The Benson Ford Ship House
A Freighter Reborn As An Island Landmark Residence
Freighters of the Great Lakes are famous for their endurance. The Benson Ford Ship House is living proof of that resilience to this day. In contrast to their saltwater relatives, lake freighters, as they are called, tend to rust slowly, take less abuse from mother nature, and tend to be around for an extended period of usefulness. The Benson Ford Ship House is one that has escaped the scrapyard and enjoys life reborn as one of the popular attractions at Put-in-Bay, an island in Lake Erie.
Put-In-Bay, Ohio is a village located on South Bass Island in Lake Erie. Well known for being the site of Oliver Hazard Perry’s War of 1812 victory over British Naval forces, it’s also a popular vacation destination attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Put-in-Bay is also known as the final resting place for the forward deckhouse of the Great Lakes freighter now called the Benson Ford Ship House. The forward deckhouse was removed and is now a luxury lakehouse perched on a cliff towering above Lake Erie.
The Benson Ford Ship House History
The Benson Ford was assembled at the Detroit Michigan River Rouge yard in 1924 and was commissioned by the Ford Motor Company. At 612’ long with a 62’ wide beam and 32’ deep, with an 8,626 GRT, and 12,900 DWT she was one of the larger vessels on Lake Erie for her time. A sister ship, the Henry Ford II, was commissioned by the American Ship Building Company, Lorain, Ohio, and scheduled to be completed a few weeks prior to the Benson Ford.
A tornado struck Lorain prior to her completion and delayed the construction of Henry Ford II. As a result of the incident, the Benson Ford voyaged first. Both of the vessels were named after Henry Ford’s grandsons and the Henry Ford II was officially launched by the youngsters through electrical remote control in Detroit.
Undoubtedly two of the most modern ships on the Great Lakes, the twin ships were the foundation of the Ford Motor Company’s lake transport system. The ships were powered by a 3,000 bhp, four-cylinder, two-stroke, single-acting Sun-Doxford opposed piston diesel engine, 23 5/8” bore x 45 5/8” stroke per piston (91 ¼” total combined stroke) built by the Sun Shipbuilding Co., Chester, Penn., both had rated service speeds of 11 knots or 12.7 mph.
The Benson Fords’ maiden voyage began on August 2 with a load of coal from Toledo, Ohio, to be transported to Duluth, Minn., and returning to the Ford Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., with iron ore. While she was the pride of the Ford fleet, the Benson Ford seemingly was not faultless. On June 12, 1959, the ship ran aground in the Amherstburg Channel, near the Canadian mainland, and then a second time on August 16, 1959, in the St. Mary’s River between Canada and Michigan.
Following 60 years of faithful service, mostly carrying coal, the ship was scrapped except for the forward deckhouse, which featured luxurious walnut-paneled staterooms, a dining room, a galley, and a passenger lounge designed by Henry Ford for his own personal use.
The Frank J. Sullivan Era – The Benson Ford Ship House Arrives At Put-in-Bay
The ship was sold to Frank J. Sullivan of Sullivan Marine, Cleveland, Ohio, who intended to use the ship as a barge; however, it never sailed Lake Erie again. On December 21, 1984, Sullivan had the ship towed to the Ontario Stone No. 4 docks on the Cuyahoga River where it sat idle for almost two years while the new owners deliberated what to do with the ship.
After much deliberation, Sullivan decided it would not be cost-effective to utilize the ship on the Great Lakes and opted for less conventional use. On July 3, 1986, the entire forward superstructure of the ship, along with the forecastle deck, was removed and transported by the barge Thor 101 to South Bass Island, also known as Put-in-Bay. The 62’ X 59’ foot section was originally used as a 7,000 square-foot, four-story, summer home for the Sullivans. The home would include walnut-paneled staterooms, a dining room, a galley, and a passenger lounge designed by Ford for his personal use.
On July 18, 1986, the deckhouse structure was transported by crane barge to Put-In-Bay, Ohio, and placed on an 18-foot cliff at Victory Point. The remainder of the ship was scrapped.
In 1992, Sullivan requested the Put-in-Bay Township Zoning Board for a conditional use permit to allow for the operation of a bed and breakfast at the Benson Ford ship house. After a long legal dispute, it was determined that the ship house could not be used for this purpose and Sullivan began seeking a purchaser for the home. It was at this time Benson Ford Ship History shifted towards what we see today.
The Benson Ford Ship House Modern Day
On Sept. 21, 1999, the Dutton Auction & Realty Company, Navarre, Ohio, held an “open outcry real estate auction.” Over 128 inquiries were received from ten states and Canada, and there were 58 inspections. When the bidding stopped, Jerry and Bryan Kasper of Kasper Auto Group, Sandusky, Ohio, became the new keepers of the Put-in-Bay Benson Ford ship house.
The father and son duo promptly renamed the ship the Benson Ford and have utilized the unusual structure for personal use ever since. The first floor was recently renovated and the structure includes a garage and huge family room, five bedrooms, five full baths, a dining room, a living room, a reading room, a galley, and, of course, the pilothouse which offers spectacular views of the setting sun off the western shores of Put-in-Bay.
For those arriving at South Bass Island aboard the Jet Express ferry, an excellent photo opportunity awaits as the ferry arrived along the shoreline of Put-in-Bay. Once on the island, the ship house can be seen from a distance along the west shore by using a Put-in-Bay Golf Cart Rental. Put-in-Bay offers many attractions that appeal to all age groups from caves, action-packed watersports, historical venues, and vibrant nightlife. Several popular Put-in-Bay Hotels offer travelers modern accommodations for extended stays. Benson Ford Shiphouse Tours are offered several times a year as a fundraiser.