The untold story of a Lake Erie nature preserve that used to be a fishing lodge and casino for gangsters


Gangster Alvin “Creepy” Karpis was a frequent guest at Middle Island (Photo: FBI)

Despite his success and connections to high-profile crime networks, Joe Roscoe was able to stay off the radar of the authorities, mostly by offering access to the Lake Erie Fishing Club as an exclusive bribe. Capone and the other gangster guests weren’t the only ones who enjoyed getting out on Lake Erie to wet a line, it seems—so did police officers, public officials, journalists and judges. Roscoe would frequently invite various people of importance and influence to his resort, plying them with women, gambling, fishing and all the libations they could drink. After they had their limit of fish, sex, cards and booze, they would be ethically compromised and in Roscoe’s pocket.

If bribes weren’t enough to sway someone’s opinion or guarantee their silence, a fishing trip into the wild waters of Lake Erie provided an excellent opportunity to eliminate any opposition. One of Roscoe’s underworld friends, and a frequent guest on Middle Island, was Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. On one such fateful fishing trip, Karpis reportedly killed off the very doctor he’d hired to remove his fingerprints. While out celebrating with Karpis following the successful procedure, Dr. Joseph Moran was overheard saying, “I’ve got you guys in the palm of my hand.” Not long after, Karpis invited the doctor to go fishing, and that was the last time he was seen alive. Moran was later found washed up on a beach in Ontario, minus his hands and feet, and identifiable only by his dental records.


It wasn’t long, however, before the authorities began to get wise to the tactics and strategies used by organized crime and their rum-runners. Eventually, the fishermen’s prized local knowledge of the waterways and hidden obstacles wasn’t enough to avoid capture, with their slower moving fishing boats no match for the upgraded fleet of police and coast guard speedboats. At that, the smugglers upped the ante by getting even faster boats. For example, Roscoe’s own supercharged speedboat, named Rainbow, sported a 12-cylinder, 500-horsepower engine, propelling it much faster than any police boat of the day.

Nature has been slowly reclaiming the Lake Erie Fishing Club (Photo: Ken Bell)

In the end, Roscoe’s downfall came about because of his fishing friend Karpis. After a botched kidnapping and extortion attempt, Karpis and his gang went on the run, so Roscoe offered up his apartment in Toledo as a place to lay low. Then in 1935, Karpis continued his crime spree by robbing a mail train in Garrettsville, Ohio. Once again, he turned to Roscoe for help, asking him to facilitate a flight out of Ohio for him and his accomplices. Karpis was ultimately arrested and Roscoe was captured in Miami, Florida, in 1937 for aiding and abetting him.

Following his release after seven and a half years in prison, Roscoe returned to Toledo to live out the rest of his days as an ordinary citizen. While the buyer isn’t known, Roscoe reportedly sold Middle Island and the Lake Erie Fishing Club shortly before his death in 1965. By then, the hotel had long transitioned away from wayward fisherman and gangsters to catering to more sophisticated businesspeople and outdoor enthusiasts. At the resort’s peak, 200 guests a day would visit to enjoy the fantastic fishing, scenic views and famous pheasant dinners.


Today, the property is part of Point Pelee National Park, and sits as a natural wildlife sanctuary. The casino and hotel were long ago reclaimed by Mother Nature, with the island now home to a large population of cormorants and snakes. If you’re interested in taking a look for yourself, contact Pelee Island Charters, which organizes sight-seeing trips to check out Middle Island’s fossils, wildlife and remains of the once great Lake Erie Fishing Club. And if you do go, don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled for Al Capone’s infamous hidden treasure.



Please note: Middle Island is managed as a Zone 1 Special Preservation area, which is the most protected classification in Parks Canada’s zoning system. This allows for its rich ecological and cultural resources to be protected with minimal human disturbance. There are no visitor facilities on Middle Island (no docking, shelter, washrooms, etc.) and public access is prohibited between March 1and September 1 each year, to protect nesting colonial waterbirds. Tours or other organized events are strictly prohibited without written permission from Point Pelee National Park. Park staff and the Visitor Centre at Point Pelee National Park offer information and interpretation about the island for curious visitors.