Vermilion Ohio History

1877 Vermilion Lighthouse

Vermilion, Ohio straddles a river of the same name as it empties into Lake Erie, and it has a past as colorful as the clay for which the river was named. Once known as the “city of sea captains,” the city was a popular drop-off point for illegal liquor from Canada during the days of Prohibition. The city has been home not only to many captains and sailors, but also to an amazing lighthouse story that spans two centuries and two Great Lakes. 

Inhabited by the Erie Indians as early as 1656, Vermilion had grown large enough by the mid-nineteenth century for its harbor to warrant government maintenance. In 1847, Congress appropriated $3,000 to build a lighthouse and prepare the head of the pier on which it would be built. Before 1847, the people of Vermilion had constructed their own navigational aid: wooden stakes topped with oil-burning beacons at the entrance of the harbor. 

By 1852, both the lighthouse and the pier were in need of repair, a project that cost $3,000. Seven years later, in 1859, the lighthouse was rebuilt at a cost of $5,000. The new lighthouse was made of wood and topped with a whale oil lamp. The lamp’s flame was surrounded by red glass, resulting in a red beam that, with the help of a sixth-order Fresnel lens, was visible from Lake Erie. A man from the town looked after the lighthouse, lighting the lamp each evening and refueling it each morning. 

Though the 1859 light was functional, it was not sturdy enough for long-term use. Both time and the lake’s elements took their toll on the wooden lighthouse, and by 1866, Congress had appropriated funds to build a new light, this time out of iron, on the west pier. The lighthouse was designed by a government architect and cast by a company in Buffalo, New York. A home for the future keeper was purchased in 1871, six years before the iron lighthouse was installed. 

To cast the lighthouse, the ironworkers used sand molds of three tapering rings, octahedral in shape. The iron they used was from unpurchased Columbian smoothbore canons, obsolete after the Battle of Fort Sumter. As noted by Vermilion native Ernest Wakefield, “The iron, therefore, of the 1877 Vermilion lighthouse echoed and resonated with the terrible trauma of the War Between the States.” 

Once the ironworkers in Buffalo had completed the casting of the lighthouse and ensured that all parts fit together correctly, the pieces of the lighthouse were loaded onto barges in the nearby Erie Canal. Hauled by mules, the barges reached Oswego, New York, in two weeks. From there, the lighthouse was transferred to the lighthouse tender Haze. The Haze, a steam-powered propeller vessel, departed Oswego on September 1, 1877 and headed west for the Welland Canal, where a series of 27 locks raised the boat to the water level of Port Colborne and onto Lake Erie. One must wonder why this circuitous route was taken when Buffalo, where the tower was cast, sits right on Lake Erie. 

On its way to Vermilion, the Haze stopped at Cleveland Harbor, where it took on the lighthouse’s lantern, lumber and lime for building the foundation, and a crew to raise the lighthouse. Also loaded was a fifth-order Fresnel lens, which had been shipped to Cleveland by train. All that is known about the lens is that it was made by Barbier and Fenestre of Paris, France. Whether it was ordered specifically for the Vermilion lighthouse or recovered from the Erie Harbor Lighthouse, no one knows. 

One day later, the Haze arrived in Vermilion. It took several days to prepare the foundation, and once it was in place, the crew used the derrick on the Haze to lift the bottom ring of cast iron and place it on the foundation. After the ring was bolted down, the successive tapering rings were put into place and bolted to each other. Then the pediment and lantern were added. The Fresnel lens and oil lantern were installed later. Once completed, the tower measured 34 feet high. It stood at the end of the pier with a long 400-foot-long catwalk running above it. This allowed the lighthouse keeper to travel between the light and the mainland when large waves crested over the pier. One such lightkeeper was Captain J. H. Burns, who lived in the home purchased by the government in 1871. From this home on the corner of Liberty and Grand Street, he would walk each night to hang the lantern inside Vermilion’s lens. He would also wash the windows around the prism twice a week. 

Initially, oil for the lantern was stored in the keeper’s house. It was not until 1906 that an oil shed, accommodating 540 gallons, was built just south of the lighthouse. The lamp was converted to acetylene in 1919, and then eventually into an electric beacon. Its white light would blink one second on, seven seconds off. Ultimately, it was replaced by a steady red beam. 

The 1877 lighthouse performed its duties faithfully for over half a century, shining its light for both commercial and pleasure boats. During this time, it was moved closer to the end of the pier (25 feet from the outer end), and survived multiple collisions with watercraft. Eventually it was put under the care of Lorain Lighthouse’s assistant keeper, and in the early 1920s, the Vermilion keeper’s home was sold to the local Masonic Lodge. 

In the summer of 1929, Theodore and Ernest Wakefield, teenagers at the time, noticed that the Vermilion Lighthouse was leaning toward the river. Most likely, the lighthouse pier had suffered damage in an icy storm earlier that year. The Wakefield boys reported what they had seen to their father, Commodore Frederick William Wakefield, who contacted the U.S. Lighthouse Service in Cleveland. The U. S. Corps of Engineers came to Vermilion and determined that the light was indeed unstable. Within a week, the lighthouse had been dismantled. In its place, a steep-sided 18-foot steel pyramidal tower was erected. The new structure, called a "functional disgrace," continued to shine a red light, but since it was automated, no lighthouse keeper was needed. 

Commodore Wakefield offered to purchase the old lighthouse and move it to his property, Harbor View, but his request was denied. Instead, the cast-iron pieces were loaded up and hauled away. The residents of Vermilion were sad to see their beloved lighthouse go. No one told them what the fate of the old lighthouse would be, and its whereabouts were unknown until many years later. 

Ted Wakefield, one of the young men who had noticed the lighthouse leaning in 1929, had very fond memories of Vermilion’s past and its lighthouse. As an adult, he put his efforts into encouraging downtown Vermilion to maintain its historical 19th century appearance. His childhood home, Harbor View, was donated to Bowling Green State University and later sold to the Great Lakes Historical Society. Built of gravel from Lake Erie in 1909, the old house became the main structure of the society's Inland Seas Maritime Museum. This gave Ted an idea. He decided that a replica of the 1877 lighthouse would be the perfect complement to it. 

Ted spearheaded a fund-raising campaign to build the new lighthouse. Funds were raised by mailing out brochures, writing articles in the local paper, and collecting donations at the museum. By 1991, Ted and his fellow fund-raisers had collected $55,000---enough to build a 16-foot replica of Vermilion’s 1877 lighthouse. Architect Robert Lee Tracht of Huron prepared the plans, which were approved by the city, county, and state authorities, but only after a long delay. Even the U.S. Coast Guard approved the plans for making the light a working lighthouse, right down to its steady red light. Again, a company in Buffalo fabricated the lighthouse. 

Ground was broken for the new lighthouse on July 24, 1991, by Mayor Alex Angney. The 25,000-pound base of the replica lighthouse, measuring 15 feet in diameter, was brought to Vermilion on a flatbed truck. Cranes were used to place it onto the foundation. According to rumors, before the base was attached to the foundation, an 1877 gold piece was placed under the vertex of the octahedron that would point true north. It seems only fitting that a piece of 1877 be part of the new lighthouse’s foundation. 

The tower was raised in less than three hours on October 23, 1991. The lantern and roof were attached the next day, and a fifth-order Fresnel lens (owned by the museum) was mounted. The tower was electrically wired, and an incandescent 200-watt lamp with Edison-base was installed. A red glass cylinder surrounded the lamp to make the replica complete. The new Vermilion Lighthouse was dedicated on June 6, 1992, and is still operational today. It serves not only as part of the museum, but also as an active aid to navigation. 

Shortly after their new light was built, the residents of Vermilion learned what had become of their original lighthouse. Amazingly, the structure had not been destroyed after its removal. In fact, it was still shining, and had been for the last 59 years. 

Once the lighthouse had been dismantled in 1929, it was transported to Buffalo, New York, where it was renovated. Six years later, in 1935, the lighthouse was given a new home and a new charge---on Lake Ontario. Sitting off Cape Vincent at the entrance to the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the Vermilion Lighthouse was given a fifth-order Fresnel lens and renamed East Charity Shoal Lighthouse. The light remains an active aid to navigation, with its modern optic (installed in 1992) displayed at a 52-foot focal plane.

East Charity Shoal Lighthouse

The steamship Rosedale was built at Sunderland, England in 1888 and on her maiden run completed the first ever direct voyage from London to Chicago via the St. Lawrence River and Welland Canal. This accomplishment caused great excitement in the American maritime community, as it proved that grains from the elevators in Chicago, and other ports on the Great Lakes, could be shipped to London without transshipment. Though her first sailing caused a stir, every trip did not turn out quite so well. On December 5, 1897, the Rosedale grounded upon the rocks of East Charity Shoal during a northwest gale. The vessel was abandoned to her underwriters, but was eventually towed off by a wrecking company, and, after being rebuilt, returned to service. 

During the summer of 1900, John C. Churchill, Jr. visited Charity Shoal to survey and chart the outlying spur known as East Charity Shoal. This hazard, which was about 3,000 feet long and at some points covered by just ten feet of water, lay in the line of transit for vessels using the St. Lawrence River and was thus a great peril to navigation. Later that year, the Lighthouse Board moved to mark the obstacle and issued the following Notice to Mariners: “Notice is hereby given that a nun buoy painted red and numbered 2 has been placed in twenty feet of water to mark the easterly edge of East Charity shoal, Lake Ontario, New York. This buoy is about 1 3/8 miles E.S.E. of Charity shoal gas buoy. It is recommended that vessels bound to or from the main channel of the St. Lawrence river, and using the passage between Galloo and Main Duck Islands, should keep to the eastward of this buoy.” 

