– Commodore Steve Harris, BLYC Historian
Today we, the members of BLYC, call Watkins Island home. While we have done so since 1907, its been “ours” for just half of our history, and it hasn’t always been known as “Watkins” Island. In fact, in the beginning, it was barely an island at all!
When the Club was formed in the spring of 1906, it held its early events at various locations around the lake — in particular, the Lake Tourist Hotel on the south shore. Certainly, finding a permanent home for the Club was of paramount importance and, in 1907, several members formed the Buckeye Lake Building Company, a for profit corporation, to sell shares in order to finance a Clubhouse. In that time, the State of Ohio, specifically the Canal Commission and later the State Board of Public Works, owned most of the land surrounding, and all of the islands within, the lake. Those lands were then leased to the citizens for private use.
The Building Company first tried to assume ownership of a deliquent lease on Castle Island, but the lessee got wind of the effort and paid his arrears. Later, the Building Company was able to buy out the lease held by Colonel William Wells, an early BLYC member, on a spot of “sometimes land… surrounded by always shallow water… and, in spring, often flooded completely” known as “Sunken Island” at a cost of $3.00 per year. A somewhat spartan “clubhouse” and boathouses were erected that year on the east edge of the island and efforts to dredge the surrounding waters and raise the island began.
Sunken Island, although unique, is not a particularly attractive name — especially for a “Yacht Club.” But, it was our home and the young Buckeye Lake Yacht Club grew and enjoyed many activities there. Instrumental in both the founding of the Club and in the many improvements at Buckeye Lake was George Watkins. Watkins had served as the Ohio Erie Canal Superintendent and, later, as the President of the Board of Public Works. At the Club’s Annual “Tar Social” in April of 1908 “Uncle George” reported on the many improvements thus far accomplished at the lake — new waste weirs, repairs to the leaking dam, and a signigicant increase in boat registrations — all monies from which were designated for further improvements at Buckeye Lake. He was met with “irrepressible applause” and, on the spot, the members of BLYC voted to rename “Sunken Island” to “Watkins Island” in his honor and in appreciation for his good works at Buckeye Lake. The island was finally, officially, dedicated as such on July 4, 1925 with a bronze plaque hanging in, what was that season, the “new” dining room.
The first clubhouse was barely adequate, but it served its purpose well. As the Club grew through the early 1900’s several key members joined, purchased shares in the Building Company, and brought both their talents and passion to the effort of builing a “real” Clubhouse on Watkins Island. Among these were Harry Freeman, a Columbus real estate developer (who later also developed Harbor Hills), Walter Whitacre, a Columbus lumberman, and Harry Holbrook, a noted Columbus architect (who also designed the Midland Theater in Newark.) These men made the new clubhouse, our current Clubhouse, a reality.
Completed and dedicated in the spring of 1913, it was built at a cost of $5,000, for which the Club would pay annual rent to the Buckeye Lake Building Company of $800 per year.
By the 1930’s, BLYC had secured control of the majority of shares in the Building Company. The Building Company was dissolved and its ownership of the Clubhouse was transferred to BLYC. BLYC assumed the Building Company’s lease on the island in December of 1938, now at a significantly higher annual rate than that originally paid by Col. Wells. For years, BLYC continued in its beautiful, Victorian-style Clubhouse on Watkins Island — leased from the State of Ohio.
In the fall of 1957, the State passed a resolution declaring the lands in, and much of the lands surrounding Buckeye Lake, Indian Lake, and Grand Lake St. Mary’s (all previously canal reservoirs) as “unnecessary” for public use and offered them for sale to the leaseholders — including offering Watkins Island to BLYC. The Club had the land appraised and arrived at a value of around $5,000. Although a lot of money, it was certainly possible. BLYC had over $9,000 in savings earmarked for “land purchase.” However, when the State presented their offer in June of 1960, it included nearly 30% more land — much of it underwater — than that which the Club had based its estimate on… and at a higher price. The total cost would now be over $11,000! Although meeting minutes from the time are incomplete, it is clear that there was much discussion and disagreement on proceeding with the purchase. After all, why would the Club want to pay for land that was covered by water? In the end, the purchase was approved by the Board of Trustees in August of 1960, the payment was made to the State of Ohio on May 2nd and, on May 22, 1961 the Quit Claim Deed transferring ownership of Watkins Island to BLYC forever was signed by Ohio Governor Michael DiSalle.
Incidentally, most of the “extra” land included in the sale is between Watkins Island and Northbank. Fifty-five years later, in 2016, that fact was critical in our negotiations to maintain our access to and our ability to use the island and Clubhouse during and following the dam remediation project… Money well spent.