Sandusky by the Bay

Sandusky 2018

To celebrate Sandusky’s 200th anniversary, the city will be hosting plenty of events in 2018.

Mark your calendar for the Festival of Sail and Downtown Street Fair on July 12-15, one of the pillar events for Sandusky’s bicentennial celebration.

This event will showcase six or more rare, historic ships from around the world, as well as the World’s Largest Rubber Duck (at 61 feet tall and weighing 11 tons). This unique festival offers up a rare chance to catch a glimpse, step aboard and even set sail on some of the most grand ships of yore. Along with onboard tours and day sails, other exciting activities will include live music, entertainment, local craft beer, educational programming, local food and fun for the entire family.

Other events include: Stars & Stripes Celebration and Boy with the Boot Bicen10k & Family Relay on July 4; Founders’ Weekend on August 18-19; and Winter Kickoff on November 23-25.

Events will be added throughout the year at


• Cedar Point and Cedar Point Marina;

• Lake Erie Shores & Island;

• Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Coastal Management;

• Sandusky Marinas, Launch Ramps, Boating and Fishing;


Sandusky by the Bay

by Damaine Vonada
A small town with a grand Lake Erie location and two centuries of stories to tell.
The sounds of Sandusky epitomize the many reasons why this small Ohio town is a huge Lake Erie tourism hub: The long blasts of a horn on the Jet Express ferry; the caw of gulls scavenging for fish; the courthouse clock ringing on the hour; the cheerful clink of wine glasses; the periodic shrieks of people hurtling toward the earth at up to 93 mph.

Like many other Great Lakes ports, Sandusky has lured generations of vacationers with beautiful vistas and abundant opportunities for water recreation. What sets Sandusky apart, however, is its location on well-protected Sandusky Bay, its genuine hometown atmosphere and the Cedar Point amusement park — a crown jewel attraction famously known as “The Roller Coaster Capital of the World.” Not only does the park offer 18 different twisting, turning, swinging, swaying, plunging, passenger-flipping, adrenalin-spiking coasters, Cedar Point also covers the entire slender peninsula that juts into the mouth of Sandusky Bay. The park offers the singular experience of taking your boat to an amusement park and staying overnight at amenity-laden Cedar Point Marina.  

Glaciers, grids and a gateway to freedom

Sandusky sits halfway between Cleveland and Toledo, the two big cities that anchor, respectively, the east and west sides of Ohio’s extensive Lake Erie shoreline. The town’s name comes from the Wyandot word “saundustee," which translates to “water." Sandusky’s fortuitous position on a natural harbor — tucked between Ohio’s mainland and the long, hefty arm of its Marblehead Peninsula — was a gift from the glaciers that carved out the shallow and prolific Lake Erie, where more fish are caught every year than in the four other Great Lakes combined. 

While its geography was nature’s handiwork, Sandusky’s history originated with transplants from New England who settled the “Fire Lands,” a half-million acres in northern Ohio that Connecticut claimed and used to compensate citizens of towns burned by the British during the American Revolution. In an 1805 treaty, the Wyandot and other tribes ceded the Fire Lands to the fledgling United States; however, the area wasn’t safe for settlement until the War of 1812 finally ended conflicts with the British and their Native American allies. 

Connecticut-born land developer James Kilbourne first suggested the founding of a town on Sandusky Bay, and in 1818 Kilbourne hired his son to survey and plat the future city of Sandusky. Since Hector Kilbourne and his enterprising father were both Masons, he incorporated the organization’s symbolic square and compass into the town’s rectangular grid. His unique 200-year-old design still accounts for the diagonal streets that frequently confuse first-time Sandusky visitors. 

Slowly but steadily, Sandusky grew into a bustling commercial port; and after the construction of Ohio’s first chartered railroad line in the 1830s, it developed into an important transportation center. Thanks to that railroad, one of the town’s earliest tourists was Charles Dickens, who, in 1842, steamed into town on a train pulled by the Sandusky, the first locomotive west of the Alleghenies. In “American Notes,” Dickens described his stay in a “comfortable little hotel on the brink of Lake Erie” before boarding a steamboat bound for Buffalo. 