This navigational buoy didn’t prevent all mishaps, as in October of 1912 the steamer Rock Ferry ran aground on East Charity Shoal, and tugs had to be dispatched in an attempt to free her. The Lighthouse Service eventually opted for a more permanent method of marking the shoal, and in May of 1934 newspapers in upstate New York advertised that sealed proposals would be accepted by the Superintendent of Lighthouses in Buffalo for a “timber crib-concrete superstructure” on East Charity Shoal. 

The Walls Company was selected as the contractor for the project and had completed enough of the structure so that a temporary light was established on the south side of the crib on November 24, 1934. The foundation consisted of a fifty foot square crib, whose height varied from eleven to fourteen feet to fit the shoal. Constructed ashore in an inverted position, the crib was launched, righted, towed to the site, and sunk in place using stone and interlocking blocks of pre-cast concrete. A reinforced concrete slab was placed over the entire pier and atop this a one-story deckhouse, also of reinforced concrete and octagonal in form, was built to support an octagonal iron tower. After the tower was installed on the deckhouse in 1935, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in the tower’s lantern room and, using acetylene as the illuminant, a 1,300 candlepower light was produced at a focal plane of fifty-two feet above low water depth. The entire project, including riprap to protect the foundation, cost $95,125. 

The octagonal iron tower at East Charity Shoal has the distinction of having served at two stations and on two different Great Lakes. It was first installed in 1877 at the end of a pier in Vermilion, Ohio to mark the entrance to the Vermilion River from Lake Erie. After the beacon had been in service for over fifty years, two teenage brothers, who lived next to the harbor, noticed that the lighthouse had developed a lean after the pier had been damaged by an ice storm. The father of the two boys contacted the Lighthouse Service, and not long thereafter the heavy tower was replaced by a much lighter automated tower. 

The residents of Vermilion were fond of the old red and white pierhead beacon, and when the octagonal tower was taken away it was as if a member of the community had been lost. Years later, after his childhood home had been converted into the Inland Seas Maritime Museum, Ted Wakefield, one of the two boys who had noticed the lean, championed a fundraising drive to build a replica of the 1877 tower for the museum grounds. His dream was realized during the summer of 1991, when a crane lifted the newly cast tower onto its prepared foundation overlooking Lake Erie. 

For years, Vermilionites did not know the fate of the 1877 lighthouse. Most thought it had ended up on the scrap heap, but the real answer was revealed to Vermilion when Olin M. Stevens, of Columbus, Ohio, visited the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. Stevens came seeking additional information on his grandfather, Olin W. Stevens, who was a third generation lighthouse keeper, and when he learned the museum was trying to determine the fate of the 1877 tower, he realized he had just recently found the answer. While searching for information on his ancestors to give to his grandchildren, Stevens opened an old trunk and discovered a newspaper article that told about the service of his grandfather at Tibbetts Point Lighthouse. A portion of the article read, “Altho this is his first duty on Lake Ontario, Charity Shoal light, visible from the Tibbett's Point headland, is an old friend. The tower upholding the gas lamp on Charity formerly was under Keeper Stevens’ charge at Vermilion, near Lorain. Victim of an ice shove, it was salvaged and taken to Buffalo, where it was assigned to Charity.” The mystery had been solved.

Although the East Charity Shoal Lighthouse was never manned, it was still responsible for saving the life of at least one individual. Dr. Joseph G. Reidel, a 37-year-old physician from Syracuse, was sailing on Lake Ontario with his wife and Dr. and Mrs. W. Hall of Watertown on August 5, 1955, when winds estimated at 70mph struck their dragon class sloop. Dr. Reidel was washed overboard by the wind-whipped sea and for an hour was able to tread water and keep sight of the sailboat while his wife and friends desperately tried to rescue him or get him a lifejacket. Neither effort was successful, and Dr. Reidel was presumed lost. As it started to get dark, Reidel noticed the glint of a lighthouse and decided to swim towards it. Reidel swallowed a lot of water and suffered leg cramps for a stretch of forty minutes, but as he struggled to stay afloat he kept repeating to himself, “This can’t happen to me but it will unless I get there.” 

After more than eight hours in the water, Reidel pulled himself up onto the pier at East Charity Shoal. Exhausted, he soon fell asleep and was rescued at 5:30 a.m. the following morning by three fishermen. Reidel was eventually taken to Cape Vincent, where he was reunited with his wife and friends. 

Though alone and surrounded by a vast body of water, East Charity Shoal Lighthouse will always be cherished by the residents of Vermilion and a grateful physician from Syracuse. 

In July of 2008, the East Charity Shoal Lighthouse was declared surplus by the Coast Guard and pursuant to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 was "made available at no cost to eligible entities defined as federal, state and local agencies, non-profit corporations, educational agencies, or community development organizations for education, park, recreation, cultural, or historic preservation purposes." 

Copyright 2001-2008

Birthplace Of Lester A. Pelton

Lester Allan Pelton (September 5, 1829 – March 14, 1908), considered to be the father of modern day hydroelectric power, is one the most famous inventors of American history.  Pelton invented the impulse water turbine.  Lester Pelton was born in Vermillion, Ohio in 1829. His father was a farmer.  He lived on Risden Road and attended the Cuddeback School on the northwest corner of Risden and Lake Roads.  He had seven siblings.  His grandfather, Captain Josiah S. Pelton, located in Vermilion in 1818. In ill health, his oldest son, Josiah S. Jr., assumed the role of family patriarch. The family prospered and all figured prominently in the development of Vermilion in business and government.  But it was Lester who would become world famous.

When Lester grew up he decided to travel by wagon train to California. He was a quiet person who liked to study and read books. At first he went to Sacramento and became a fisherman. He was not successful at fishing so he decided to move. He went to Camptonville in Nevada County after he heard about a gold discovery along the North Fork of the Yuba River. 

In 1860 all types of mining were going on, placer, hardrock, and hydraulic. Pelton did not want to be a miner so he decided to improve mining methods. He watched, studied, and learned about methods needed to power hydraulic mining. Hardrock mines also needed power to lower the men into the mines, bring up the ore cars, and return the workers to the surface at the end of their shift. Power was also needed to operate rock crushers, stamp mills, pumps, and machinery.

At the time the steam engine was used by many mines for their main power source, but the hillsides were running out of wood and trees. The Empire Mine in Grass Valley used about twenty cords of wood a day. Pelton knew the forests were disappearing so he began thinking about inventing a water wheel. In 1878 he experimented with several types of wheels.

According to a 1939 article by W. F. Durand of Stanford University in Mechanical Engineering, "Pelton's invention started from an accidental observation, some time in the 1870s. Pelton was watching a spinning water turbine when the key holding its wheel onto its shaft slipped, causing it to become misaligned. Instead of the jet hitting the cups in their middle, the slippage made it hit near the edge; rather than the water flow being stopped, it was now deflected into a half-circle, coming out again with reversed direction. Surprisingly, the turbine now moved faster. That was Pelton's great discovery. In other turbines the jet hit the middle of the cup and the splash of the impacting water wasted energy."

As the story goes, Pelton was further inspired one day when chasing a stray cow from his landlady’s yard. He hit the cow on the nose with water and the water split, circled the cows nostrils and came out at the outer edge. This gave him an idea. He rushed to his workshop and began to make a water wheel with split metal cups.  The wheel was proven to be the best and most efficient in a competition. The Nevada City Foundry began to manufacture the wheels and ship them all over the world.

The Pelton wheel introduced an entirely new physical concept to water turbine design (impulse as opposed to reaction), and revolutionized turbines adapted for high head sites. Up until this time, all water turbines were reaction machines that were powered by water pressure. Pelton's invention was powered by the kinetic energy of a high velocity water jet.

A patent was granted in 1889 to Pelton, and he later sold the rights to the Pelton Water Wheel Company of San Francisco.  Today Pelton wheels are used worldwide for hydroelectric power with not much change in design from the original wheels.  Later evolutions of the Pelton turbine were the Turgo turbine, first patented by in 1919 by Gilkes, and the Banki turbine.  Pelton was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.  His invention is on display in museums throughout the world, including the Smithsonian.

Pelton and his family are buried in Maple Grove Cemetery on Mason Road in Vermilion, Ohio.  His birthplace home has been fully restored by Tom and Jean Beach.  The Lester Allan Pelton Historical marker is located at Cuddeback Cemetery, Risden and Lake Roads, Vermilion Township.  The marker reads: "Lester Allan Pelton" Lester Allan Pelton, "the Father of Hydroelectric Power," was born on September 5, 1829, a quarter of a mile northwest of this site. He spent his childhood on a farm a mile south of this site and received his early education in a one-room schoolhouse that once sat north of this site. In the spring of 1850, he and about twenty local boys, left for California during the great gold rush west. Pelton did not find gold, but instead invented what was commonly known as "the Pelton Water-Wheel," which produced the first hydroelectric power in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California in 1887. The Water-Wheel was patented on August 27, 1889. Currently variations of it are still commonly used to generate electric power throughout the world. Pelton died in California on March 14, 1908. He is buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Vermilion. 

