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LIFE IN THE WINTER ON KELLEYS ISLAND – PART 1, TRAVEL OVER THE ICE IN 1874

Today we have the luxury of an extended ferry season and travel by airplane all year round. The airport is our lifeline during the winter months, providing regular flights to Port Clinton, bringing us the mail and transporting our school students. However, back in the 1800s, we did not have these options. Mail, freight, and travelers had to travel over the ice to get from here to there.

C. C. Townley, manager of the Island House hotel for several years,  may have left the island but his heart was never far from the friends he made there. He became involved in the Mansfield Lyceum and read the following paper about life on the island. “Those only who have had the experience can form but little conception of what constitutes Island life in winter. To the novice it presents itself in two different characters; that of novelty and monotony; while to those native and to the manner born, the situation is accepted as one of the most natural things in life.

 During the long and dreary days of isolation, we stand on the icebound shores of our little island, getting a glimpse of the outside world in the dim distance. Gazing on the scene before us, we wonder is it possible that the same busy life is there as when we left it? And wonder more, does the world still move? After days and weeks of inactivity, we try to rouse ourselves from this dull, listless life, with but little success and at times warms our blood, it seems to course the more sluggishly through our veins; we almost cease to live. We only exist with scarce a single thought or hope, save an earnest longing for the appearance of the ever welcome steamer and with it a release from our fetters of ice. After living 17 weeks without seeing a stranger’s face, we feel that could we even meet a stranger dog, we would throw our arms around it in sheer gladness at the sight of something new.

The American Eagle cutting through the ice on Sandusky Bay as it leaves for Kelley’s Island.

 The exigencies of the war invented the iron-clad boat for safer and quicker transit. But before the days of iron-clads, the trips across were like ‘angel’s’ visits. The pioneers tell us that when President Harrison was inaugurated, the same mail that brought an account of it also brought the sad news of his death when it occurred, as you are aware, a month later.

 The mail carriers used small an iron-clad boat to carry the mail to and from the Island.

We are often asked, ‘Is it Cold?’ Well, the mercury in the thermometer does not sink as low in winter as it does even in Mansfield. But when the winds blow, they are terribly in earnest, attending strictly to business; now coming in fitful gusts for a few moments, fill your eyes with the dust and passing away. But with a continuous blow for a week at a time from one direction, without changing from a single point of the compass, when these gentle zephyrs move with force sufficient to lift one from his feet, with the thermometer at zero, our experience is [that] the most eligible place to be found is within hailing distance of a red hot stove.

This stove can be seen in our stone church – it is named the Frost Killer.

The water in the Lake does not always freeze. Some can cross on the ice, usually solid ice forms near each shore, leaving an open space in the channel. When this occurs our mail carrier has an iron-clad boat which rests on runners. He puts on his skates, gets behind the boat and pushes it before him over the ice till he gets to open water, then launches the boat and rows to the solid ice. By this means he gets across, but frequently having to change from ice to water a half a dozen times in the transit. The work is laborious and it takes a man with a cool head and steady nerve to accomplish it in safety.

Our mail carrier is a personage not to be despised. One whose movements are watched with greater interest than all else combined. On him depends the receipt of all news and almost our entire communication with the world. He is an introvert in a small way and makes all bow subservient to him. When he does not think it safe to cross, he hugs the stove and complacently smokes his pipe, nor heeds the complaints or urging of the impatient Islanders.

He will carry for you a very small package for a good-sized consideration. That is, he will bring you a can of oysters worth 25¢ and charge a half-dollar for carrying it across. He is always glad to have passengers along, charging a good round fare, with the understanding that they (the passengers) will not only walk on the ice, but help push the boat along as well. The boat is only for safety and to cross the gaps of water. Lady passengers without skates are his aversion for they can neither walk nor help push the boat

You could travel with the mail boat, but you were expected to help push it if needed.

Our former mail carrier, an old pioneer, was a character in his way, equally cool in every emergency and never at a loss to extricate himself from difficulty. On one occasion, while crossing with the mail on foot, his companion unfortunately stepped on thin ice, which broke through, plunging him into the lake. The old man came to this assistance in lending a helping hand, but the ice being slippery, he was afraid of being deluged also, when a happy thought struck him, telling his companions to ‘hang on a minute.’ As the weather was intensely cold, he gruffly got down on the ice and his clothes were frozen to the substance, when as he expressed it, he ‘got a foothold an’ and pulled his companion safely out.

The mail carrier is a thankless position, as he scarce ever attempts to cross without incurring great danger and is poorly paid by the Government for his labor.

The greatest difficulties encountered in crossing is caused by the vast fields of moving ice that are almost constantly in motion by the changing water currents. Crossing at that time is attended with great danger and seldom does anyone attempt to brave it.

The writer will never forget his terrible experience in crossing these fields last winter. In company with two or three he started from Sandusky one afternoon in February and had got within three miles of the Island when the boat became lodged in what is called ‘mush ice.’ This is the most treacherous ice we have to encounter, being too soft to sustain one’s weight and too compact to work through without great difficulty. The men labored for more than an hour, not making the boat’s length of headway. The wind began to rise, the darkness was coming on and we saw ourselves gradually and almost certainly going down the Lake. The horror of the situation of the writer was the more intense, being helpless to assist the others who were making such heroic exertions for our lives. At last when despair had almost taken possession of us, the men succeeded in getting the boat into an opening and free from the treacherous ice. The recollection of that terrible night out in the lake, in a frail boat surrounded by the moving ice, floating to almost certain destruction, the fierce howling of the wind, the beating of the rain still awakens feelings of horror in our memory that never will be erased; and with them a prayer of thankfulness to the overruling Deity and our…gratitude… [to them], who by their exertions saved us from a watery grave.

They called it the 'ice bridge' and people, sleights, sleds, horses, ice skaters, and people walking all used it to get to the mainland.

When the Lake is frozen over in one unruffled surface of sufficient strength that horses can be driven on it, then comes the Islander’s carnival. Every morning can be seen a procession of sleighs drawn by horses and filled with people anxious for a little change, wending their way across the Lake, giving Sandusky a harvest that it sometimes surely needs. A 12 mile ride on the clear blue ice is one of the most enjoyable pleasures imaginable. No charge for admission into skating rinks in those days, for old and young have a skating park that extends to Detroit and possibly to Buffalo. The Islanders, male and female, put on their skates and make a social visit to Sandusky, to Put-in-Bay, and the far off island of Point au Pelee in Canada, with as much ease as one goes shopping in a city. This is one of the bright sides of winter life and is entered into with great zest by nearly all the inhabitants.

Sometimes 10-20 sleighs would cross the ice to spend some time in Sandusky attending plays, visiting friends, and shopping.

 From the book: Kelleys Island 1872-1876 the hotels, the telegraph & the Lime Co., by Leslie Korenko

Part 2 of Townley’s story will be appearing on our History blog in mid-March – watch for it. He talks about how the Islanders deal with the winter’s ice-o-lation.

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