Although Dickens declared Sandusky “uninteresting,” another famous author had an entirely different perspective. Harriet Beecher Stowe was keenly aware that Sandusky was a major terminal on the clandestine Underground Railroad, whose hapless passengers were runaway slaves in search of freedom. When she wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Stowe made Sandusky the gateway to freedom for the central character Eliza, who eluded slave catchers by disguising herself and her child before getting on a steamer going to Canada.  

The more conventional exports that departed Sandusky’s docks — fish, lumber and grain — reflected the bounty of the nation’s burgeoning Heartland. After the Civil War, new industries emerged, including ice harvested from the frozen Bay and wine made from grapes grown on the nearby Bass Islands. As train tracks multiplied along the waterfront, manufacturing thrived. Over the decades, Sandusky produced barrels, boats, motors, fertilizer, underwear, crayons, washing machines, rubber life rafts, radios and television sets.  

At the turn of the last century, Sandusky’s Hinde and Dauch Paper Company revolutionized paper packaging and shipping when it developed corrugated cardboard. In 1918, the company opened a new factory built on a pier facing Sandusky Bay. Today, that red brick industrial building contains upscale condominiums with residents who enjoy fine views of Lake Erie’s stunning sunsets, of freighters going to and from Sandusky’s massive coal dock, and of the boat and ferry traffic at the neighboring Paper District Marina and Jackson Street Pier.

Stroll the shoreline

Although its population is only 25,000, Sandusky boasts a remarkable 22 miles of shoreline within its city limits. Even more remarkable, much of that shoreline consists of downtown marinas and parks with docks that are open to the public and easily accessed by boaters. 

“Lots of boaters from Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and Erie like making trips to Sandusky because they can walk to downtown, see a museum or art gallery, and get something to eat,” says Jill Bauer of the regional visitors bureau, Lake Erie Shores & Islands.

The city-owned Paper District Marina offers daily, seasonal and overnight dockage, as well as breezy walking paths along a seawall. During Lake Erie’s prime late spring to early fall boating season, the marina is also home to the Dockside Café. Don’t be fooled by its concession stand appearance. The Café overlooks Sandusky Bay, has a full bar, and is a perfect place to rub shoulders with locals who come for the fish tacos made with Lake Erie favorites, walleye and perch. Whenever a freighter travels Sandusky Bay, Dockside Café serves a refreshing rum punch called, you guessed it, “Freighter in the Bay.” 

Since the four-acre Jackson Street Pier is near part of Sandusky Bay’s mile-long shipping channel, you’ll get good views of passing freighters there. With its benches and binoculars, the Pier is a popular place for Bay-gazing and observing the Marblehead Peninsula and Sandusky’s version of skyscrapers: The towering skeletons of Cedar Point’s roller coasters. If you spy a tadpole-shaped bit of land just south of Marblehead Peninsula, that’s Johnson’s Island, a National Historic Landmark that served as a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate officers during the Civil War. The camp is gone, but its poignant cemetery endures and is open to visitors. 

Besides being a beloved fishing spot for many Sanduskians, the Jackson Street Pier is the boarding place for Goodtime I pleasure cruises and Jet Express jaunts to the islands and Cedar Point. In front of the Jet Express dock, look for the G.A. Boeckling Building, a striking example of amusement park architecture with big, arched windows and carved images of fish and aquatic creatures. Although that fanciful building now contains Ohio Department of Natural Resources offices, George Boeckling, the ingenious businessman who made Cedar Point a successful resort, constructed it as the park’s winter headquarters in 1928. You can rent bicycles for getting around the waterfront or downtown near the foot of the Pier along Shoreline Drive. Transportation includes taxis, city buses and Uber to outlying places like Sandusky Mall, the venerable Firelands Winery (Tip: It offers tours and tastings), or the Kalahari and Great Wolf indoor waterparks.