Capt. Austin & The Friendship Schooner

During the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s many Connecticut residents were burned out of their homes by the raiding British. To compensate these citizens for their losses, the Connecticut Assembly awarded the "Sufferers" 500,000 acres in the western most portion of the Western Reserve, which came to be known as the Firelands.  Settlement was slow due to the remoteness of the tract and the difficulties in reaching it.  Capt. William Austin, of New London Connecticut, was one of the first settlers in Vermilion.  He arrived with his family in 1809 and built a home a half mile west of the mouth of the Vermillion River which flows into Lake Erie.  His wife, Elizabeth, was the first white woman in Vermilion.

The greater part the lake’s southern shore was at one time occupied by a tribe of Indians called the Eries. The word translates to ‘cat’, likely in reference to the wild cat or panther that once roamed the area.  The lake was referred to as “Lake of the Cat” by the Indians.  Vermilion was named by Native Americans for the red clay along the river banks.  Oulanie Thepy (Red Creek) in the Indian’s language was translated by early French explorers as “Vermilion River.”

Capt. William Austin was a man of energy and built the first schooner along the river in 1812. She was the “Friendship”, a schooner of the times, about a fifty footer registered at 57 tons in Cleveland in 1817. Where the ship was built is not exactly known but the builders chose a flat place along the riverside. This most certainly had to be near the foot of Huron Street where the later shipyard stood when ship building became the main industry in the village. Small schooners were ideal for scudding along the lake shore bringing in supplies from Buffalo and other ports. They were as large as the natural river bars would allow and enough cargo capacity to supply the needs of the early settlements. 

Mr. Austin, a Master Seaman, made nineteen trips a year to Newfoundland, Canada and Spain.  He was known for having visited every port on the globe.

Many settlers left the area during the War of 1812 and did not return until after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory over the British fleet.  Capt. Austin was not one of them.  He remained in Vermilion and sailed the famous “Friendship” during and after the War of 1812.  He carried soldiers to the battle on the Peninsula. This famous naval battle was fought in the waters of Lake Erie just a few miles from South Bass Island. It marks the only time in history that a British naval fleet ever surrendered and inspired the Star Spangled Banner and the song we know today as our National Anthem.

In 1821 Capt. Austin built the first stone house in Vermilion.  He opened the first public house at or near the mouth of the Vermillion River. The first religious meeting in Vermilion was held at his home.

The captain was a very genial man, but it was unsafe to cross him.  His rule aboard his ship was to have everything in its place.  Any deviation from this rule resulted in certain punishment.

He would never admit to flatteries and was as outspoken and abrupt as honest.  On one occasion when a man attempted to get favor by appealing to his pride, saying to him how obliging and clever a man he was, the captain replied, "CLEVER!, CLEVER! SO IS THE DEVIL SO LONG AS YOU PLEASE HIM."

He was a full believer in premonitions and warnings from unseen agents, and believed he was always warned of danger by a raving white horse in his dreams.

Around 1814 he was on his way to Detroit with several merchants as passengers.  It was a delightful Indian summer day.  On the way to the Islands the old white horse paid him a furious visit in his sleep, and about noon he tied up in Put- Away- Bay.  The passengers were indignant; fine day, fair wind, and nothing to hinder but the old man's obstinacy or laziness.  But he was immovable, not a foot would he stir out of the harbor that day.  Just after nightfall came a furious snow storm and gales which so frequently destroyed ships and numerous lives on Lake Erie. In the morning the deck was covered with a foot of snow, and the wind was blowing a hurricane outside the harbor.  His passengers were now very thankful for the escape, and the next day with a fair sky they landed safely in Detroit.

Once as he was returning to America, the ship making good way with a favorable wind, he retired after dinner and fell asleep.  The old white horse came, with mouth wide open and in great fury.  The captain bounded from his bunk, hastened to the deck, and sang out "about ship in an instant!" The order was instantly obeyed and when the ship rounded the fog, the breakers were less than eighty rods ahead, and the iron bound coast of Labrador in plain sight just beyond. Ten minutes more and "we would have never been heard of again" said the captain.

Under the protection of his white horse, Capt. Austin never met with a serious disaster, and had escaped very many.

28 years after Capt. Austin built the legendary “Friendship” schooner, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the two piers at the mouth of the river which provided the bar depth builders needed to take crafts to sea. Thus began the "Golden Age" of ship building on the river, in tune with the great demand for shipping on the lakes. In a period of 36 years 48 large lake schooners were built.  This provided jobs and growth for the community.  The harbor was a beehive of activity and the sound of the maul on caulking iron was a musical note that rang throughout the valley.  The schooner was the "work horse" and a very important transportation means in the opening of the vast Great Lakes Country.  They reigned supreme until a new form of transportation arrived along shore, the steam railroad.

Capt. William Austin couldn't have known in 1812 that his ship would become a cherished symbol of a town that had not yet even been incorporated.  The “Friendship” schooner flies on Vermilion’s official flag and welcomes visitors on our city signage.

John Mercer Langston

John Mercer Langston was one of the most extraordinary men of the 19th century. Slim and debonair, and of mixed-raced parentage, Langston was highly educated, an expert in constitutional law, a community organizer and a gifted orator who sought to unify a divided country after the Civil War. He was the first African-American elected to a local office, winning the office of Clerk of Brownhelm Township on April 2, 1855.

Langston was the son of Ralph Quarles, a white plantation owner, and Jane Langston, a black slave. After his parents died when Langston was five, he and his brothers moved to Oberlin, Ohio, to live with family friends. Langston enrolled in Oberlin College at age 14 and earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the institution. Denied admission into law school, Langston studied law under attorney Philemon Bliss of Elyria. Langston became the first black lawyer in Ohio, passing the Bar in 1854.  He became actively involved in the antislavery movement, organizing antislavery societies locally and at the state level. He helped runaway slaves to escape to the North along the Ohio part of the Underground Railroad.

Langston married Caroline Wall, a senior in the literary department at Oberlin, settled in Brownhelm, OH and established a law practice. He quickly involved himself in town matters.  In 1855 Langston became the country's first black elected official when he was elected town clerk of the Brownhelm Township.

Langston moved to Oberlin in 1856 where he again involved himself in town government. From 1865 - 1867 he served as a city councilman and from 1867-1868 he served on the Board of Education. His law practice established and respected, Langston handled legal matters for the town. Langston vigilantly supported Republican candidates for local and national office. He is credited with helping to steer the Ohio Republican party towards radicalism and a strong antislavery position. He conspired with John Brown to raid Harpers Ferry.

Langston organized black volunteers for the Union cause. As chief recruiter in the West, he assembled the Massachusetts 54th, the nation's first black regiment, and the Massachusetts 55th and the 5th Ohio.  He was a founding member and president of the National Equal Rights League, which fought for black voting rights. During the Civil War Langston recruited African Americans to fight for the Union Army. After the war, he was appointed inspector general for the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal organization that helped freed slaves.  He was the first African American to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Selected by the Black National Convention to lead the National Equal Rights League in 1864, Langston carried out extensive suffrage campaigns in Ohio, Kansas and Missouri. Langston's vision was realized in 1867, with Congressional approval of suffrage for black males.

Langston moved to Washington, DC in 1868 to establish and serve as dean of Howard University's law school — the first black law school in the country. He was appointed acting president of the school in 1872. In 1877 Langston left to become U.S. minister to Haiti. He returned to Virginia in 1885 and was named president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). In 1888 he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as an Independent. He lost to his Democratic opponent but contested the results of the election. After an 18-month fight, he won the election and served for six months.  Langston was the first black Congress member from Virginia and a diplomat. He lost his bid for reelection. 

The town of Langston, Oklahoma, and Langston University, is named after him.  The John Mercer Langston Bar Association in Columbus, Ohio, is named in his honor along with Langston Middle School in Oberlin, Ohio, the former John Mercer Langston High School in Danville, Virginia, and John M. Langston High School Continuation Program in Arlington, Virginia. His house in Oberlin is a National Historic Landmark.  Langston was the great-uncle of poet Langston Hughes.

It took 153 years to get from John Mercer Langston to Barack Hussein Obama, a journey that endured the dashed hopes of Reconstruction and the oppression of Jim Crow to arrive at a moment that has stunned even those optimistic about America's racial progress. 

The John Mercer Langston Ohio Historical Marker is located at Brownhelm High School, 1940 North Ridge Road, Vermilion, Ohio.  The marker reads:
 "John Mercer Langston" The first African-American elected to government office in the United States, John Mercer Langston (1829-1897) won the office of Clerk of Brownhelm Township on April 2, 1855. Born in Virginia and raised in Chillicothe, Langston graduated from Oberlin College in 1849 and was admitted to the Ohio Bar in 1854, becoming Ohio's first black attorney. He served as the first president of the National Equal Rights League in 1864, and subsequently as professor of law, dean, and acting president of Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1890, he became Virginia's first black congressman. Throughout his career Langston set a personal example of self-reliance in the struggle for justice for African-Americans. 

