PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — Northwest Ohio is experiencing what could be the biggest British invasion since the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other English pop groups made their marks on the American music scene in the early 1960s.
Of course, none of that has anything to do with the real reason thousands of people are flocking to the shorelines of South Bass and Kelley’s islands, Port Clinton, and Sandusky now through Sept. 10.
They’re coming to celebrate the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, the turning point of the War of 1812, which solidified America’s independence from Great Britain less than four decades after the Revolutionary War. The naval battle was fought on Sept. 10, 1813.
PHOTO GALLERY: Tall ships arrive at Put-in-Bay
In the 200 years that have passed since Comm. Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British-led fleet under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada have remained at peace.
They have become such strong allies that the thought of another British invasion is just as likely to conjure up thoughts of music as war.
The celebration’s big roll-out began Thursday with the arrival of 15 tall ships that will participate in a re-enactment of the decisive battle on Labor Day.
The Battle of Lake Erie involved nine American and six British ships, said Capt. Wesley Heerssen of the U.S. Brig Niagara.
“We’re excited. We’re really glad to be in Put-in-Bay, our home away from home,” Captain Heerssen said Thursday morning by phone as the Niagara crew, under the direction of Senior Capt. Walter Rybka, sailed for South Bass. Captain Heerssen said he plans to catch up with the crew today.
The tall, wooden ship that arrived at Put-in-Bay on Thursday afternoon is the third reconstruction of the original Niagara that Commodore Perry used to defeat the British.
The commodore first flagship, Lawrence, was heavily damaged by fire in that 1813 battle. His decision to board a wooden boat and row to the Niagara helped lead the United States to victory.
The original Niagara was removed from service about 1820 and sunk for preservation in Misery Bay near downtown Erie, Pa., the city where it was built. The latest Niagara replica, built in 1988, is usually docked in Erie. Its main role now is as a sailing-school vessel, Captain Rybka said.
Both captains said Monday’s re-enactment will be a modified version of what happened in 1813, encompassing only a fraction of the Lake Erie acreage actually involved in the battle. Wind and weather on Monday will determine which of eight battle plans drawn up for the re-enactment will be used.
But they are confident the show will serve its purpose of instilling pride in the Navy and whetting the appetites of ordinary citizens for American history. “It was the War of 1812 that really solidified our country as a nation,” Captain Heerssen said.
Captain Rybka agreed, calling the Battle of Lake Erie “a very, very hard-fought battle” that likely changed America’s landscape in many ways. If the United States had lost, it might have managed to remain independent but might have lost the Great Lakes to Canada, he said.
“The leverage of this battle certainly changed the Midwest,” Captain Rybka said. He said it was remarkable how well the United States did in the War of 1812, given how unprepared it was for more fighting with Great Britain.
Never before had the powerful British Navy lost a major battle. Commodore Perry, who was only 27 when the Battle of Lake Erie was fought, reinforced the need to expand and further develop the U.S. Navy with his victory, Captain Rybka said.
The Niagara will remain in Put-in-Bay through Monday’s re-enactment, then head back to Erie for a tall ships festival there before returning to Put-in-Bay again Sept. 10.
It be open for tours along the Put-in-Bay dock from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today, Saturday, and Sunday, Captain Rybka said.
Dozens of Put-in-Bay visitors stood in line along the dock Thursday, looking at its impressive exterior and picking up educational pamphlets.
One couple, Jim Beers, 54, and Sheri Beers, 53, of Fostoria, said they are the only people they know who were married inside the elevator shaft of Perry’s Monument.
That occurred 16 years ago, during a time in which the top of the monument was closed for repairs. The couple had been on top many times before. “We said it at the same time: This would be the perfect place to get married,” Mrs. Beers said.
So, they said, they made arrangements with a park ranger for what they considered the next best thing: getting married in the elevator shaft.
Both were thrilled by the Niagara’s arrival. They said they hope the tall ships and Monday’s re-enactment stimulate more interest in local history.
As she gazed out upon the Niagara, Mrs. Beers said she was impressed by “the hard work the men must have gone through to keep this boat going.”
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a history teacher,” she said.
Burk Rudat, 62, of Dayton appeared like an ordinary Put-in-Bay tourist — a bearded, middle-aged man wearing a Hawaiian shirt — until he started talking about his fascination for tall ships, especially the Niagara. He said they have a distinctive “ ‘wow’ factor.”
“They’re like a piece of art to me, the craftmanship and everything. I don’t know how else to say it. A piece of art,” Mr. Rudat said.
He said they beckon a special romance of the seas for him, eliciting thoughts of “when sailors were sailors.”
Not that it takes much to make Mr. Rudat get goosebumps about sailing, mind you. He recalled that a decade ago, he was part of a six-man crew that sailed a 39-foot sailboat through the Panama Canal.
“I love sailboats,” Mr. Rudat said, explaining that he planned his vacation around the tall ships’ arrival. “I’d never seen one [replica of a historic tall ship] up that close.”
Ian Bova, 26, of Perrysburg Township has spent two years as a professional crewman of tall ships and just passed the midway point of a nine-month commitment to the Niagara.
He smiled and explained his love for the Great Lakes in a tongue-in-cheek manner.
“There’s no place for me in a polite society, so I became a sailor,” Mr. Bova quipped.
He said he grew up in Perrysburg Township as a Fort Meigs volunteer, and gets a lot out of the teamwork and discipline of working on the tall ships.
The Battle of Lake Erie’s bicentennial celebration is something he’s awaited with eagerness for 16 years, he said. “I’ve been telling people this will be the most incredible week of my life and I will be glad when it’s over,” Mr. Bova said with a chuckle.
Susan Borkovich, 68, of Fremont stood along the shoreline and was impressed by the Niagara’s size and extensive rigging. She said she was determined to see the tall ships because of her affection for history.
“I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Ms. Borkovich said. “I figured this would be my big chance. I think this is just an awesome experience.”
Contact Tom Henry at: email@example.com or 419-724-6079.