The Inextricably Linked History of Buckeye Lake and The Buckeye Lake Yacht Club

The Inextricably Linked History of Buckeye Lake and The Buckeye Lake Yacht Club

By Steve Harris, BLYC Historian

On April 24, 1906, yachtsmen met at Leachman’s Restaurant in Columbus, Ohio and formed what would become The Buckeye Lake Yacht Club. Membership was fifteen and the first Commodore, elected that evening, was Lawrence A. Sackett of Columbus.

By the late 1800’s, the Ohio-Erie Canal System had deteriorated and by the early part of the twentieth century it was, essentially, abandoned. The last Canal Superintendent, George Watkins, had recently been elected President of the State of Ohio Board of Public Works and he had a vision for those abandoned canals and reservoirs. With the help of those yachtsmen, he would forever transform not only Buckeye Lake, but the State of Ohio as well. Twelve years earlier, the Ohio Legislature had set aside the waters of the Licking Reservoir for a public park to be known as Buckeye Lake. However, needed improvements had not been made and it remained a shallow old canal reservoir, with a leaky dam and weirs, and was, other than for some fishing and hunting, essentially unusable for recreation. The press still referred to it as “Licking Reservoir” and it was generally regarded by those outside of the area as wasteland. That all changed in 1906!

Just 11 days after the initial meeting in Columbus, on Sunday, May 6, members of the new Club – primarily from Columbus & Newark – descended upon the Licking Reservoir for the first meeting of the new Club. At 2:00 pm, travelling across the waters by boat, members met at Miller’s Cottage on Orchard Island. At that meeting, with membership now numbering 40, a Constitution was adopted and the name of the Club selected – BUCKEYE LAKE YACHT CLUB. The purposes of the Club were established and remain, essentially, unchanged to this day:

Promotion and elevation of Yachting
Enhancement of Aquatic Sports
Cultivation of Sociability among its Members
Help in every way possible towards the Improvement of Buckeye Lake for Boating Purposes

The original Buckeye Lake Yacht Club clubhouse in Ohio, circa 1908.

The original Buckeye Lake Yacht Club clubhouse in Ohio, circa 1908.

The press had been very helpful in promoting the new, upstart Club, running several articles featuring the new endeavor. On Sunday, May 13, The Ohio State Journal presented cartoonist Harry Westerman’s impressions of sporting events from the previous week. One of these depicted an incongruous craft with “B. L. Y. C.” on her bow. Powered only with a strange looking, vertical, half-cylindrical sort of spinnaker, inscribed “Constitution and By-Laws”, she was going great guns. At her helm, with flask at feet, stood her downy-bearded kewpie-locked skipper with pipe in hand and remarking, “Shiver my timbers if this be-ant a dodgasted stiff Breeze!” So, the new Club, armed only with a well-founded Constitution and By-Laws, was speeding along and public interest in the old reservoir had been revived. It may or may not have been coincidental, but thereafter the press seldom referred to “Licking Reservoir” – with the adoption of the Club name, “Buckeye Lake” was born!

In the coming years, the Club would continue to grow, and with it, interest in, and improvements of, Buckeye Lake grew as well. Of immediate importance to the Club was the improvement of the lake. With the dilapidated condition of the old reservoir, water was leaking out faster than Mother Nature could replenish it – the lake was barely navigable even in the best of times. With the help of George Watkins and the influence of the businessmen who were Club members, critical repairs were made to the locks, waste weir, and embankment almost immediately. New gates were commissioned and installed two years later, and Buckeye Lake was becoming a safer, more reliable, and popular body of water for recreation purposes.

Almost immediately, BLYC was also receiving national attention in the boating world – an “inland” yacht club was practically unheard of. To foster these relationships with the larger yachting community, BLYC sought membership in the Inter-Lake Yachting Association (I-LYA). Still without a permanent home and with youthful enthusiasm, BLYC members “barged in” on I-LYA’s Fall Meeting in Toledo to make application for membership. However, it appeared as though the “big water” sailors up north had little interest in admitting a group of “stump skippers” into their esteemed organization. By the rules at that time, only clubs from the “open and connecting waters” of Lake Erie could be admitted. While BLYC’s initiative was admired, the request was denied. But, then one of the “old salts” of I-LYA, P/C George Worthington of the Cleveland Yachting Club, arose in the upstart’s defense. He showed on a map of Ohio how Buckeye Lake was connected to Lake Erie, at his homeport of Cleveland, by way of the Ohio-Erie Canal. This settled the debate and BLYC was admitted. Almost immediately, BLYC members became very active in the organization. In 110 years of membership, many members have served as Officers and chairs of the annual I-LYA Regattas at Put-in-Bay – 4 have served as Commodore of the now 145 member club organization.