Phoebe Judson: Pioneer

Phoebe Goodell Judson grew up in Vermillion, Ohio.  Her pioneer story begins when she married her husband Holden Allen Judson. After three years of matrimony they both decided "to obtain from the government of The United States a grant of land that "Uncle Sam" had promised to give to the head of each family who settled in this new country."  With this the Judson's set out to pursue the vast uncultivated wilderness of the Puget Sound, which at that time was a part of Oregon. They departed March 1,1853. As Pheobe Judson recollects, "The time set for departure was March 1st, 1853. Many dear friends gathered to see us off. The tender "good-byes' were said with brave cheers in the voices, but many tears from the hearts."

Born Phoebe Newton Goodell on October 25, 1831, Phoebe was born in Ancaster, Canada, the second eldest of eleven children with her twin sister Mary Weeks Goodell, and named after her father's sister, Phebe Goodell.  Her parents were Jotham Weeks "J. W." Goodell, a Presbyterian minister descended from British colonists, and Anna Glenning "Annie" Bacheler.  In 1837 her family emigrated to Vermilion, Ohio, where she and her siblings where raised.

On June 20, 1849, at the age of 17, Phoebe married Holden Allen Judson (born mid-1827), with whom she had grown up. (Holden's only sibling, Lucretia "Trecia" Judson, had been a close friend of Phoebe's in Vermilion.) The Judsons lived in Holden's parents' home in Vermilion. Their first child, Anna "Annie" Judson, was born the following year.

Following the Donation Land Claim Act, the Goodells traveled to the Oregon Territory in 1851, leaving Phoebe and her elder brother William behind. Phoebe's twin sister Mary and her fiancé Nathan W. Meloy settled in Willamette, Oregon and J. W. Goodell named and established the town of Grand Mound, Washington with his wife and younger children, where he took up a job as postmaster and part-time minister alongside George Whitworth.

Inspired by her family, and Holden's desire for independence from his parents, Phoebe set off for the month-old Washington Territory with Holden and Annie on March 1, 1853, a few days following her brother William's wedding to Maria Austin, both of whom would take the same Westward route the following year and witness the Ward Massacre.  They left Ohio and, traveling on the Overland Trail once they passed Kansas City, made their way west with a small party of others.  The journey in and of itself was an adventure given the primitive conditions and threat of an Indian attack. But late in June the party did pause for a day at La Bonta Creek in southeastern Wyoming when Phoebe gave birth to a son, Charles LaBonta Judson.  

Phoebe Judson was the first non-Indian woman to settle in the Lynden area and became known as the "Mother of Lynden" during the half century that she lived there.

Pioneering in Washington Territory

The Judsons arrived at their new home in Grand Mound (Thurston County) in October 1853.  About 1856 they moved to near Claquato (Lewis County) and late in 1858 moved to Olympia when Holden was elected to the territorial legislature on the Democratic ticket.  They would remain in Olympia for nearly eight years. Holden served at least two terms in the legislature, and subsequently operated a store in Olympia.  

In 1866 the Judsons moved to Whidbey Island, where Holden may have operated another store.  By the end of the 1860s, their biological family was complete. They had four children: Annie (1850-1937), Charles (1853-1933), George (1859-1891), and Mary "Mollie" (1862-1894). (A fifth child, Carrie, died of whooping cough one month and one day after birth in 1869.) But note the distinction "biological family," because the Judsons would subsequently adopt an additional 11 children.  

On March 1, 1870, the Judsons left Whidbey Island, bound for Lynden. They traveled by the steamer Mary Woodruff to Whatcom (now part of Bellingham), then obtained three canoes, with two Indians apiece, to paddle, pole, and portage them up the Nooksack River to Lynden.   

The Judsons moved into a rough log cabin that they had acquired in an unusual trade with Colonel James Alexander Patterson, the first white settler in Lynden. Patterson had built the cabin in 1860, and he and his Native American wife had lived there for most of the decade. But at some point in the late 1860s his wife left him, and he began to search for a foster home for his two young daughters.  By this time he was a frequent visitor to the Judson’s home on Whidbey Island. Patterson made an offer to the Judsons that he would swap his home and land in what was then known among the settlers as "Nooksack" or "Nootsack" if the Judsons would care for his two daughters, Dollie (age 7 in March 1870) and Nellie (age 4 in March 1870) until they came of age. The Judsons agreed, and Patterson executed a quitclaim deed to his land in favor of Phoebe Judson in March 1870.  

The Judsons settled into what Phoebe Judson would famously refer to as her "ideal home." It was located just south of 6th and Front streets, near the southwestern edge of today’s Judson Street Alley, and had a view of the Nooksack River, which at the time ran farther north than it does today. Holden became postmaster of Lynden in 1873, and Phoebe was asked to select the name of the new town. She chose a name that she had heard from a poem, Hohenlinden, written by Thomas Campbell, which begins "On Linden, when the sun was low ..." But she changed the "i" in Linden to "y" because she felt it looked prettier.

Aunt Phoebe, the Mother of Lynden

Since Phoebe Judson was the first white woman in Lynden, she became known as the "Mother of Lynden," and her presence in the community was established. Almost from the beginning she was called "Aunt Phoebe," someone you went to when you needed something, be it a pail of buttermilk or help during childbirth. She also became known for writing letters to the Bellingham Bay Mail during the 1870s, describing the joys of life as a "Pioneer’s Wife," as she usually signed her letters.  

But she was more that that.  She took a considerably more active role in the community than did many women of the day.  During the 1870s log jams plagued the Nooksack River, preventing steamers from making their way upriver to Lynden.  One of the biggest jams was downriver from Lynden, near what is today Ferndale.  In March 1876 Phoebe began to solicit funds for the removal of the jam. Aided by a $50 donation from Holden, $1,500 was raised by the end of April from settlers in Sehome and Whatcom (both now part of Bellingham) as well as from settlers along the river.  Phoebe also suggested that the man who donated the most work on the jam be given votes for a county office. History doesn’t record whether or not this happened, but work on the jam began, and it was gone by early 1877.  

Phoebe’s son George Judson platted Lynden in 1884, and as the town site developed, the Judsons donated parts of their land for churches, schools, a printing office, a blacksmith shop, and for various private purposes. They also built the Judson Opera House in the late 1880s, and when it was completed in 1889 it became the community nexus for lectures, entertainment, and celebrations.  

Phoebe has been described as a gregarious crusader for many causes.  Known as religious, she took an active role in her opposition to saloons in early-day Lynden. But she is also known for taking an active role in the early development of its churches and schools. She arguably became more well-known than her husband, Holden, perhaps because she outlived him by 26 years and had the opportunity to accomplish more, and perhaps also because of her book of her life, A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home, which was first published in 1925, the year before her death. 

During the 1880s the Judsons moved to a new two-story frame home on the north side of Front Street, midway between 5th and 6th streets.  Holden died there on October 26, 1899, and Phoebe peacefully passed away there on January 16, 1926, having remained physically active and mentally alert until the time of her death.  Services were held two days later, and the entire city of Lynden shut down to mark the occasion:  Stores were closed, schools were dismissed, and hundreds of people from miles around made the pilgrimage to pay final tribute to the "Mother of Lynden."

The Simon Kenton Boulder

One of the first explorers of the Vermilion area was Simon Kenton (April 3, 1755 - April 29, 1836,) a famous United States frontiersman and friend of the renowned Daniel Boone, the infamous Simon Girty, and the valiant Spencer Records. 

Simon Kenton was born in the Bull Run Mountains, Prince William County, Virginia to Mark Kenton Sr. (an immigrant from Ireland) and Mary Miller Kenton. In 1771, at the age of 16, thinking he had killed a man in a jealous rage, he fled into the wilderness of Kentucky and Ohio, and for years went by the name "Simon Butler."

Kenton served as a scout against the Shawnee in 1774 in the conflict between Native Americans and European settlers later labeled Dunmore's War. In 1777, he saved the life of his friend and fellow frontiersman, Daniel Boone, at Boonesborough, Kentucky. The following year, Kenton was in turn rescued from torture and death by Simon Girty.

Kenton served on the famous 1778 George Rogers Clark expedition to capture Fort Sackville and also fought with "Mad" Anthony Wayne in the Northwest Indian War in 1793-94.

In 1782, he returned to Virginia and found out the victim had lived and readopted his original name.

In 1784 Kenton chiseled his name, S. Kenton 1784, on a boulder about 2 miles south of the Vermilion River mouth on the southern border of the old Rossman farm in a spot about 600' east of the State Road.

Presumably, Kenton marked the boulder to substantiate his claim to a 4 square mile area surrounding the river mouth, a likely settlement someday. Kenton claimed similar areas throughout the State but lost his claims due to his lack of education. He was too early and too ignorant of drawing up legal claims of his discoveries.

We do have the satisfaction of knowing that he was the first to find and realize that the Vermilion River would some day be the nucleus of a growing community. How right he was!

In 1937 the Vermilion Centennial "Stone Committee" discovered the stone. The stone now stands as a memorial to Kenton at the Ritter Library.

Kenton moved to Urbana, Ohio in 1810, and achieved the rank of brigadier general of the Ohio militia. He served in the War of 1812 as both a scout and as leader of a militia group in the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

Simon Kenton had 6 children in his second marriage. Kenton died in New Jerusalem, Ohio (in Logan County) and was first buried there. His body was later moved to Urbana, Ohio.

He died a poor man and might have been governor if he had had the proper background. As it was, though, he was an outstanding explorer in the Ohio wilderness and his efforts added considerably to the opening of the country to the settlers.

