A Short History of
Vermilion and Vermilion Lagoons
The fishing industry prospered early in Vermilion. The river and harbor provided a natural setting for operations. There was an abundance of fish in the lake. In 1839, there were fish shanties on the river below Exchange Place, now Exchange Park. Early fisheries were Doville-Caldwell, Lavoo-McGraw, and Edson-Nichols. By 1851 family fisheries were flourishing along the shore to the east. In 1864 the Adam Kishman family was fishing Brownhelm Bay (site of the present Ford plant) and in 1870 the Leidheiser family based their operations at Klaus Creek. Early catches consisted of muskellunge, white bass, and sturgeon. There was no market for sturgeon, but the roe was removed and sold to a Sandusky man who then shipped it to Russia to be processed into caviar. The remainder of the sturgeon was used by the farmer/fisherman as fertilizer in his fields. In 1853 the New York Central Railroad opened Brownhelm Station, thereby expanding fish distribution beyond the territory covered by horse and wagon peddlers. The Lakeshore Electric was also used to ship fish to Cleveland.
The use of the steam tug brought more fisheries to the river location. Kishman was occupying the familiar site below Exchange Park by 1905 and by 1915 Parsons, Leidheiser, Driscoll, Ranney, and Southwest (Patton-Lampe) were also in business. White bass, pike, perch, cisco, and whitefish were caught in gillnets. 1,994,000 pounds of fish were caught in 1915. Commercial fishing became the main industry in Vermilion providing employment to a majority of the men. In the winter thousands of tons of ice were cut from the river and stored in icehouses for use during the fishing season. Fish were shipped by Railway Express on passenger trains and by trucks to the east and west coasts and many points between. Until recent times there were five or six fisheries in Vermilion. The Kishman Fish Company was the largest with branches in Huron and Grand River. Kishman’s Vermilion buildings were demolished in 1986 and the property is now the site of the Fisherman’s Bend Condominiums.
Commercial fishing in Vermilion ceased in 1985 when the Ohio Legislature outlawed gillnets. The fisheries could no longer make a profit. Charter boats and sport fishing are now flourishing. Although the shipbuilding and fishing industries have vanished, business still thrives along the river. A dozen marinas and boat liveries serve 8,500 pleasure craft making Vermilion the largest small boat harbor on the Great Lakes. Vermilion’s lake and riverfront location early lent itself to recreation and resort development. By 1880 both Shadduck’s Grove (later Crystal Beach, then Crystal Shores) and Wagner’s Woods (later Linwood) were in operation. The Wagner Hotel was opened in 1897 and still stands today on Main Street across from the Fisherman’s Bend development. A ferryboat continued to connect the west and east banks of the river. Over the years a number of ferrymen plied the river’s waters but none was as colorful as Louis Noel, a French-Canadian affectionately known as Cloudy. He began his business in 1906 running between Ferry Street at the Water Works on the west bank to a point on the east bank near the entrance to Erie Lagoon.
Vermilion’s yachting industry began to thrive in the early 1900’s, taking advantage of the prime location of the river and harbor. Most available Lake Erie harbors were used for commercial purposes and therefore lacked docking facilities for pleasure boats. The one exception was Vermilion harbor. There were about sixty acres of broad beach and marshland fronting Lake Erie and adjoining the picturesque and navigable Vermilion River. In 1928 this area attracted Louis A. Wells, a Cleveland contractor, who bought the land. He envisioned a community of summer homes, each fronting on the water, most with dockage at the doorstep. The marsh was dredged and four lagoons were cut eastward from the Vermilion River. Linwood Park allowed Wells to bring his equipment and trucks through the Park to get to the construction area. A Linwood tree now blocks the old gate. The first entrance to the Lagoons was located at Park Drive. A bridge spanned Superior Lagoon to give access to Portage Drive. The bridge was located just west of the sharp curve in the road at 5279 Portage Drive. In 1931 this bridge was removed and the current entrance at Portage Drive was opened. Plats were recorded in 1930. Landscaping was carefully planned and willow trees planted. It was decided that the 1 ½ story Cape Cod house was best suited to the site. A supervising architect was to approve all proposed plans so the standards of design would be maintained. Streetlights were banned, lest they interfere with the houses’ reflections in the water. By 1931 the beach house and the first home had been built. Donald Comstock, an employee of the Wells Realty Company lived in the home at 5385 Portage Drive while he sold homesites in the Vermilion Lagoons. The average price of a 50 foot lot was $2,200.
Mr. Wells donated a site at the end of Anchorage Way, on the river, for the establishment of a yacht club with the provision that no alcoholic beverages could be consumed or sold on the premises. In 1933 twelve members of the Cleveland Yachting Club, seeking a more secluded anchorage, founded the Vermilion Yacht Club. These twelve charter members went boldly ahead with plans for a new clubhouse and the acquisition of additional waterfront property for the dockage of their boats. By 1934, thirty-eight new members had been recruited (about half of the present membership). The Vermilion Yacht Club has remained a small, friendly, family club.
