The part of Ottawa County now know as Catawaba Island Township has had a long, colorful history. The township has served as a home for three distinct groups of people, and provided them with numerous resources for a good life.
The earliest know occupants in historic times of Catawba Island were members of the Erie Indian tribe. In 1654, at the end of a long and bloody war over hunting and trading rights, the Eries were slaughtered by the victorious Iroquois and the tribe ceased to exist.
Over the next century a number of other tribes moved in and out of the island. The Ottawas were probably the most numerous after Pontiac’s 1763 conspiracy, settling here when their uprising against English domination was defeated. The name “Ottawa” come from an Indian word for trader, recalling the fur trade with the French and English.
Many generations of Indians hunted and trapped and fished along the Lake Erie shoreline but left few obvious traces of their long residence on Catawba Island.
The French were the first Europeans to come to our area. Already settled in eastern Canada, they explored Lake Erie last of all the Great Lakes because of the Indian wars. They came to trade with the Indians for furs, and did build some permanent settlements like the ones at Detroit and Monroe Michigan. These were trading centers, often with numbers of small farms surrounding them.
The French traders and missionaries were sometimes well-educated men from prominent Montreal and Quebec families, sometimes hardy adventurers who could neither read or write. Although interested in converting the Indians to their Catholic religion, they were tolerant of Indian ways and adopted to them with ease. Some of those who settled here brought their wives from Canada, while others married Indian women. Their children and grandchildren hunted, trapped, and fished like the Indians and planted a few crops and apple trees like the Europeans they were. Some of the early French Canadians on Catawba Island were M. LaFleur, M. Poskelle, M. Beban, and M. Gorneau.
After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, North America became English. Englishmen took over the fur trade as they had been trying to do for a long time, and held on to it for a number of years after the American Revolution. The issue of English occupation was not really settled until the end of the War of 1812, although American troops fought with combinations of English and Indians in the various campaigns before Anthony Wayne won the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August of 1794. In the Treaty of Greenville (1795) the Indian Tribes made some concessions to the Americans, but still kept their hunting grounds here. White settlement was forbidden by the treaty except for certain areas which were designated as trade centers. None of these were on Catawba Island.
During the War of 1812 General Harrison had men stationed on Catawba Island to prevent a possible English invasion, and some of these may have settled sown as permanent residents. Most of the American settlers, however, came from Connecticut to take up land given them as compensation for houses and barns burned by the English during the Revolution. In 1792 the State of Connecticut granted about half a million acres of land at the western end of Connecticut Western Reserve to these people, and the area came to be know as the ‘Fire Lands”.
The “Fire Lands” could not be settled immediately: the claimants or their heirs had to be found, the amount of damage they suffered verified, the land had to be surveyed, purchased from the Indians (1805), and was finally granted to individuals in 1807 by means of a complicated lottery.
The western boundary of the Fire Lands passes through the township, as the west boundary of Sections 3 and 4.
Some of the men considered most responsible for the early development of Catawba Island were Eli Moore, Wheeler Porter, Walter and Oscar Bardsley, Clancy Tillotson, and Henry Ellithorp.
In the first half of the nineteenth century this part of Ohio was still the frontier, and the fertile farm land and good climate attracted many settlers. In 1840 Ottawa County was created from townships in Wood, Sandusky, and Erie Counties, and included the Bass Islands. In 1861 Ottawa County was divided into several townships, and the present Catawba Island Township was named for the variety of grape growing on many acres here.
For many years, fishing in Lake Erie was done by individual families to supplement their own food supply, but in 1840 Henry Ellithorp discovered large quantities of fine white fish near the bass islands, and commercial fishing quickly became a profitable industry employing many men. Tons of fish were caught daily and shipped to markets around the country. The fishing industry flourished for more than a century, but went into a swift and nearly final decline in the 1950’s.
The reasons for the decline are still argued: some blame the effects of overfishing, water pollution, and increasingly strict regulation. There was an invasion of the sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus, which was able to adjust to living in fresh water over many generations in the St. Lawrence estuary. They gradually spread upstream and came into Lake Erie through the Welland Canal. Once here, the lamprey population increased enormously because the native fish had no instinctive fear of the newcomer. There was also a long period of very hot, still weather late in the summer of 1953, which finally divided the water of the west end of Lake Erie into warm upper layer and a cooler under-lake. The thermal barrier prevented wave-carried oxygen from reaching the bottom layer. The normal heavy demand for oxygen soon reduced levels at the bottom of the lake to nearly zero parts per million, and although September storms remixed the lake, this low-oxygen condition lasted long enough to kill almost all of the larvae of the mayfly. Not enough were left to permit recovery of the once-incredible population of Hexagenia limbata occulta, a vital part of the Lake Erie food chain. Only a few years later, the commercial catches were drastically reduced. Now very few commercial fishing boats remain active off our shores, but sport fishing industry continues to grow. There are now more mayflies, and the great improvements in water quality have begun to pay off.
