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Lake Lake Erie Islands reveal a rich history, robust ecosystemErie Islands reveal a rich history, robust ecosystem

By MATT MARKEY • Jul 27, 2018 at 7:00 PM

PUT-IN-BAY — The legacy of this vacation mecca and the islands that are sprinkled about the western end of Lake Erie is one of a colorful past, and a present filled with the fun and frivolity that the harbor and active downtown here support. Next week, guests, visitors, and the islanders themselves will get a more intimate and informative look at the many other resources and treasures the archipelago has to offer.

Island Green Week is an ecocentric celebration of the unique environment, of the island cluster, a look at its intriguing history, and a display of some of the wonders that make it unlike any other locale in the Great Lakes region.

There will be informative tours of the unusual glacial formations that read like a picture book of the islands' early days when massive sheets of ice scarred the landscape as they scraped their way northward thousands of years ago. There will be a tour of the South Bass Island Lighthouse, which was built late in the 19th century to help guide ships from Sandusky to Toledo through the island area's southern passage.

This third annual installment of Island Green Week, which runs Aug. 4 to 11, also offers tours of the Lonz Winery on Middle Bass Island, which was reportedly the largest wine producer in the country in the decades following the Civil War.

There will also be multiple opportunities to tour the Aquatic Visitors Center, a structure that served as a state fish hatchery from 1907 through 1988, raising walleye, sauger, whitefish, herring, yellow perch, coho salmon, chinook salmon, and steelhead. The raceways and large glass hatching jars from that operation are on display, along with other items from the operation.

A forested wetland on Middle Bass Island will be spotlighted, the Miller Boat Line will offer a stargazing cruise, and a special program on the rare snakes of the islands will be part of the week's many educational offerings.

Expect discoveries and surprises to be the main course on the Eco-Tour, which will include 32 nature and history-related stops. This outing offers visits to churches, vineyards, caves, and historic buildings.

One of the other highlights of the week likely will be a night hike led by lantern around the site of the old Hotel Victory. Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the huge complex burning to the ground in a mysterious fire that many island residents surmise was intentionally set to extinguish the hotel's chronic financial problems.

Utilizing a cache of historic photos, Ohio Department of Natural Resources naturalist Renee Market will begin the excursion back in time to a point when the Hotel Victory had 625 guest rooms and could both house and feed 1,200 people at one time. Guests from all over the world arrived in Put-in-Bay by steamship and then rode an electric trolley across the island to the hotel.

"It was a massive structure, but a very poorly planned hotel and it was not very well managed," Market said. "It would shut down for periods of time due to lack of income, and the rumors have always pointed to the possibility it was burned down for insurance purposes."

Market said the fire that claimed the Hotel Victory had its start in a third floor cupola that was used to store old mattresses. Since the flames started high in the building and then slowly moved to the lower floors, a mass evacuation took place and no one was killed or injured in the blaze.

"Typically, a fire starts low in a structure and quickly spreads upward, but with the unusual nature of this fire, there was even enough time for people to go back inside and steal things," Market said. "Usually, a wood building like that would burn down very quickly and everything is lost, but not in this fire. There's a lot of Hotel Victory memorabilia out there, things that were taken during the fire."

The tour of the hotel site, which is now the grounds of South Bass Island State Park, will include visiting the ruins of the huge swimming pool, which was the first in the country that permitted men and women to swim together in the same pool. There are also remnants of a bridge that took hotel guests down to the lake's edge, and the crumbling foundation that once held the bronze statue "Winged Victory" that was one of the hotel's iconic features.

Market said the end of the tour will take place at a prominent spot on the cliff above the water. A famous photo from more than a century ago shows a woman seated at this location, with the hotel in the background. It is one of the last photos of the Hotel Victory before it burned. An oak tree now grows at the exact spot where the woman was seated.

"It's just another fun part of the history and all of the stories surrounding the hotel," Market said. "There are all sorts of stories about haunted areas, curses, and other mysteries that are linked to the hotel."

Market said the hotel tour and the extensive trip into its history and troubled past is just one of the many fun, informative and educational options during Island Green Week.

"Even someone who has been to Put-in-Bay 100 times can come to Island Green Week and be surprised by what all is here," she said. "It will show you some things that you have never seen before."

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