The Grand Lake St. Marys region offers up fishing, food and fun all year ‘round, plus a fascinating — and quirky — history as the world’s largest lake built solely by human hands.
Grand Lake St. Marys is a hotspot for fun and frolic these days, but back in the day it was a human-made wonder that played a vital role in opening up the West when the U.S. was still in its infancy.
In 1837, canal transportation ruled the waterways and the Miami & Erie Canal, which covered the 274-mile route from Lake Erie to the Ohio River, was in need of water sources to provide a steady feed into the canal along the way. That year, German and Irish immigrants using only shovels, axes and mule power began an eight-year construction project on what would become the world’s largest lake dug completely by hand — a distinction that still stands today.
The canals — and by extension the feeder waterways like Grand Lake St. Marys — played a critical role in supporting trading, building local economies and expanding the U.S. into the Northwest Territory. But soon railroads took over as a speedier alternative to canal boats, and the lake’s purpose changed. The lake was a hot commercial fishing spot for a while and also provided an ice-harvesting industry that supplied local towns before the days of electricity and refrigeration. When oil was discovered in the area in the 1890s, the lake also became the very first site of off-shore oil drilling and was soon dotted with about 100 oil derrick platforms.
After the oil boom dried up in the early 1900s, the lake became a favorite recreation destination, and in 1924 the Gordon State Park amusement park opened on its eastern shore. Among the attractions were two roller coasters (one called “Devil’s Backbone”), a dance hall, a merry-go-round and a boardwalk along the shore. The Great Depression and wind and fire damage resulted in the park’s closing in 1935, and 14 years later, the lake was declared an Ohio State Park.
So how did the lake get its name? It’s been a source of “grand” debate over the years, particularly between the lakeside towns of St. Marys and Celina. Over the years, the lake has been called Grand Reservoir, Lake Mercer and several different names before being declared Grand Lake by the U.S. Geological Survey. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources officially lists it as Grand Lake St. Marys, so the debate continues.
The landscape of the Grand Lake region is full of natural beauty and fascinating wildlife along the 52 miles of shoreline.
Seven wetland sites constructed over a 500-acre area showcase trees and grasses that help filter and slow the flow of water into the lake. The result: They are teaming with life. Watch frogs jumping, turtles basking and see migrating birds. Hiking trails throughout Grand Lake St. Marys State Park meander through those wetlands. Try the Prairie Creek Wetlands Trail and the Franklin Township Greenways Trail, and keep an eye out for marsh-loving wildlife.
Birdwatchers, don’t forget your binoculars — the area is a major migration route for water birds including heron, cormorant, egret, osprey, speckled geese and even pelicans. Be on the lookout for the most majestic of birds — bald eagles are now thriving in the region.
Several jogging and bike paths, including the 40-mile Miami-Erie Canal Towpath Trail, take you along the shoreline and beyond. Try the Celina-Coldwater bike path for a trip from the lake through the countryside to nearby Coldwater or take a stroll through prairies and woodlands of the Gilliland Nature Sanctuary. Keep your eyes peeled for four-legged friends including mink, foxes, weasels, beavers and even coyotes.
If a day on the water floats your boat, set sail on the lake that’s a fisher’s paradise. The lake is populated with a variety of finned fare, including channel catfish, perch, bass, crappie, bluegill and walleye. Cast a line for cash and prizes in one of the area’s many fishing tournaments that take place throughout the year — the Grand Lake Carp Derby is especially popular. Don’t have a boat? No worries! Several marina rental offices around the lake offer boats, pontoons and jet skis.
Summer weekends are packed with fun no matter when you visit the lake, but July brings the area’s premier summer celebration: the three-day Celina Lake Festival. The fun fest features markets, music, fireworks, car and pet shows, a grand parade, and the famous Amphicar Splash-In, where you can see up to 50 of the world’s only mass-produced amphibious vehicles go from the road to the water.
Celina’s lake-life atmosphere gives off a Key West-style vibe (complete with live palm trees) at Boardwalk Village. Spend the weekend in a charming lakeside cottage and enjoy lakeside patios, live music, locally owned restaurants and entertainment. Visit the patio — and a tugboat on land — at Boardwalk Grill for a perfect lakeside summer evening with fish tacos, shrimp and grits, and a pina colada or pull up a chair at the Celina Moose Lodge’s bar for a hearty burger and some live music. Speaking of live music, you can check it out at more than 15 places around the lake, including at the free Summer Concert Series at Celina Lakeshore Park.
If you enjoy specially crafted beverages, be sure to download the Grand Lake Brews-N-Vines Trail app to get special discounts at locally owned wineries, breweries and coffee shops. You’ll have a great time as you visit venues, collect points and win prizes.