The Haunting History of Gore Orphanage & Swift's Hollow

It's a nightmarish scene in the countryside of Vermilion on Gore Road over one hundred years ago.  A gigantic fire engulfs an old orphanage burning dozens of young children alive.  Desperate to escape the inferno, the children on the second floor found the stairs blocked by flames.  Dreadful screams of the children trapped inside the blazing building pierce the ears of horrified onlookers unable to stop the carnage.  The deadly destruction continues until the screams finally fall silent and the only sound that lingers is the crackling and roar of the hellish flames. The smoke ascends into the night sky, carrying with it the souls of over 100 poor orphan children. The building is soon reduced to a pile of  glowing embers with only a remnant of the foundation and stone pillars forever preserved for future generations to happen upon.

Were the spirits of the helpless children extinguished with the flames, or do they still cry out in the middle of the night  from beyond the grave?  Do the lost souls wander the area, forever tortured by a reality too difficult to accept?  Was the  fire sparked by an orphan boy dropping a lamp? Or perhaps it was intentionally set by Old Man Gore, the abusive man who ran the institution, for insurance or just plain sadistic torture?

So is the legend of Gore Orphanage.

The Real Story of Gore Orphanage & Swift's Hollow

For over a century visitors to Gore Orphanage Road have reported strange experiences of glowing lights, apparitions and  chilling cries of unseen children.  The area is said to be one of the most haunted locations in Ohio.

Despite the inaccuracies of the Gore Orphanage legend, the true tale of the institution and the Swift's Hollow mansion are more haunting than fiction.  Over the course of time, three tales of terror have been woven into one horrific legend of torture, fire and the paranormal.

Light of Hope, the actual name of the orphanage, was established in 1902 by a religious zealot named Reverend Johann Sprunger.  The orphanage was located on Gore Road.  The road was originally laid out along the boundary line dividing Lorain County from its western neighbor, Huron County. When a surveying error was discovered, a thin strip of land resembling the gore of  a dress had to be annexed to Lorain.  Due to the popular association of the institution with the road, the name of the street came to be known as Gore Orphanage Road - a fitting name for the location of a now infamous orphanage with a hellish history.

Johann Sprunger and his wife Katharina moved to the Vermilion area after their former orphanage in Berne, Indiana was destroyed by fire.  Katharina was the daughter of Christian P. Sprunger.  Though no explanation has ever been given regarding Katharina's surname being the same as her husband, a diary of a worker at the former Light of Hope Orphanage in Berne states that the orphanage was run by "Brother and Sister Sprunger."  Three orphan girls were reported to have perished in the original Light of Hope fire.  Two of Sprunger's former Indiana businesses had also ended by fire.  Prior to moving to Ohio the couple also lost their seven year old daughter, Hillegonda, and a son, Edmund, died at birth. The deaths appeared to spark a passionate obsession for religious pursuits in the couple.

The new orphanage site, just outside of Vermilion, consisted of four sets of farm buildings and covered 543 acres.  An abandoned mansion was also located on the property.  The once magnificent Greek revival house was built in the mid-nineteenth century by Joseph Swift, a successful farmer. Its many rooms were appointed with elaborate furnishings, ornate woodwork, marble columns, and other lavish decorations.  But to the Swift mansion soon came bad luck.  In 1831, Swift's 5 year-old daughter Tryphenia died.  In 1841, Swift's 24 year-old son, Heman, also died.  Soon after Swift's fortunes dried up due to poor investments in the railroad business.  He sold the home to Nicholas Wilber, a renowned Spiritualist. Mysterious rituals and seances were said to be held regularly in the secluded mansion home conjuring up the spirits of deceased children.  The ghosts of children were said to appear frequently at the seances held in a special room of the home.  Wilber's children were rumored to be psychic and could communicate with the ghosts of dead children.  While records and gravestones claim that four Wilber grandchildren died from a diphtheria epidemic after the Wilbers moved from the home, residents insisted that they died at the Swift mansion and were buried there.  The home was abandoned in 1901, and teenagers almost immediately began taking trips to the site, daring each other to enter the infamous haunted home.

Reverend Sprunger did not utilize the abandoned home for the new orphanage. Instead, he attempted to build a new, self-sustaining religious community on the property. He and his co-workers were devout Bible-believing Christian people.  A chapel room was located in the boy’s schoolhouse for frequent religious ceremonies.  Up to one hundred and twenty children were inmates of  the orphanage at one time. Boys lived at a farm called the Hughes farm and girls at the Howard farm.  The orphanage also housed a small printing press used to print their own school books, as well as a paper entitled "Light of Hope."

But rumors of darkness and despair soon plagued the Light of Hope orphanage.  Orphan children ran away from the home, often wading through the Vermilion River to escape to Vermilion.  The children told horrific stories of abuse, neglect and slave labor.  The children were said to eat a diet of calves lungs, hog heads and sick cattle - if they were fed at all.  Corn was boiled in the same pot used to boil soiled underwear.  Although there were cows on the farm, children were said to often only be given butter once a week and occasionally pepper or sugar.

The children's rooms were infested with rats and vermin. On occasions, rats crawled onto the beds and bit children while they lay asleep.  There was said to be only one bath tub for the boys, which they were allowed to use once every two weeks and had to use the same water.

Children told stories of Sprunger and the farm overseers beating them with a strap until great raw welts appeared on their bodies. Sprunger would also rent out the inmates of the home to neighboring farmers.

Illnesses and disease were alleged to be treated only by prayers.  Witnesses stated the children received a lack of regular schooling.

In 1909 an investigation was conducted, but because the State of Ohio had no laws or regulations pertaining to the operation of such institutions, nothing formally could be done about conditions at the orphanage.  The Sprunger's admitted to much of the allegations against them.

Shortly before the investigation, in 1908, a disaster took place in the town of Collinwood, some forty miles east of Vermilion. 176 elementary school students were burned or  trampled to death when they became trapped in a stampede situation and couldn’t escape a fire that was consuming their school.  The children began descending down the stairs to the exit after the fire alarm was sounded, but the front stairwell was blocked by flames. According to witnesses, the children at the front broke from the lines and tried "to fight their way back to the floor above, while those who were coming down shoved them mercilessly back into the flames below." Those who made it to the rear exit found it locked. Outside rescuers unlocked it but found it opened inward, so it was impossible to move against the press of dozens of  desperate bodies.  The fire swept through the hall, springing from one child to another, catching their hair and the dresses of the girls. The cries of the children were dreadful and haunting.  The school's janitor, a German-American named Herter, was accused of setting the blaze (though he  lost four children in the fire and was badly burned trying to rescue one), and for a time he was detained in protective custody to keep residents from lynching him.

The horrific tale of  this event is thought to have been relocated when families of the Collinwood area (now East Cleveland) moved further west of Cleveland.  Some historians believe the horrid memories of such an event were too disturbing for Collinwood residents to bare and were thus "relocated" outside the area.  What better place for the terrifying memories to descend than the already legendary site of Swift’s Hollow and Gore Orphanage.   In fact, the tragedy brought about the end of the town of Collinwood.  As a result of the incident, unable to sufficiently guarantee fire safety resources for its residents, voters approved an annexation of Collinwood into Cleveland within two years of the fire.

Mr. Sprunger died two years after the investigation, and the doors of the orphanage permanently closed in July of 1916 after years of financial troubles. Pelham Hooker Blossom of Cleveland bought the Orphanage property, leased it to farmers for a period, then finally sold the land.  The Hughes House is all that remains of the Sprunger property. Part of the orphanage buildings burned and the rest were torn down.

The children of the Light of Hope orphanage were dispersed throughout the community or returned to their relatives or guardians and the nightmare was over for the children of the Gore Orphanage.  Many were too afraid to recount the conditions they endured at the institution. The few that had nowhere else to go were taken back to Berne, Indiana by Mrs. Sprunger.  It was exactly 13 years after it had first opened.

Swift’s Hollow is the location most often visited by those seeking a taste of the supernatural. A graffiti covered sandstone column marks the entrance of the area, which contains the foundations of this once magnificent mansion.  Today all that remains of the Swift Mansion are sandstone blocks from its foundation. Located deep in the woods, these remnants are now scrawled with graffiti left behind by late night visitors. They stand in the forest like guide stones for all those daring enough to seek an experience of the legend of the Gore Orphanage.

The Swift's Hallow mansion was never used as part of the orphanage. Instead it became a Mecca for late night vandals, and it is presumed that one of them was responsible for burning the house down in late 1923.  Early legend held that Mr. Wilbur helped the Sprunger's build the Light of Hope orphanage after loosing his own grandchildren.  Mrs. Wilbur was said to have gone insane over the tragedy. 

Stories were told that she'd set the table three times a day and passed food to the children as if they were sitting there.  At night she would light a lamp and say, "Time for bed, children come on," and then she'd put the kids to bed.  Some said the children were psychic and could bring children back after they died.

In the early 1900's teenagers began to visit the home. In time they began to take their first automobiles to Gore Road to attempt to get them up the steep ravine without stalling and to negotiate the sharp curves without crashing. The true test of  bravery though was to enter the Swift Mansion at night and prove you weren't afraid of the haunted house.

The location of the orphanage is on Gore Orphanage Road approximately 1/4 mile north of Rosedale just across the small Vermilion River Bridge. It is just past the spot where Gore Orphanage and Sperry Roads meet in the hollow. The remnants of the orphanage cannot be seen from the road, but substantial remains abut Sperry Road hill.

