Lake Erie Confidential

Johnson's Island, Lakeside and Marblehead are Erie's quieter, less-trod treasures.

If You Go:

Johnson's Island

1-866-9LAKESIDE or visit


Marblehead Chamber of Commerce
(419) 798-9777

Water creeps into my peripheral vision as I drive across the Thomas A. Edison Memorial Bridge, a spaghetti strand of Route 2 that links Ohio's mainland to Lake Erie vacationland. With Sandusky Bay on both sides and the Marblehead/Lakeside exit straight ahead, my brain sets its cruise control. My cell-phone service clocks out. Perfect.

I'm off to my summer hiding spot: Johnson's Island, a low-profile Lake Erie island where there are no bars or wineries, no Jimmy Buffett cover bands or Christmas-in-July celebrations.

Beyond the island's tollgate awaits a historic treasure: a former Civil War prison camp and cemetery.

Except for occasional field-trip schoolbuses and history buffs, the lake-effect wind is the only thing moving through the cemetery. In June, the United Daughters of the Confederacy parade the grounds in period dress, checking for relatives' headstones. Many of the 206 gravestones are marked "Unknown."

More than 15,000 Confederate enlisted soldiers, political prisoners and spies were confined at the prison camp. I wander through the cemetery, deciphering the names of lost generals and reading the plaques, one of which details the prison menu (salt fish and pickled-beef stew). An ice cream from the Dairy Dock in Marblehead — only a few minutes down the road — sounds much better.

While in town, I drop in at Mutach's Food Market — a real butcher shop and general store. Marblehead resident Ben Richmond, an artist well known for his lighthouse- and water-themed paintings, has a gallery across the street.

I continue driving west to the town of Lakeside, established in 1873 as a tent settlement by Methodist ministers who wanted to restore spirituality after the Civil War. Its comfy Victorian-era homes are adorned with vibrantly painted front doors, English gardens, whitewashed picket fences and stained-glass windows. "Chautauqua on Lake Erie," as it's called, was once a stop for Mark Twain, Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony.

Today, the town retains its rich artistic appeal with the Rhein Arts Center, an orchestra and a series of concerts and lectures. It's got a pizza parlor, an ice-cream shop and a gazebo in Central Park. The view of Lake Erie and its islands from Lakeside's beach is postcard perfect. I exhale deeply.

When I return to my family's home on Johnson's Island to unwind, evening creeps in with a ruby sunset. I stand on the tip of the dock in a trance, watching the moon hypnotize the calm night water. Lapping, slapping sounds create a calm cadence. The darkness romanticizes Sandusky Bay, with its Cedar Point lights and firework-like fixtures. The illuminated coal dock due south shines like a constellation.

You can't pay for Zen like this. And you don't have to go far to find it.

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