Grape growing became an important part of Catawba’s economy when Nicholas Longworth, of Cincinnati, brought the first Catawba Grape vines here from North Carolina. The first commercial grape business was started in 1860 by Mr. Henry Ellithorp and Mr. H. Newton. Others followed, and in 1862 the largest number of vines were owned by P.E. Andrews. In 1871 there were 345 acres of vineyards, and by 1874 there were 6—acres producing grapes. The Catawba Wine Company had a cellar of 130,000-gallon capacity.
The Mon Ami Winery was built in 1871, and has had many owners. Norman Mantey converted the first floor of the winery to a restaurant, which he called The Mon Ami Champagne Company.
Apple and peach orchards were started commercially in the 1870’s. Fruit was shipped out by boat and railroad in huge quantities, and Catawba produce enjoyed a fine reputation in the cities. There are still many acres planted in fruit trees, but now many of the buyers come to the area to make their purchases.
Deposits of limestone were known to early residents but were not exploited until 1850, when Mr. J. R. James, of New York City, established a limestone quarry. The lime kiln which he built to process the stone can still be seen just inside the north entrance to Catawba Cliffs, but the adjoining barrel factory is long gone. There were high hopes for the new town of Ottawa City, located conveniently near the quarry, the lime kiln, and the dock. Unfortunately, Mr. James’ enterprise never really prospered, perhaps because he started operations before learning that the stone was too impure to make good mortar. He hung on until 1855, when the business was closed down.
Schools were very important to the settlers from Connecticut, and classes were begun in 1839 in the home of Tinker Smith. Eventually there were three schools for the
Children of Catawba: one was at the corner of Porter and Crogan Streets, one on East Catawba Road at Muggy Road, and one on Cemetery Road near the present township garage. In 1913 these schools were centralized, making the first consolidated school district in Ottawa County and one of the first in Northwestern Ohio. Our school became part of the Port Clinton School District in 1961, and now our 1913 school building (which was enlarged in 1954) is used for the kindergarten and first three grades. The children in grades four, five, and six go to the Portage School while older students go to the Junior High and the Senior High School in Port Clinton.
Roads were built to make travel easier. In the early years the unpaved East Catawba Road communicated with Danbury Township via Muggy Road and over a bridge to Buck Road. A real road along the east side of the island was built and dedicated in 1840, and the present Sand Road was dedicated in 1843. The causeway, which carries Route 53 over the old bed of the Portage River, was not built until sometime in the 1890’s.
The development of automobiles led to a surge of development in the tourist and recreation industry. In earlier times there were a number of boarding houses and several resort hotels on Catawba Island: these have now been replaced by motels and campgrounds. Catawba Cliffs was developed in 1921 by the J. H. Bellows Company, but there had been numerous summer cottages here for many years before that. The oldest part of the present Catawba Island Club was built in 1928 by The Catawba Cliffs Beach Club, Inc.
The State of Ohio acquired between 7 and 8 acres on Catawba Island in 1938 to form the Catawba Island Reserve. The agency currently in charge of the area, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, was formed in 1949. In 1963 the parks and Recreation Division was created and given responsibility for what is now called Catawba Island State Park. The park provides boat launching facilities as well as picnic and parking areas. Another public boat launching facility on West Harbor was owned and operated by Ottawa County through 2001. The facility is now owned and maintained by Catawba Island Township. The township currently owns 17 acres off N. E. Catawba Road towards the point and maintains this as walking trails and nature preserve. There is a township recreation area consisting of a baseball field, soccer field, sledding hill, basketball, tennis courts and playgrounds adjacent to the Catawba Woods subdivision. In 1985 the Catawba Island Park Board was formed to provide additional recreation opportunities.
The water levels of lake Erie have always moved up and down, and
storms and hard winters have caused much erosion since the first homes
were built here. Some farms have been allowed to grow up in woods again,
some buildings have disappeared, many buildings have been built, but
probably the early residents would have little difficulty recognizing
Catawba Island today. Many links with the past remain, to be studied
and treasured by all who come here. This is a unique place, with a
rich heritage of Indian, French, English, and American contributions.