PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — As the legend goes, American sailors sought clean drinking water inside a cave here during the War of 1812. The site is named after the most famous one of them — Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
Perry’s Cave is a part of the history of that conflict, and as the bicentennial of the climactic Battle of Lake Erie nears, fact and fiction rest comfortably somewhere in that cool, dark chamber.
Some claim that Perry and his men hid in the cave to elude the British, while others contend that Perry used it to store gunpowder. More tales tell about the cave being used to hold British prisoners.
“The legends are one of those things you just hear about, either in the bars, on the ferry, or on one of the tours of the island,” said Mike Steidl, who runs the tourist attraction with his wife Dianne Duggan, whose family has been on the island for four generations.
“Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the stories and the history of the cave, with the bicentennial coming up. People are fascinated by the fact that back at least a couple hundred years ago, there were people staying in here in the cave, or coming here regularly to get safe water.”
The most often accepted line of lore surrounding the cave holds that Native Americans were the first to utilize it, since primitive tools were found here. Other accounts relate how Perry and his men, as they spent time on the island preparing for a showdown with the British fleet, benefited from the safe water found in a small pool inside the cave, after water from the lake had made them ill.
So the cave could have played a pivotal role in the American victory in that decisive battle, according to historian Amy Newell-Huston, who wrote a book about the caves on the island.
She said in the summer of 1813, many of Perry’s men had been weakened with dysentery after drinking bacteria-laced water from the lake. When they located the cave and its supply of pure water, they were able to recover prior to confronting the British fleet in September of 1813.
“In the days before the battle, Perry had men running back and forth from the cave with buckets of that clean water,” she said. “You could say that the caves of Put-in-Bay helped Perry win the Battle of Lake Erie.”
Journals kept by some of Perry’s men accurately describe the cave, and cite their use of the fresh drinking water they found in the cave.
“Everybody’s always heard lots of stories about this place, but the part about using it as a source for drinking water seems the most likely,” said “Pinky” Batt, who has been on the island since 1978 and manages the tours and care of the cave.
“I don’t see them keeping gunpowder down here — it’s just too wet. And for prisoners — it just doesn’t seem practical. I would guess that at some point, both the Americans and the British used it as a place to get good water. All that other stuff is fun to talk about because it just adds to the stories and legends of this island.”
The island itself is a large hunk of dolomite and limestone. It is believed to have been formed in the Devonian period, about 400 million years ago, at the bottom of a shallow salt water sea.
The accepted geologic explanation for the formation of Perry’s Cave holds that as the island took shape, a softer layer of gypsum was sandwiched between two layers of rock, and when the gypsum became wet, it expanded and pushed the rock upward, forming the dome of the cave. When the gypsum dissolved, a layer of rock likely collapsed and the cavity remained.
This process is believed to have taken place less than 14,000 years ago, after the last of the glaciers had receded across what is now Lake Erie.
Perry’s Cave is the largest of about 30 caves on the island, but is small in comparison to most tourist caves at roughly 210 feet long and 165 feet wide. It sits 52 feet below the surface of the island, and the air and water temperature in the cave are both about 50 degrees year round.
Perry’s Cave has many stalactites and stalagmites, created over hundreds of years by the constant drip of calcium carbonate laden water from the ground and rock above. It takes centuries for them to add just an inch of length.
Across the road from the Perry’s Cave site is Heineman’s Winery, the location of the dramatically different Crystal Cave, the world’s largest geode. This cave was discovered in 1897 by workers digging a well. The cave has walls covered in strontium sulfate crystals.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.