bay, but most had to row themselves there in much smaller Mackinaw boats — flat-bottomed vessels that were usually used for fishing and transporting supplies.
Crammed with troops sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, the boats often rode only a foot above the water line.
One of the helmsmen of these Mackinaws said the gales became so fierce, all the smaller open boats around him turned back. His was so heavy that to try and turn in the troughs would have caused all of them to drown. He decided, “The only safety was in keeping the boat in the wind’s eye, and to double-man the oars, keeping one or two men to bail out the water that dashed over the sides.” They rowed 11 hours to complete a 12-mile trip. Eleven hours! Can you say “Jet Express”?!
Once the boats finally unloaded their cargo of men, they were sent back for more and it took a day and a half to complete the transport of nearly 15,000 troops to the island. The warm waters of the lake were hardly palatable to the hot, parched throats of these men, until someone discovered an island cavern. Now known as Perry’s Cave, it provided these men with cool lake water, unheated by the sun and obviously fresh flowing as indicated by the presence of fish. Thousands of men paraded in and out of the wide but low-ceilinged hollow, using candles and torches to see their way. Spilled water from their canteens and kettles made the rocks a slippery, muddy mess and overall treacherous effort.
After a few days of waiting for the winds and waters to subside before continuing on to Fort Malden, one participant of this event records, “It was a sublime and delightful spectacle, to behold 16 ships of war and 100 boats filled with men, borne rapidly and majestically to the long-sought shores of the enemy.” Another man aboard Perry’s Ariel wrote, “The sun shone with refulgent splendor on our polished arms. The martial waving of the snow-white plumes of the officers, the various uniforms of regulars and volunteers, the solemn silence, interrupted only by the regular movement of springing oars, altogether formed a scene awfully grand.”
The waters of Lake Erie seem to have always had a mind of their own, providing either a deadly challenge or striking serenity for its mariners. Next time you visit your favorite watering hole at Put-in-Bay, stop at the original one, which quenched the thirst of some very brave men for a few days in 1813. And may your ankles stay dry as you cruise there.
Frank Kuron is author of the War of 1812 book, “Thus Fell Tecumseh.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bugle Call: Upcoming Events
Visit Fort Meigs on June 2 for a picnic-style, musical summer evening in commemoration of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the 50th anniversaries of the Perrysburg Symphony Orchestra and the Glassmen Drum & Bugle Corps, as they perform Melodies on the Maumee, a celebration concert inside the fort.
Visit www.fortmeigs.org or call (419) 874-4121 for complete details about all upcoming events.