Sailboat racing on Buckeye Lake in Ohio, circa 1910.
Sailboat racing on Buckeye Lake in Ohio, circa 1910.

Still “homeless,” almost immediately, the Club sought property for its home port. Having tried unsuccessfully to obtain a lease on several locations around the lake, in 1907 the Club assumed Colonel Welle’s lease on a spot of “sometimes land, always surrounded by water, and, in spring season, frequently flooded completely” known as Sunken Island. While in many ways less than ideal, its unobstructed views in all directions and proximity to the Interurban terminal made it a desirable property with real possibilities. Dredgings from around the island were piled thereon to raise it, and the first “clubhouse” was constructed in 1907. Little more than boathouses with an upstairs club room, it served the immediate need. BLYC had a home! Later, a front porch was added. In her first few years, membership had swelled, the Club now had a home, and improvements at Buckeye Lake had transformed the old reservoir into a “real lake.”

Significant to this effort, was the cooperation between the Club and George Watkins. “Uncle George,” as he came to be known at BLYC, was as vital a part of the Club’s success as were her officers and members. His efforts had made her home waters safe and an ideal spot – an aquatic oasis in the middle of Ohio – for yachtsmen to enjoy their sport. At the Club’s annual “Tar Social” in April 1909, the Club recognized his assistance and support and voted to rename Sunken Island to Watkins Island. Unfortunately, less than two years later, Watkins suffered a stroke at his home in Portsmouth and passed away. BLYC, and Buckeye Lake, had lost one of her greatest advocates – “President of the Board of Public Works Dies at Portsmouth Early Wednesday. Was Father of the State Park System and Staunch Friend of Buckeye Lake” read the newspaper the following day.

As the Club continued to grow and activity at Buckeye Lake increased, the need for a “real” clubhouse became apparent. Efforts to secure funding were expanded and ground was broken in late 1912. Our current, spacious Victorian-style clubhouse was completed in February of 1913 and dedicated in May.

The 'new' Buckeye Lake Yacht Club in Ohio under construction circa 1913.
The ‘new’ Buckeye Lake Yacht Club in Ohio under construction circa 1913.

Over the years, the dining room, Commodores’ Lounge, and present kitchen were added, the grounds were improved with the addition of the front patio and the pool, and, of course, docking areas were expanded. In 2016, the old “dormitory” rooms upstairs were eliminated and a new Lounge and Library added. Through the years, the clubhouse has adapted to serve the Club and its members while retaining its early twentieth century charm and appeal. The spacious front porch with its panoramic views of the lake remains, as it has been for over a century, a popular place to relax and enjoy the lake on a summer afternoon.

BLYC is, and always has been, a boating club. Over the past 100+ years, members have enjoyed both recreational boating and racing – here on Buckeye Lake, and abroad. In the early years, the Club sponsored both sail and power boat races. However, with new State laws in the 1930’s, powerboat racing came to an end on all Ohio lakes. Most powerboating is for leisure, but sailboat racing continues. Every season since its inception, BLYC has held sailboat races.

Powerboat racing on Buckeye Lake in Ohio circa 1931, in front of the Buckeye Lake Yacht Club.
Powerboat racing on Buckeye Lake in Ohio circa 1931, in front of the Buckeye Lake Yacht Club.

Buckeye Lake offers some of the most unique conditions for sailing one may find anywhere; the shallow depth of the lake limits boats in both size and design, the frequently light and variable winds of central Ohio make for challenging conditions, and, with the prevailing winds out of the west, the east-west orientation of the lake forces one to have a good working understanding of and to utilize all points of sail. It is, perhaps, for these very reasons that Buckeye Lake has been the “training ground” for many sailors who have gone on to compete, and win, at the highest level of the sport. Among them, George Fisher, who thirteen times won the Interlake Class National Championship, four times was crowned Lightning Class North American Masters Champion, thirteen times won the Lightning Class Ohio Districts, and received one of the highest honors in the sport – the US Sailing Sportsmanship Trophy, was perhaps one of the best.

