Named for the resemblance of its dolomite ledges to the Rock of Gibraltar, Gibraltar Island was originally a territory of the state of Connecticut. In 1864, Jay Cooke, a native of Sandusky, Ohio, bought the six-and-a-half-acre island for $3,001.
Cooke was a successful financier who sold bonds that raised millions of dollars to support the Union during the Civil War. He also financed the construction of the Northern Pacific Railway, which encouraged the development of the northwest part of the country.
Not long after Cooke acquired the island, he erected a monument commemorating Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. During the War of 1812, Perry, who commanded the American forces on Lake Erie, used the island as a lookout point to spot the approaching British fleet. The spot became known as Perry’s Lookout. Cooke also built a 15-room home for his family on the eastern end of the island, near Perry’s Lookout. Known as Cooke Castle, the three-story High Victorian Italianate building is constructed of native limestone.
Decorative ironwork, multistory bay windows, and hood window mouldings adorn the house. A wide porch fronts its lake and bay sides, while a Gothic octagonal tower provides a panoramic view. A flag usually flew from a flagpole atop the tower when the Cookes were in residence.
Inside, Cooke Castle features a hardwood rotunda and a winding staircase. The ground floor of the tower was used for a library, where two glass-fronted wooden book cases elaborately carved in the Gothic style remain.
French doors open onto the porch from the dining room. The parlor includes a marble fireplace and an elaborate cast-iron decorative piece in the center of its high ceiling. The master bedroom, located above the parlor, contains its original marble washstand. All the rooms have their original woodwork.
Cooke and his wife, Dorothea, had eight children; four died early, but two sons and two daughters survived. For nearly 60 years, the Cooke family visited the island for three to six weeks in late spring and for a similar period of time in late summer. Rutherford B. Hayes, William Howard Taft, Salmon P. Chase and General William Tecumseh Sherman were among the guests who visited Cooke Castle, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Cookes recorded their island adventures in a series of leather-bound journals that they called The Gibraltar Record. Son Henry, a minister who was also an amateur photographer, captured many of their visits on approximately 2,000 glass plate negatives. These delightful archival sources show and describe the Cookes posing on the steps of their castle, fishing, racing rowboats, swimming, picnicking, reading, taking excursions to other islands, and rolling the lawn for tennis.
You’ll also discover them riding bicycles, knitting, playing croquet, picking peaches and grapes, swinging, repairing a flag in time for the Fourth of July, playing ping-pong, and lounging by the Perry monument on “A Hot Day at Gibraltar.”
After Cooke’s death in 1905, the island remained in the family until 1925, when they sold it to Julius F. Stone, a member of Ohio State’s Board of Trustees. That same year, Stone presented the deed to the island to the university as a permanent home for the Lake Laboratory, which was established in 1895 for teaching and research on Lake Erie. Now known as the Franz Theodore Stone Laboratory, it is the oldest freshwater biological field station in the United States.
In 2005, I attended the annual Friends of Stone Lab Open House so I could see Cooke Castle and pose on the porch like the Cookes did. This year’s open house will take place Saturday, September 7, 2013 from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In addition to viewing Cooke Castle, you can tour Stone Laboratory and learn more about the scientific pursuits that happen there. Free transportation to Gibraltar Island will be provided from OSU’s Aquatic Visitors Center on South Bass Island. Click here for more information.
To read more about Jay Cooke, his family and their castle, see The Journal of Jay Cooke; or, The Gibraltar Records, 1865-1905, by James E. Pollard. The first four volumes of the Gibraltar Record (1864 to 1888) are part of The Ohio State University’s archival collections. The other three volumes, covering the years 1889 to 1920, are housed at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. The Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library holds the Jay Cooke Papers (MSS 129) and the Reverend Henry E. Cooke’s glass plate negatives (P 117).