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Monday, June 27, 2005

Monument is final resting place for War of 1812 officers

PUT-IN-BAY -- Buried beneath the floor of Perry's Monument are six men, resting calmly in contrast to the violent deaths they met nearly two centuries ago. They were killed Sept. 10, 1813, in the Battle of Lake Erie, a naval engagement where nine American and six British warships clashed for approximately three hours during the War of 1812. The battle was fought about seven miles west of North Bass Island. Survivors from both sides reported cannon shots smashed into the masts and sides of the wooden ships. The splintered timber flew across the decks and impaled sailors who stood in its path. Musket fire and shrapnel from cannon balls also filled the air. Of the 1,150 or so combatants, 27 Americans and 43 British died. One in four were wounded or killed. The British fleet surrendered after its two largest ships became entangled, rendering them defenseless against intense American cannon fire. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry commanded the victors. It was after the battle that Perry wrote to Gen. William Henry Harrison the famous words, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." son's army eventually drove the British from the region. The campaign solidified the United States' control of the Northwest Territory. Most of the dead from the Battle of Lake Erie were buried at sea where they last sailed. However, the men shrouded under Perry's Monument -- three American officers and three British officers -- were interred the day after the battle in DeRivera Park on South Bass Island. The burial site is recognized today by a cannonball pyramid. The sailors' remains were exhumed and reinterred in a single coffin under the monument on Sept. 11, 1913, 100 years to the day of their original burial. The monument is officially called Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial. It is a symbol commemorating to date 192 years of uninterrupted peace between the United States and Canada. The undefended 4,000-mile border the countries now share is the longest of its kind in the world. Monument superintendent Andrew J. Ferguson said the structure symbolizes something more than peace. "It helps all of us understand the sacrifice that was made here," said Ferguson, also a ranger in the National Park Service. "What we have here is a tremendous opportunity for families to come and learn about our history." Although the monument's construction began in 1912 and was completed 90 years ago this month, Ferguson said no official ceremonies are scheduled to commemorate the anniversary. The grand celebration is planned Sept. 10, 2013, to observe the battle's bicentennial. The monument is a memorial of an unofficial kind as well. It marks the spot where a woman fell to her death. Ranger Jeff Kissell, who wrote a book about the monument's construction, said a woman jumped from the observation deck in 1945, falling about 320 feet. It is the monument's only recorded suicide. In 1920, no one was injured when lightning struck the northwest corner of the monument. The lightning caused a 200-pound block of granite to fall and crash through the concrete plaza at ground level. The block came to rest in the monument's basement. Lightning rods were installed three years later as a precautionary measure. Those rods were replaced in 1982. Kissell said their humming warns rangers to evacuate the observation deck during electrical storms. "That's routine," he said. "We evacuate the upstairs, and people can wait in the rotunda." If visitors can't use the elevator to escape such an event, Kissell said they can exit the deck and walk down 461 steps to the monument's floor. At 352 feet, Perry's Monument is the third-highest memorial in the United States. Only the Washington Monument and St. Louis Gateway Arch are taller. Perry's 317-foot observation deck is the highest in the National Park Service. Visitors get a panoramic view that includes the Bass Islands and a glimpse of the waters where the battle was fought. Canada and Michigan are visible to the north on clear days. More than 2,340 blocks of pink granite, harvested from Milford, Mass., were used to construct the monument. Kissell said pink granite surprisingly gives the structure a whiter appearance from a distance than white stone. The floor of the rotunda is a mixture of Tennessee white and Italian black marbles. Indiana limestone makes up the ceiling and dome walls, where the names of the American casualties are engraved. A bronze urn, 18 feet in diameter, 23-feet tall and weighing 11 tons, is mounted on top. Ferguson said the monument needs a new roof under the urn and other repairs within the next few years. The refurbishment is estimated to cost about $5 million. "We're in the pipeline (for federal funding), but I don't have anything firm yet," he said. Roughly 180,000 people visit the memorial each year. Attendance has decreased from 204,165 in 2002 to 153,638 last year, about a 25 percent drop. Ferguson said he can't account for the decline. "Memorial Day to Labor Day is the rush time," he said. People can study a model of the battle and view a 15-minute movie in the Visitor's Center before visiting the monument. Gerry Altoff, a ranger at the monument from 1979-2004, said the center was built in 2001 to replace a much smaller building that served as a visitor's center throughout most of his tenure. "It was a totally inadequate facility," he said. "The (new building) is heaven on earth." Altoff said most of the people who visited the monument while he was assigned there had no idea why it was built. "It's (the park ranger's) job to explain it so people have a better understanding," he said. "They are called park-ranger interpreters." All four of the books Altoff wrote about the Battle of Lake Erie are for sale in the bookstore at the Visitor's Center. One of his books, "Amongst My Best Men: African Americans and the War of 1812," in part addresses black sailors who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie. "Most of the records don't tell you who's black and who's white," Altoff said. "We estimate somewhere between 10 (percent) and 15 percent of Perry's professional sailors were free blacks." Perry is noted to have said his black sailors fought valiantly and were "insensitive to danger." Altoff said he doesn't see any of the profits from his book sales. "Everything goes back to the monument," he said. "My goal wasn't to make money but to get the word out."

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