On display:Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum's celebration of passenger and excursion steamers makes its debut

For 37 years, passengers aboard the steamship “Put-in-Bay” danced to an onboard orchestra as they traveled to South Bass Island and its luxurious resorts for a day or several away from the city heat. 

“She would stop here and then Cedar Point,” says Dan Savage, director of the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum at Put-in-Bay, the village on South Bass Island. “It was mainly known as a party boat. There was a whole floor that was nothing but a dance hall.”

Finzels Band often played in the dance hall, and it and other orchestras would sometimes disembark the ship and play at resorts and dance halls, including the Colonial that stood where The Beer Barrel Saloon is today in downtown Put-in-Bay. 

Kristina SmithMemorabilia from the "Put-in-Bay" steamerWhen they weren’t dancing, passengers could relax with a cool drink in the cabin area while lounging in cozy wicker furniture. After the boat dropped off its passengers and was leaving the harbor for its next stop, the band aboard the boat began to play, and islanders would see the ship off as it left what is today Fox’s Dock (where the Jet Express ferry docks today). 

Although perhaps the best-known steamer that brought people to South Bass Island and aptly named for the island’s popular village, the “Put-in-Bay” was one of many steamships that brought thousands of people to the Lake Erie islands, Cedar Point, downtown Sandusky, Lakeside Chautauqua, and other shoreline destinations. 

The Lake Erie Islands Historical Society Museum features these boats and their role in helping Put-in-Bay and other local villages and cities in becoming tourist destinations as early as the Civil War era in its special exhibit, “On the Way to Put-in-Bay.”

“These were like ocean liners,” Savage says. “It wasn’t unusual for five or six of these boats to come here every day. There were these big, huge hotels here back then. It became such a destination – here and Cedar Point, too. A lot of these came out of Sandusky and docked right downtown.”

Through intricate, handmade ship models, historic photos, posters, advertisements, souvenirs, and other artifacts, the exhibit shares the stories of many of these boats. Items featured in the exhibit are from the museum’s collections and collections of islanders, including Savage. 

A wooden model of the “Put-in-Bay,” shows its four decks, as well as model passengers. The pennant from the ship’s first day of sailing is also on display. 

Kristina SmithSouvenirs from the "Put-in-Bay" steamerAnother case displays a poster advertising daily trips from Detroit where passengers could spend the trip dancing. Surrounding the poster are souvenirs with the ship’s name and image, such as plates, bowls, vases, and cups with saucers, that passengers could buy. 

Some locals had grandparents and other family members who remembered riding on the “Put-in-Bay,” as well as some of the other boats, Savage says. 

“We all loved the ‘Put-in-Bay,’” says Kendra Koehler, historical society vice president and longtime volunteer. “We wish it were here.”

The boat’s last trip to Put-in-Bay was on Labor Day 1948. Five years later, it was towed out on Lake St. Clair in southeast Michigan and burned to the water line so its metal hull could be scrapped.

Each steamboat featured in the exhibit shares its own story, and Savage tried to emphasize the ones that visited the island. 

“It was a big deal for families to get on these,” Savage says. “It was an affordable way to travel.”

The “SeeandBee” was one of the largest sidewheel steamships in the world, Savage says. During its inaugural voyage, it stopped at Put-in-Bay. Memorabilia and souvenirs, including a sailor doll bearing its parent company’s name, are on display. 

When the U.S. entered World War II, many steamers did not run due to rationing and food shortages. The “SeeandBee,” however, was drafted for the war effort. 

She was turned into the aircraft carrier “USS Wolverine,” a testament to her sturdiness and large size. 

“She was kind of dear to my heart,” Savage says.

Kristina SmithWheel from the steamer "Chippewa"The “Chippewa” made trips from Sandusky to Kelleys Island and Put-in-Bay. She was used as a U.S. mail boat and brought correspondence to the islands, Savage says. 
The Chippewa’s” wheel and whistle are on display in the exhibit.

As cars became more popular and widely accessible in the early 1900s, steamboat travel declined. Car ferries also popped up to help bring people and their vehicles to the islands.

Revisiting the days of steamboats, and their onboard orchestras and dance halls, has captured the imagination of visitors. 

“It’s a bygone era,” Savage says. “Boats fascinate people.”

“On the Way to Put-in-Bay” will be open until the museum closes for the season at the end of September. Depending on how popular it is, the museum could also keep it up next summer, Savage says. 

In addition to the museum’s special exhibit, it houses several permanent exhibits on island life, including car races that took place there in the 1950s; wine-making and grape growing; and the Hotel Victory that was located where South Bass Island State Park is today. 

Fairly recent additions include the large wooden bar from the Crescent Hotel building, which was torn down in 2022, and vaudeville posters from the plasterwork in the building’s upstairs that feature former Crescent Hotel owner B. Alexander, who was also a performer.

Behind the museum is its Heritage Resale Shop, where pre-owned items ranging from furniture to books to jewelry to housewares, are sold. Proceeds benefit the museum. 

The shop is open during museum hours and was Koehler’s brainchild to help raise money for the museum.