PUT-IN-BAY — On most late summer days, the waters near West Sister Island in western Lake Erie will be dotted with fishing boats as anglers divide their attention between roaming schools of walleye and hungry perch.
In a couple of months, though, history demands that a different fleet of vessels occupy that water. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, a group of ships led by the brig Niagara will re-enact that pivotal engagement of the War of 1812.
The battle site is just west of here, and about three miles east of uninhabited West Sister Island, a national wildlife refuge that sits about eight miles off the Ohio shoreline of Lake Erie, roughly due north of the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station.
A commemorative marker pinpoints the battle location where the Niagara, commanded by 27-year-old commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, led the defeat of the British fleet under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay.
“All of our lives we’ve heard about how important this battle was, and what an important role it played in the formation of this area,” said Julene Market, a native of the Lake Erie islands and one of the owners of the Miller Boat Line, which is sponsoring the Niagara’s appearance at the bicentennial.
“Today, many people know Put-in-Bay as a place to come fish, boat, relax, and vacation, but the history of this region is so critical as well, and the Niagara had a big role in that history,” Market said.
The original Niagara was built in Erie, Pa., specifically to combat the British naval presence in the Great Lakes. It was 198 feet long overall and 111 feet at the waterline, with a beam of 31 feet and a draft of 10 feet, 6 inches. Its main mast measured 118 feet.
With a crew of about 155, the Niagara was armed with substantial firepower. It had 18 carronades that fired 32-pound cannonballs, and a pair of long-range guns that shot 12-pound cannonballs. Accounts vary, but the Niagara’s battle weight is commonly listed as about 480 tons, and it was the second largest sailing ship on the Great Lakes at the time.
The ship that will visit Put-in-Bay later this summer is the third reconstruction of the Niagara and contains just a few nonstructural pieces of the original vessel. This version of the Niagara was launched in 1988 in conjunction with the 175th anniversary of the battle. It currently sails the Great Lakes, preserving the skills of seamanship and rigging, and the account of the historic battle.
The original Niagara was removed from service around 1820 and sunk for preservation in Misery Bay across from downtown Erie. It was raised in 1913 and rebuilt for the centennial of the battle, but deteriorated after that until later restoration efforts. The current Niagara is the result of a more extensive renovation in 1988, and the ship’s permanent home is the Erie Maritime Museum in downtown Erie.
The original Niagara was actually Perry’s relief vessel on Sept. 10, 1813, in the Battle of Lake Erie, since his flagship Lawrence had been heavily damaged and disabled early in the engagement, with most of its crew killed or wounded. Perry took a small boat to the Niagara, raised his “Don’t Give Up The Ship” battle flag, and re-engaged the British fleet.
After Perry took command of the Niagara, the momentum turned in the Americans’ favor as every British ship commander was killed or injured in the battle. Using the Niagara, Perry then outmaneuvered the British fleet, and by nightfall he had received their surrender. Perry sent Gen. William Henry Harrison that infamous dispatch, stating: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
Perry’s victory aboard the Niagara gave the Americans naval control of Lake Erie, and it paved the way for securing this region and winning the war.
“This is such a key chapter in our heritage,” Market said. “My mother was born on Isle St. George [North Bass Island], and my dad was born here on South Bass, so we were brought up with a deep love of the history of these islands. People need to know what a critical role the Niagara and that battle played in what we are today.”
The Tall Ships Festival is one of the highlights of the bicentennial celebration of the Battle of Lake Erie, and nine ports in Ohio and Ontario are expected to host 18 tall ships during the event. Kelleys Island, Middle Bass, Catawba Island, and Port Clinton will join Put-in-Bay on the U.S. side, while Windsor, Amherstburg, Kingsville, and Pelee Island will welcome tall ships on the Ontario side.
Tours of the Niagara will be available in Put-in-Bay Harbor from Aug. 30 through Sept. 1.
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