SOUTH BASS ISLAND, Ohio — Waterfront accommodations on a rocky bluff overlooking Lake Erie, incredible views of the lake and postcard sunsets every evening, waves crashing onto the beach below, a soothing breeze, and a comforting umbrella of shade provided by mature hardwoods — all this for $28 a night.
This is the place where a multimillion-dollar campsite can be had for about the cost of a decent bottle of wine, or a reasonable steak dinner. This is where the luxury and opulence of a bygone era have been replaced by just the most basic of amenities.
South Bass Island State Park sits on the property that was once home to the Hotel Victory, a massive resort built to provide every comfort for its well-heeled and aristocratic clientele. The Victory was five-star before such a rating existed.
The hotel and its grounds covered only a quarter of the 100-acre site on a precipice that dominated the island’s western shore. The stunning piece of Queen Anne-style architecture had more than 800 guest rooms, an auditorium that could seat 700, and a dining room where close to 1,000 could be served.
The Hotel Victory’s real charm was built into its accoutrements — a staff of hundreds, wine cellars, a greenhouse, numerous shops, an in-house dentist, tailor, and manicurist, a barbershop, a livery, and an ice cream parlor. Guests arrived on the island by steamship, many of them fleeing the intense humidity and insects of summers in the South, and rode a dedicated trolley line from downtown to the grand lodge, where the moderating impact of the lake kept them cool and the Hotel Victory surrounded them with luxury and priceless vistas. Many of the political powerbrokers of the time stayed at the hotel.
"It is hard to imagine there being a more beautiful place to camp anywhere in this part of the country," said Susie Cooper of the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society in the village of Put-in-Bay, where artifacts from the hotel are displayed.
But the Victory, which was built by Toledo developer James Tillotson and completed in 1896, struggled financially and was consumed in August, 1919, by the largest structure fire the Lake Erie islands have ever seen. The hotel had changed ownership several times, and legend has it the fire was likely intentionally started to bail out investors.
Julene Market, a sixth-generation islander, recalled her grandmother telling her about how the Hotel Victory blaze went on for days, and how the young women working outside on nearby properties had to cover their heads in wet towels to protect themselves from the ash and embers carried by the wind.
The hotel was not rebuilt, and eventually 33 prime acres of Lake Erie waterfront property on the original site of the Victory were acquired by the state and converted into a park. Today the campground has 125 nonelectric campsites and 10 full-service sites. Flush toilets, showers, picnic tables, and a fishing pier are the extent of the amenities.
In the center of the campground you find the sole remaining vestiges of the Hotel Victory and the era of opulence. The stone ruins of the structure that surrounded the large, bronze statue of Lady Victory are visible behind one showerhouse, while the decaying foundation of the swimming pool sits below the original site of the hotel.
Island Realtor Corky McIlrath-Flint said it would be tough to place a value on the campground property, because no comparable piece of real estate exists, but the waterfront, beach, limestone bluffs, trees, views, and rich history would all compound any assessment.
"A site like that is very, very rare, so an estimate of $20 to $30 million would be just an educated guess as to its value," she said. "One thing for certain is that the campground on South Bass is an absolute diamond — it has to be the crown jewel of such parks in Ohio."
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.