A building boom took place in the Lagoons in the mid 1930’s. By 1940 all the houses on Anchorage Way, several homes on Willow Lane, and most of the houses on the portion of Portage Drive located on the north side of Erie Lagoon had been constructed. Most houses were used as summer cottages. The first year-round residents, the Lester Kishman family, moved into their new home on April 10, 1937. Throughout the years, houses continued to be built on the north side of Portage Drive facing the lake, Willow Lane, and Portage Drive bordering Superior Lagoon. A few homes were built on Park Drive. In the 1950’s Park Drive, the last street to be developed, began to experience real growth. Park Drive now has more homes than any other street in the Vermilion Lagoons.
Because of the homes’ proximity to the water, fluctuations in water level are closely watched. Love for the water has several times meant living in the water, rather than by the water:
FLOOD – January 21, 1959 – caused by heavy snowfall, followed by 50 degree temperatures, heavy rain, and ice jamming at the mouth of the river. Parts of the Lagoons were evacuated. Water and ice blocked roads and lawns. A few homes were flooded.
FLOOD – January 30, 1968 – caused by an all night rain and ice jamming. Lagoons residents were evacuated. A few homes suffered flooded basements. Streets and lawns flooded and ice blocks lodged in yards and streets especially on Park Drive.
NORTHEASTER – April 19, 1969 – Lake levels were already much higher than usual. Winter and spring storms had eroded 30 feet of beach and damaged existing beachfront retaining walls. Northeast winds of 50 mph produced 12 foot waves whose power destroyed an additional 30 feet of lawns and retaining walls. Sandbagging proved useless and boxcar ends were erected as breaks only to be lost to the storm’s fury. A second effort with boxcar ends was successful because the metal was held in place by cables anchored to trees. Five beachfront homes lost their beach, retaining walls, and lawns. Lake Erie lapped against the north side of the Godley house (now Herzer) at 5384 Portage Drive. Water was driven upstream by the storm and the river overflowed its banks.
FLOOD – July 5-6, 1969 – caused by violent rain and wind, accompanied by constant thunder and lightening. Eight to twelve inches of rain fell in the Vermilion River Basin within a twelve hour period raising the river seventeen feet above its normal level. Residents were evacuated by trucks, boats, and helicopter. Homes were seriously damaged and Vermilion was declared a national disaster area.
FLOOD – February 24, 1985 – caused by ice jamming. Evacuations were carried out. Ice and water damaged exteriors and interiors of many homes.
HIGH WATER – January 29-30, 1994 – caused by ice jamming. A few houses sustained water damage.
HIGH WATER – January 18, 1996 – caused by ice jamming. Some homes had ice and water damage.
The anchor on the Portage Drive median north of Erie Lagoon has an interesting history. It is the port anchor from the first iron vessel on the Great Lakes–the world’s first iron naval ship. Christened the U.S.S. Michigan, she was a shallow draft, steam-driven, sidewheeled gunboat built by the U.S. Navy in 1843, almost two decades before the famed Monitor and Merrimack.The hull and frame were of iron while the superstructure was of wood. The iron was fabricated in Pittsburgh and hauled by oxcart to Erie where it was wrought and assembled. She was 163 feet long and had a beam of 27 feet, plus 10 feet for the paddle wheels. Her engines had 170 horsepower. At launching she jammed on the ways, disappointing the large crowd which had gathered to see her sink. The next morning she was found floating, having launched herself during the night. The U.S.S. Michigan was rigged as a barquentine, a handsome vessel with a clipper bow, three tall masts and a raking smokestack. While under sail her paddle wheels could be disengaged, allowing her to move faster under canvas than under power. Her main mission was to keep the peace and preserve the neutrality of the Great Lakes. She also served as a survey and training ship. After a 106-year career she was scrapped in 1949. Her prow overlooks the Erie, PA harbor at the foot of State Street.
In 1998, the beach house erected in 1931 was razed and replaced by a slightly larger structure designed to replicate the original in style, yet provide more function and accessibility. The new beach house was dedicated to the property owners at the Fourth of July celebration that same year.
The Vermilion Lagoons residents have one interest in common—their love of the water. Boating, fishing, cruising, sailing, racing, beaching, sunning, and swimming are all at their doorsteps. Property owners are most grateful to Lou Wells for his amazing vision.
By Gretchen Kishman Neiding and Pennie Clifford (1998)
Richard Fitzgerald, David Groh, Jane Hubben, Jim & Nancy McClimans, George Wakefield, Carla Widdowson
American Home Magazine – February 1939 Family Summering-American Style
Cleveland Plain Dealer – December 20, 1982 Yachting – Al Mastics
The Evening News (Sault Ste. Marie, MI) June 28, 1982 The Porthole R. Le Lievre Great Lakes Historical Society – Vermilion, OH
Prospectus – Vermilion Lagoons – 1931 The Wells Realty Company
Through These Gates – A Linwood History Karen and Ray Boas-1984
V.Y.C. Cooks – Vermilion Yacht Club Cookbook 1998
Vermilion Charter Days Celebration Booklet 1962
Vermilion Sesquicentennial Booklet – 1987
Vermilion Yacht Club Yearbook – 1983 History of Vermilion Yacht Club Mrs. Robert M. Henshillwood
The Way It Was – Betty Trinter – 1965
The Way It Was – Book II – Betty Trinter 1966
The Plain Dealer – January 20. 1966
Monthly Bulletin of Lake Levels for the Great Lakes-U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – 1986, 1987, 1988