Though there is no proof that any deaths actually occurred at the "Gore Orphanage" or Swift's Hollow, the chilling memories of torture, abuse and occult activity are haunting in their own rite.  Perhaps the lost souls of the children of Collinwood did descend upon the infamous area where many of the living are known to go in search of the spirits of forgotten children.  Perhaps they seek the ghosts of the Wilber children to be brought back to the land of the living.

Paranormal investigators say the ghosts of Gore Orphanage Road may actually be esoteric "imprints" - a kind of snapshot in time. Frequently, violent or traumatic events seem to release an energy that imprints the action on a place or object. In this kind of haunting, incidents repeats themselves like a videotape rewound and played over and over again. These hauntings can be seen, heard, felt or even smelled. Tragic imprints can even "relocate" themselves to other areas of high paranormal energy.

Reverend Sprunger's body was buried in a cemetery in Indiana, but some say his soul still wanders the grounds of the Light of Hope religious compound he founded on Gore Orphanage.  Katharina Sprunger moved back to Indiana in 1916 and never returned to the area, at least not prior to her death in 1953.

Ghostly apparitions, balls of lights, haunting screams of children and visions of fire have been reported by many a visitor to Gore Orphanage Road.  Many claim to have found the dusty fingerprints of children when returning to their cars.  Whatever the true story of Gore Orphanage, there's little doubt that it has well earned its reputation as the most haunted area in Ohio.

Vermilion History

Native Americans

History tells us that the Erie Indians lived along the south shore of Lake Erie until their murderous extinction by the warlike Iroquois from upper New York State in 1655. Then around 1700 the Ottawas, Hurons (Wyandottes) and Chippewas gradually returned to the area for furs to sell to the French traders until they too were pushed out of their hunting and trapping grounds by the pioneering white man. Few Indians remained by 1800. One historian said, "Lake Shore Ohio was an Indian borderland. Indian habitation was a nervous, restless one punctuated by wars, international rivalries and disasters." 

Prior to the first white settler in the Vermilion country we know little about the natives living along the river; we do know that they encamped along the river because it was there, and provided a friendly place to live, food from the stream and game from the woods and swamp. But the river was the main enticement that caused the Indians to settle along the highlands near the river. Fish easily caught from the stream provided a necessity of life. The river was the key to livability in the rugged and wild life of the native.

Linwood Park was a main village of the original Vermilionites in those far away years. Many relics were collected by a long time resident, Walter Ziegler, during his years there. Further up the river on the east bank beyond the railroads, Indian bones were unearthed in the construction of Vermilion Road. Other artifacts such as arrowheads, knives and tomahawks have been found throughout the township and village. The remains are now in collections and are faint flickers of Indian life most of us have forgotten in this modern world. In retrospect, these durable mementos leave us with a sense of primitive perseverance and respect for the Indian.

Early Explorers

The French Period, 1669-1762

French names abound from Vermilion westward: La Chapelle Creek, Huron River, Portage River, La Carne, La Carpe Creek, La Toussaint River, etc. Vermilion itself is of French derivation - vermilion, meaning red of course. Yet very little is known about French exploration along the south shore of Lake Erie.

Sanson's map of 1656 names and outlines the lake with reasonable accuracy, no doubt from Indian descriptions. It wasn't actually "discovered" until 1669 when Adrien Jolliet traversed the north shore west to east. That year two missionaries met Jolliet who told them of his passage on the lake. They recorded their visit to Lake Erie at Grand River near Long Point, where they spent the winter. 

On March 23, 1670, they erected a cross and took possession of our area in the name of the King of France. Francois Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhant de Galinée claimed possession of the area for France, on the basis that it was non-occupied. Their claim consisted of a certificate that they attached at the foot of the cross, along with the coat of arms of the King of France. A transcript of what they wrote on the certificate was sent to the King.  Later, at the time of discussions between France and England in 1687, the French government sent the above transcript and Galinée's map to London as incontestable proof of France's rights to Lake Erie, Ontario, and the surrounding territory.

On the 26th of March, the explorers launched their canoes and paddled toward the west, hugging the north shore and camping each night on the beach. After 250 kilometers of paddling they reached the mouth of the Detroit River. Galinée honestly reported "Je ne marque que ce que j'ai vu. I note only what I've seen." He saw Point Pelee and the northernmost of the islands in western Lake Erie."

Dollier de Casson and Galinée, and many who followed later, purposely avoided the south shore because it was controlled by the Iroquois who had killed or driven out the Erie Indians in 1655 and who were mortal enemies of the French.  Even as late as 1755, Bellin, engineer of the King for the French navy and drafter of an excellent map of the Great Lakes, inscribed the south shore of Lake Erie with the phrase "Toute cette coste n'est presque pas connue. All this shore is almost unknown."

With the fall of Quebec in 1759 and the ceding of New France to England in 1763, Lake Erie and Vermilion came under the rule of the King of England. Thus ended the French period with little or no written history of our area.  Except for the ever remindful place names, probably given by coureurs du bois and voyageurs, not noted for their education or for recording their travels with maps or by the written word, we would never know that we are a former French jurisdiction which lasted over 90 years.

Pioneer's Life in the Wilderness

"We do not at all appreciate, we can hardly conceive, the inconvenience, the want, the suffering, the 'hard times' of the early settlers. Sickness added greatly to their hardships. Ague, 'chill fever,' and other malarial diseases incident to the opening of a new country, were prevalent. Sometimes whole families were prostrated, and often scarcely anyone remained in health to take care of the sick. Wild animals were annoying. Wolves, bears and foxes endangered their sheep, pigs and poultry, and deer, raccoon and wild turkeys damaged their crops. No roads, no mills, no markets and very scanty supplies at high prices of those articles of necessity, which had to be obtained from the East. Skins, furs and articles of food, from the necessity of the case, were used as legal tender. In fact, such was an early territorial law of Ohio. In 1792 a law was adopted regulating fees of civil officers, in which was the provision, 'That whereas the dollar varies in value in the several counties of the territory, some provision in kind ought to be made; therefore, be it enacted that for every cent allowed by this act, a quart of Indian corn may be demanded and taken by the person to whom the fee is coming as an equivalent for a cent, and at the same rate for a greater or less sum.' Taxes were not high, but it was difficult to pay them. Farm products brought but little return to labor. No markets. No markets."

The First White Men

We do not have any direct evidence of early explorers or trappers passing or living along the riverside. But we know that they passed this way along the south shore of Lake Erie as a small boat cruising along the shore was the way adventurers traveled, it was the only practical way.

One of the first explorers we know of and have solid evidence indicating that he was in Vermilion was Simon Kenton. He chiseled his name, S. Kenton 1784, on a boulder about 2 miles south of the river mouth on the southern border of the old Rossman farm in a spot about 600' east of the State Road. In 1937 the Centennial "Stone Committee" found it and took pictures. The stone now stands as a memorial to Kenton at the Ritter Library. Presumably, Kenton marked the boulder to substantiate his claim to a 4 square mile area surrounding the river mouth, a likely settlement someday. Kenton claimed similar areas throughout the State but lost his claims due to his lack of education. He was too early and too ignorant of drawing up legal claims of his discoveries. He died a poor man and might have been governor if he had had the proper background. As it was, though, he was an outstanding Indian fighter and explorer in the Ohio wilderness and his efforts added considerably to the opening of the country to the settlers. We do have the satisfaction of knowing that he was the first to find and realize that the Vermilion River would some day be the nucleus of a growing community. How right he was!

Settlers & Incorporation

"Settling In"

Between 1808 and 1811 the first settlers struggled into the Township to claim land already surveyed by Almon Ruggles.  The area was part of a tract offered by the State of Connecticut to the Fire Sufferers whose property had been plundered by the British during the Revolutionary War. A section of Connecticut's Western Reserve, it was appropriately called the Firelands. And using the name the Indians had given the river; the Firelands Company named Township No. 6, Range 20, Vermilion.  However, so many years had passed and so much red tape was involved that most new arrivals were not the original Fire Sufferers, but those who had bought out claims of others.  The first to arrive from the East was William Hoddy (or Haddy), who came alone from Connecticut, built his cabin by the mouth of the river and then returned East for his family. So far as is known he did not come back into the area.

The following year the William Austins and Horatio Perry families arrived from New York; the George and John Sherods from Connecticut and Pennsylvania; and the Enoch Smiths from Connecticut. The Austins settled on the west bank of the river, the Sherods on land now known as Sherod Park. Sometime later in the year the Justin Thompson family came into the Township from Connecticut and settled on the Ridge.

Almon Ruggles came in with his family in 1810, as did Solomon Parsons, Benjamin Brooks, Barlow Sturges, Deacon John Beardsley and James Cuddeback. Peter Cuddeback and others came in 1811. According to the Firelands Pioneer, most came with teams.

As with the history of most settlements, the "firsts" have been carefully recorded:

The first house (cabin) was erected by the mouth of the river by William Hoddy in 1808; the first birth, John Sherod in 1809; the first marriage, Catherine Sherod to Burt Martin in 1814; the first frame house was Peter Cuddeback's (near the corner of Lake and Risden Roads) in 1818; the first stone house was William Austin's in 1821 and the first brick house was Horatio Perry's. The first commissioned Postmaster was Judge Almon Ruggles and the first doctor was Doctor Strong, although the first resident doctor was Dr. James Quigley in 1837. The first attorney, O. A. Leonard, announced his residency the same year.