George actively raced from the time he returned from the Navy following World War II through 2007, sailing competitively into his 80’s, and, according to a 1963 article in the Columbus Star, had “already won so many cups and trophies, he has difficulty finding a place to stow them.” George’s sons Greg and Matt Fisher began their racing careers at Buckeye Lake before the age of 7. Both are nationally recognized as being at the top of the sport in the United States. Greg is one of the most accomplished competitors in U.S. Sailing history – more than 20 North American or National Championships in seven different classes, and winner of the 2008 J/22 Class World Championship. Matt has won several National and North American Championships in both the Lightning and Interlake Classes, the Gold Medal at the 1991 Pan-American Games, and the 2009 Lightning Class World Championship.

Buckeye Lake Yacht Club in Ohio, circa 1965.
Buckeye Lake Yacht Club in Ohio, circa 1965.

But our champions who learned to sail at Buckeye Lake aren’t limited to the Fisher family. As far back as the 1950’s, youth sailors from BLYC have made it through the qualifying series to compete for the Sears Cup – the Junior Triplehanded National Championship; Jim Dressel, Ed Ballenger, Jeff Dum, Tommy Davis, and Marty Headlee in the 1950’s and, Will Petersilge, Dan Dressel, and Dan Roshon who brought the Cup home to Buckeye Lake, winning in 1977. Buckeye Lake is also home to three Lightning Class Junior North American Champions – Will Petersilge, Matt Fisher, and Mike Hein. Mike Hein went on to crew on two Maxi Class World Championship teams and on the 1992 Americas Cup winning boat, America3. Youth sailors from Buckeye Lake have also won multiple trophies at the annual I-LYA Junior Championships held at Put-in-Bay each July. Eight times, BLYC members have chaired this prestigious event and many are active in the sport, not just locally, but regionally and nationally – holding positions in both I-LYA and in US Sailing, the national governing body for the sport.

Over the years, BLYC has been the home to many a sailboat regatta. In addition to Sunday afternoon racing throughout the season and the traditional “long-distance” races on Holiday weekends, BLYC annually hosts the Snowball Regatta in October and a Junior Regatta as part of the Inter-Lake Yachting Association’s Junior Travelers Series. These races attract sailors from all over the Lake Erie and Ohio Valley regions. Twice, BLYC has hosted the Interlake Class National Championship Regatta – in 1992 and, most recently, in 2011. The first BLYC Snowball Regatta was held in October of 1946 and raced in Lightning class sailboats provided by the Club. Over the years, the regatta has hosted as many as 115 boats on the weekend in multiple classes and has welcomed many National and World Champions as competitors. Due to recent lake conditions, we have been unable to race on Buckeye Lake. But, the Snowball and the Junior Regatta have continued. Thanks to our friends at nearby Alum Creek Sailing Association, we have been able to continue these valuable events at their fine venue on Alum Creek. Our Juniors continue to race as well, practicing at several other I-LYA Clubs and participating in the I-LYA Traveler Series and the annual I-LYA Junior Championships each year.

But, boating is not the only activity at BLYC – in fact, it never has been. While the Club can rightly boast about its champions in the sport, members also enjoy a myriad of other activities. The second part of the Club’s mission statement – to promote sociability among its members – is equally important to the life of the Club. With regular social events and entertainment – from the formal Commodores’ Ball and New Year’s Eve Party, to the Annual Luau, St. Patrick’s Day and Mardi Gras Parties, to casual “Supper Club” dining and entertainment, to relaxing poolside during the summer months – the club affords its members plenty of opportunities for relaxation and enjoyment.

From 1964 through 2012, in the winter months, members enjoyed trap shooting on Sunday afternoons through the BLYC Gun Club. From card tournaments and Buckeye football parties to the monthly Book Club, there are many activities for members with a wide range of interests. Featuring a top-notch, year-round restaurant and bar operation, BLYC is arguably one of the best spots on the lake to relax with friends and family. It is truly a “hidden gem.”

Through the years since its founding, BLYC and her members have been witness to many changes on the lake. From the early days of the old canal reservoir, through the heyday of the big band dance halls and the amusement park, to the lake’s decline in the 70s and 80s, to its rebirth around the turn of this century – BLYC has been an active part of Buckeye Lake through it all. She shall remain to be so.

In the words of BLYC Historian Kyle Armstrong in his 1956 book, Story of Buckeye Lake Yacht Club, “The Club is endowed with character developed through its fifty years of ideals, traditions, precedents, efforts and accomplishments. It is a composite of the labors, influences and souls of its past and present members. Not flouting such heritage, Buckeye Lake Yacht Club can and will sail on and on and on and on – ad infinitum.”

Visit:  Buckeye Lake Yacht Club History resources.

By |2017-11-18T14:07:52+00:00January 15th, 2017|Did You Know, History|0 Comments

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