Bicentennial celebration

Since Sandusky is celebrating its bicentennial during 2018 (see sidebar “Sandusky 2018”), this year is an especially good time to get acquainted with the town’s proud heritage and enjoy its vibrant, visitor-friendly downtown. 

“Sandusky has always been a vacation destination, but leisure travelers usually focused on Cedar Point and the islands,” Bauer says. “Now that more people want destinations with an authentic small-town feeling, downtown Sandusky is building on that. Visitors love its abundant mom and pop restaurants and businesses.” 

Virtually anywhere boaters stop in Sandusky (consider Dock of the Bay Marina for deepwater slips or Battery Park Marina for shady green space and tennis courts) there are plenty of nearby places to soak up local culture and cuisine. Great Lakes Grinders, a seasonal eatery in scenic Shoreline Park, makes mammoth hoagies. The tiny New Sandusky Fish Company features fresh-from-the-lake perch dinners and bayside picnic table seating. Daly’s Pub serves a mean Reuben. Small City Taphouse combines Asian food with an eclectic array of beers. The old-school Lunch Box is a downtown institution where you can sample an Ohio classic: Chocolate and peanut butter Buckeye Pie. Along with hip and modern boutique lodging inside a historic 1830s building, the Hotel Kilbourne (its logo is a square and compass) offers Mexican-inspired dishes at OH Taco and creative cocktails at Moseley’s Public House. Tip: Go to the rooftop bar for an eye-popping perspective of the Bay.

Since historic markers and plaques seem to be everywhere in downtown Sandusky, you could get mini lessons about the Underground Railroad at Fracer Park or learn something about Johnson’s Island at the Jackson Street Pier. However, it’s a lot more fun to roll through history on one of Sandusky Segwave’s guided Segway tours. Segwave co-owner, Jim Ervin, is a congenial and knowledgeable guide whose spot-on stories and anecdotes convey a real sense of place. His tours will tell you why Sandusky has so many beautiful limestone buildings (the glaciers exposed Lake Erie’s bedrock), why the 1874 Erie County Courthouse has a 1930s Art Deco exterior (it was a WPA remodeling project), or why the heart of Sandusky is lovely, garden-filled Washington Park (Kilbourne put it in his 1818 plat). Ervin also points out local treasures like: Washington Park’s iconic “Boy with the Boot” statue and nostalgic Red Popcorn Wagon; the Sandusky State Theatre, a 1920s movie palace turned performing arts venue; the Merry-Go-Round Museum, which features a working carousel inside a stately old post office building; and the Maritime Museum of Sandusky, with its extensive exhibits of legendary, Sandusky-made Lyman boats. 

Amazing amusement  

Of course, Sandusky’s most treasured man-made attraction is Cedar Point. The incomparable, multi-faceted playground offers 70-plus rides (including the world's tallest, steepest, longest and fastest hybrid roller coaster, the Steel Vengeance, opening in 2018), hotels, restaurants, shows, events, fishing charters, a beach with a mile of white sand and the spectacular Cedar Point Marina. 

“It’s one of the largest marinas on Lake Erie,” says Marina Operations Director Bob Highlander. “We have 9.5 miles of docks.” More than 100 transient slips ranging from 40 to 125 feet are available, but because of the marina’s amusement park environment, most of its docks are seasonal. 

“Some people have been docking here since the early 1960s. It’s a place where generations of families grow up,” Highlander says. That family atmosphere yields a boatload of benefits, including ticket and meal deals for seasonal dock holders, access to the marina’s two full-service restaurants (try Famous Dave’s for barbecue or Bay Harbor for seafood and steaks), early admission to the park if you dock overnight, and a park entrance gate conveniently adjacent to the marina. Boaters also can use Cedar Point’s courtesy shuttle service to get from the marina to the beach and other places around the park. Since the Jet Express docks at the marina, the ferry is handy for island-hopping or shopping and dining in downtown Sandusky. 

“Even if it’s too windy to go out on the lake, there is always something to do here,” Highlander says.  

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