Barlow Sturges began the first trading post and hotel. And together with the Austin family he ran the first ferry service across the Vermilion River. The first school was taught by Miss Susan Williams in a cabin on the lakeshore, in 1813. At about the same time another school was in operation on the Ridge and taught by Miss Addie Harris.

In 1818 the first organized religious society, the Presbyterian Church (later Congregational) was established. Ten years later the congregation built the first church, in an area just off Risden Road. This was the expected center of population.

In 1818 the Township government was organized with the following officers: Almon Ruggles, clerk; Peter Cuddeback and James Prentice, judges of election; Francis Keyes, John Beardsley and Rufus Judson, trustees; Jeramiah Van Ben Schoten and Horatio Perry, fence viewers; Peter Cuddeback lister and appraiser; Stephen Meeker, appraiser; Peter Cuddeback treasurer; George Sherod, Francis Keyes, William Van Ben Schoten and James Prentice, supervisors.

In the year 1820 the Vermilion township population was listed as 520.

Vermilion Village, 1837

With its clapboard buildings, giant maples and village square, Vermilion, at the time of incorporation, had the look of a typical New England hamlet. The little harbor community had just 43 land owners.  Several shops were now situated on Main, Columbus and Liberty Streets. Just a year before, a new warehouse had been erected near the shipping docks. To the left were the fish shanties, and to the right, a saw mill. Business was flourishing at Mr. Burton Goodsell's shipyards located on the riverbank between Lake and Ferry Streets, and in this particular year, the sounds of hammers and saws told of the construction of the steamboat Vermilion.  The village plat was completed in January and by a special act of the Ohio Legislature, Vermilion was incorporated and granted a charter.

The Pelton Wheel

Along with other "firsts", a mention should be made of Vermilion's first inventor, Lester Allen Pelton.  In 1849, he along with several young Vermilion men, made the long trek to California in search of gold. Although he never discovered his gold, Pelton later invented the Pelton Water Wheel which accounts say "meant more to the State of California that all the gold in the hills."  A handyman, carpenter and millwright, he built a small shed in the backyard of his landlady's house in the gold mining town of Camptonville, California, and spent his evenings tinkering with small experimental wheels. He hoped to harness water from the mountain streams for gold mining companies. He devised 40 models, including one that powered the landlady's sewing machine.  From this evolved his unique wheel that harnessed waterpower by a system of "water splitting." A model is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  By 1895, 850 companies were using his improved wheel. The Pacific Coast and Electric Company in 1980 was operating 53 Pelton Wheels. 

Mr. Pelton was born in the Risden Road home still occupied by his descendants, Mr. and Mrs. William Kishman. He was a student in the little Cuddebach School No. 2. He is buried in Maple Grove Cemetery, Vermilion. 

Brownhelm Township

According to the William's History of Lorain County the first settler of Township No. 6, Range 19 (Brownhelm) lying along Lake Erie and then a part of Huron County, was Col. Henry Brown from Stockbridge, Mass. who arrived about 1816. He was accompanied by Peter P. Pease, Charles Whittlesey, William Alverson, William Lincoln, Seth Morse and Rensselaer Cooley, who assisted Col. Brown in building his house, a log house near the lake shore. Morse and Cooley returned to the East for the winter, the others remained on the grounds. The Township is named in honor of the leader of the original colony.

In later years Mr. Whittlesey became distinguished as a general in the Civil War, as an archaeologist and historian. He was the founder of the Western Reserve Historical Society and its president for many years. Peter Pease became the first settler of Oberlin. On July 4th, 1817 the families of Levi Shepard, Sylvester Barnum and Stephen James arrived and were the first families to settle in the town. During the same year the families of Solomon Whittlesey, Alva Curtis, Benjamin Bacon and Ebenezer Scott arrived. In 1818 the families of Col. Brown, Grandison Fairchild, Anson Cooper, Elisha Peck, George Bacon, Alfred Avery, Enos Cooley, Orrin Sage, John Graham and others arrived. The first frame house was built by Benjamin Bacon; the first brick house by Grandison Fairchild in the summer of 1819. Until October 1818 the town was part of Black River; it was then organized as a separate township. Officers were Calvin Leonard, Levi Shepard and Alva Curtis, trustees; Anson Cooper, clerk; William Alverson, treasurer; Benjamin Bacon and Levi Shepard, justices of the peace. Lorain County was formed on December 26, 1822 with Brownhelm as a part. In 1827 Henry Warner started the Brownhelm quarry. Blocks were hauled on wagons to Vermilion where they were shipped via schooner.

In 1819 Mrs. Alverson opened a school in her house; in the fall of 1819 an 18 x 22 foot school was built on the brow of the hill (North Ridge Rd. and Claus Rd.) in the settlement and was named Strut Street School. In the early part of 1899 the brick school was built on N. Ridge Rd. The first class of nine -- 5 boys and 4 girls graduated in 1889.  Brownhelm could also boast of a U.S. Post Office from November 6, 1878 to March 31, 1912 and a train station located at Brownhelm Station Rd, and Sunnyside Rd.

In the late 1950s the residents of Brownhelm voted to change zoning to permit the Ford Plant to build and, after losing the plant to Lorain in a heated court case, petitioned the Village of Vermilion for annexation. On December 21, 1959 the Village of Vermilion passed legislation to accept the petition and approximately 4,300 acres of Brownhelm Township, including Elberta Beach, became a part of Vermilion Village.

Vermilion River & Industries

The Development of the River

Captain William Austin was a man of energy and built the first schooner along the river in 1812. She was the FRIENDSHIP, a schooner of the times, about a fifty footer registered at 57 tons in Cleveland in 1817. Solomon Parsons built the second schooner, the VERMILION, in 1814 and registered in Detroit at 36 tons about 40 feet. Where these ships were built is not exactly known but the builders chose a flat place along the riverside. This most certainly had to be near the foot of Huron Street where the later shipyard stood when ship building became the main industry in the village. Small schooners were ideal for scudding along the lake shore bringing in supplies from Buffalo and other ports. They were as large as the natural river bars would allow and enough cargo capacity to supply the needs of the early settlements. The schooner was the "work horse" and a very important transportation means in the opening of the vast Great Lakes Country. They reigned supreme until a new form of transportation arrived along shore - the steam railroad.

In 1840 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finished building the two piers at the mouth of the river which provided the bar depth builders needed to take crafts to sea. Thus began the "Golden Age" of ship building on the river, in tune with the great demand for shipping on the lakes. In a period of 36 years 48 large lake schooners were built. This provided jobs and growth for the community. The harbor was a beehive of activity and the sound of the maul on caulking iron was a musical note that rang throughout the valley.

One very interesting ship built in the Golden Age was the screw steamer INDIANA built by Burton S. Goodsell in 1848, the only screw steamer built in Vermilion. In June 1858 off Marquette, Michigan on Lake Superior she went down with a cargo of iron ore. Her loss was a mystery and was not explained until the Smithsonian Institute raised her in 1979; she had lost a blade from the four blade propeller and the subsequent vibration opened her wooden seams causing water to rush in and extinguish the boiler thus allowing her to sink. The Institute now has a fine exhibit in Washington, D.C. of the engine, boiler, propeller and other artifacts recovered in the salvage. The engine represents the finest original marine steam power plant in the country. This explains why the Smithsonian was anxious to recover the engine. The "Vermilion Display" is a permanent monument to ship building in Vermilion. No other city can boast such an honor on the lakes.

The Fishing Industry

With the abundance of fine fish in the lake plus the need for food, the early settlers took to the lake and shore with small boats and seines to reap the easy harvest. Soon they were sailing in deep water using gill-nets, trap-nets along shore to satisfy the market demand for fresh and salted fish. With the arrival of the trains the markets quickly expanded to the big cities. To meet this demand the steam tug emerged as the champion catcher of tons of delectable white fish, herring, pickerel and perch. Then came the powered net puller in 1900 making the steam tug the most efficient and profitable fishing method. The golden years were from 1890 to 1945 when the fish harvest on Lake Erie peaked making a lucrative livelihood for thousands of fisherman. Vermilion was home to the following commercial fish companies and their tugs:
  •     Kishman Fish Company
  •     Leiderheiser Fish Company
  •     Edson Fish Company
  •     Parsons Fish Company
  •     Driscoll Fish Company
  •     Southwest Fish Company
Before the steam tugs, sailing boats were used for gill-nets and pound nets. This period consisted of the very first commercial fishing around the port in the years between 1820 and 1880 when steam tugs began to appear in number. 

The Stone Industry

In the 1860s and 1870s considerable sandstone was shipped out of the harbor in schooners or barges. Two quarries, Brownhelm and Berlin Heights, shipped stone by rail to town where it was switched to the docks running from Exchange to Toledo Streets. Steam derricks transferred the stone from cars to the ships. Prominent quarry operators of the period were: Orange A. Leonard & Company, Summers & Harteep, and Worthington & Sons. Much of the building stone was used in rebuilding Chicago after the big fire there in 1871.

The Lumber Business

Another lifeblood industry was lumbering. Prior to 1861 a large quantity of forest products, such as staves, ships' timber, firewood and furniture was shipped from the area. During the 1860s and 1870s a shortage of suitable timber developed in the immediate area surrounding the town. This made it necessary to import raw material. Throughout the period large quantities were shipped into the port in schooners from the upper lakes to be manufactured into sash, doors, blinds, molding, dressed flooring, siding and a variety of other related products. N. Fisher & Company was the largest dealer. They operated two scows (old schooners). Their steam mill was at the corner of Sandusky and Liberty Streets, the southwest corner. In 1876 Fisher & Company leased the lumber mill to J.C. Gilchrist & Company. They left Vermilion to establish a large steamship company. Some of their relatives stayed in the lumber business and are now operating in the Seattle country.

Furnaces on the River - Lime Burning

Sometime around 1840 a lime kiln was built along the riverfront just north of Huron Street. The exact location is several feet north of Dr. Stack's house on the lakeshore. This furnace was a typical burner with a square sandstone base supporting a large iron stack. Limestone shipped down from the islands was loaded at the top with a skip-hoist that ran from the dock to the stack top. Horse power was used to hoist the stone cart. The burning flooded the town in a northeast wind with burning wood tinged with a lime aroma but the natives accepted the haze as a fact of life. The burnt lime was used to plaster many a house along the south shore of Lake Erie.

Furnaces on the River - Iron

About 60 feet north of Huron Street along the riverfront were two stone foundations, round in shape 10' in diameter and 2' high. Around the foundations the ground was tinged red, the sign of iron ore. These two furnaces were the first stacks of the Geauga Iron Company of Painesville built in 1828-30. They had a dock and warehouse nearby on the river. Later they moved back on the ridge as the Huron Iron Company west of the State Road. This business operated for many years until coke made charcoal furnaces obsolete. The Huron Iron Company ceased operations in 1865. 

The Present River

In 1916 there were two yachts docked permanently in the river owned by Vermilionites; one was the IONA, a 35' glass cabin cruiser and the other was TOBERMORY, a 45' bridge-deck cruiser. Later, Harry Hewitt owned the NOMAD, a 36' powerboat he docked by the bridge. These three were the only pleasure boats in the steam in those days. Prior to those years the Rocky River sailboats would race to Vermilion on Labor Day for the annual "Big Time" in the little fishing port. Many a yarn was coined about the big mosquitoes that buzzed along the river. 

In 1916 the Vermilion Boat Club held their first South Shore Regatta, which attracted sailors from Toledo, Sandusky, Rocky River and Cleveland. Headquarters consisted of a tent in front of the waterworks. Free ice-cold lemonade was served to all yachtsmen. Many a river kid with the spirit of the day immediately became yachtsmen. It was a day to remember for the thousands of spectators that lined the docks and piers.

Currently the river supports some 8,500 yachts, small boats, many of them sail, which indicates some 350,000 passages. Sail for fun has replaced sail for work.


Aside from ship building, lumber, commercial fishing and the stone trade providing jobs along the riverfront, there have been several substantial enterprises formed in the town over the years. These have been basic living and growth industries essential for all communities:
  •     Duplex Hot Water Heating Company
  •     The F.W. Wakefield Brass Company
  •     Dall Motor Parts Company
  •     South Shore Packing Corp.
  •     The Ford Motor Company
  •     The Howard Stove Company
  •     The Peasley Woodworking Factory
  •     Lithonia Downlighting
  •     Bettcher Industries
  •     Schwensen Bakery
  •     The Maurer Dairy
  •     The Vermilion News

Rails through Town

With the first trains running through Vermilion starting in 1853, we have been hearing whistles ever since. In fact, our town has been a railroad town for a long time now, over 140 years of rumbling, roaring, shaking, screaming tornados rushing through the quiet village. Ships have come and gone but they were never the acoustic monsters like the trains which roll along like wild demons in a race; freight of all kinds flies through the city, and as far as we can foresee, it will continue for 140 more years. Such is life in a railroad town. 

The Lake Shore Electric Railway

The first trolleys ran from Sandusky to Vermilion in 1899, an offshoot of the Sandusky Street Railway, the Sandusky & Interurban Electric Railway. City-style cars prowled the rails when it opened from Sandusky to Vermilion via Huron on July 26, 1899, a 24-mile sprint. Work gangs toiled eastward to meet the Lorain & Cleveland in Lorain, another 10-mile hop. The S & I was built with an expansive eye to the future -- double track provisions were engineered into all bridges as well as into the roadbed. It was a combination roadside and private right-of-way operation. In the autumn of 1901, the Everett-Moore Syndicate absorbed the S & I and others to create the Lake Shore Electric Railway.


Linwood Park (so named for its Linden trees)

The year 2002 marks the 118th birthday of Linwood Park, originally Evangelical United Brethren, now United Methodist-oriented; it is a semi-private family park, owned and operated by the Linwood Park company, maintained by the Park Superintendent with admittance gate fees collected by the Board of Directors during the season from early June until Labor Day.

Crystal Beach Park

Just east of downtown Vermilion on Rt. 6 on the north side of the road are an easily overlooked apartment complex, a gas station and a bank. On this acreage, as early as 1870 stood a picnic grove called Shadduck Lake Park. This pleasant grove became popular because the tree shaded area was accessible to horse-drawn buggies.

In 1906 George Blanchat purchased the park and named it Crystal Beach Park after his wife, Josephine's, description of the "crystal-like" sand on the beach. With rides and concessions added, Crystal Beach opened on Decoration Day, 1907. Along with the transition of ownership and name came other changes; even the square dancing gave way to the two-step. Some of the original buildings for the premier season were a pavilion for dancing and serving refreshments, a beer garden, a shooting gallery and a merry-go-round. Later bowling alleys, a toboggan slide into Lake Erie and a large restaurant were added. By the twenties, Crystal Beach featured such popular rides as the Bug, the Caterpillar, the circle swing called "Airplanes" and the Crystal Thriller roller coaster.

Rivaling the big thrill rides in popularity was the dance hall, the Crystal Garden. This hall played host to well-known bands as Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Les Brown, Sammy Kaye and Lawrence Welk, to name just a few. This one feature drew people from Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo. As the big bands flourished, so did Crystal Beach. Certainly ballroom dancing provided a central attraction to the many amusement parks of that era.

George Blanchat passed away in 1938 and James Ryan, active at the park since 1929, took over as manager for Mrs. J. Blanchat. Jimmy Ryan held that position until the park's close at the end of the 1962 season.


Many people do not know, or remember that the restaurant known as McGarvey's was originally built, owned and operated by Charles Helfrich. That was in 1929, shortly after the new bridge was built across the river. The old bridge crossed a little south of the present location.

Mr. Helfrich operated a small boat and canoe rental business on the east side of the river. The proposed new bridge nearly touched his building and also diverted traffic away from it. So he purchased the land just north of the new bridge and built a restaurant and boat rental business there.  Home cooked dinners, fish, chicken, sandwiches and homemade pies were the first attractions. Also served were the almost unheard of hot fish sandwiches, on Schwensen's bread. The business prospered and Helfrich's became a busy place.  The canoe and boat business were also thriving. Canoeing on the river was a popular pastime in those days, especially on Sunday afternoons.

In 1934 Mr. Helfrich died and two years later Mrs. Helfrich sold the enterprises to Charlie McGarvey's. After his death, Mrs. McGarvey sold her husband's business to Charles Solomon, son of Eddie Solomon.  The restaurant was one of the most well known eating places along the lake shore, popular with both "landlubbers" and boaters.  In the year 2000, the Vermilion Port Authority purchased the McGarvey's property and razed the building. The property became a transient marina and restaurant named Red Clay on the River, now Quaker Steak & Lube.

The Lagoons

Louis Wells, a Cleveland contractor, began the Vermilion Lagoons project as a means of keeping his men busy during the Great Depression of the 1930s. By 1931 the first house and the beach house had been built and the lagoons were dredged and most of the wooden piling secured.

The first house was located just to the south and west of the beach house on the Erie Lagoon and belonged to a Mr. Comstock, a real estate salesman and employee of Wells Realty Company.  A "building boom" took place in the mid 1930s and by 1940 all of the houses on Anchorage Way, at least one house on Willow Lane, and most of the houses on the portion of Portage Drive located on the north side of the Erie Lagoon had been constructed. The first year-round residents, the Lester Kishman family, moved into their new home in April of 1937.

The Lagoons was not mostly permanent residents until the 1950s. Another "building boom" began during this period and it was at this time that Park Drive, the last road to be developed, experienced growth.  To the townspeople of Vermilion, the people of the Lagoons were often known as "swamp dwellers" or "swamp rats." They were also thought to be slightly crazy for wanting to live so close to the water. At times, this has indeed meant being in the water rather than by the water.

Along with the residential development came the recreational in the form of the Vermilion Yacht Club. Mr. Wells deeded the land on the tip and south side of Anchorage Way to the Yacht Club with one stipulation - no alcoholic beverages could be served or sold on the premises of the club itself. The originators of the Vermilion Yacht Club were all former members of the Cleveland Yacht Club seeking a more secluded anchorage. 

Besides the obviously great boat dockage and the beach on the Lake, the uniqueness of the Lagoons is in the uniformity of the architecture of all buildings found there. The charm of Cape Cod homes, all white with dark roofs and shutters, amid trees (mostly all willows in the beginning) and fronting on lagoons is undeniable and gives to the Vermilion Lagoons its own inimitable flavor.
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