Pennsylvania’s Quiet Star
By Renée S. Gordon
Erie, Pennsylvania, located on the southern shore of Lake Erie, is the state’s fourth largest city, the state’s only major city on the lakeshore, and has played a significant role in historic events that impacted the entire nation. Visitors come largely to experience the plethora of year-round outdoor activities Erie has to offer, but to fully experience the place it’s best to be aware of its history.
The 9,910-sq. mile Lake Erie was formed around 14,000-years ago at the end of the Ice Age. It is the fourth largest and the warmest of the Great Lakes and the last of the five to be explored by nonindigenous people because the Iroquois banned traders and explorers from entering or transiting their land. The lake abuts Michigan, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and is very close to Ontario, Canada.
Long before the first documented Europeans entered the region it was inhabited by a series of tribes, each with its own territory. The southern shore of the lake was the land of the Erielhonan, “long-tails,” who gave their name to the lake. The French referred to them as the Cat Nation, probably a reference to the mountain lions in the area, and the lake as the Lac du Chat or “Lake of the Cat.” There is only one documented encounter between Europeans and members of the Erie. It occurred in 1615 near Niagara Falls when Étienne Brulé met with a group. During the Indian Beaver Wars (1642-1700) the Erie (who are estimated to have numbered around 8,000), were either killed or assimilated by the Iroquois Confederacy who also annexed their land. Louis Jolliet is credited with the first sighting of Lake Erie in 1669.
In 1753 the French erected Fort Presque Isle, overlooking the lake, as one of a proposed chain of protective forts. The fort was a 120-ft. square with walls as high as 15-ft. It was abandoned in 1759 and the British built an additional structure on the site the following year. In June of 1763 the fort fell as a casualty of Pontiac’s Rebellion. A Pennsylvania Historic Marker indicates the site of the two forts and the area’s first settlement.
Presqu’ile, present day Erie, and Lake Erie rapidly became an important fur trade transit route during the 18th Century and the building of the Erie Canal, the first navigable waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Midwest, opened up the country for settlement and greater trade opportunities. The U.S. Government sold the Erie Triangle to the state of Pennsylvania in 1792 for $151,000. Four states laid claim to the triangle but the government purchased the land and in turn sold it to Pennsylvania for $.75 an acre to prevent the state from being landlocked. Pennsylvania needed access to the ocean even though it was rather roundabout. Erie County gave Pennsylvania 76.6-miles of coastline.
General “Mad” Anthony Wayne was born on his family’s Waynesborough estate, about 15 miles outside of Philadelphia. He was a good friend and confidant of George Washington, was in command of the Pennsylvania Continental Line during the American Revolution, and was made a brigadier general by 1777. Wayne was sent by Washington to make peace with the Indians in 1794, a mission he accomplished, opening the region to settlers. In December 1796 Wayne was in Erie when he was stricken with complications of gout. He died and was buried beneath a flagpole outside of a blockhouse, East Third and Ash Streets.
His family wanted him interred nearer the estate so in 1809 his wife sent his sons to exhume the body and bring him home. When disinterred the sons realized the cart they brought would not hold his coffin. The physician in charge, being helpful, cut the body apart and boiled it, separating the flesh from the bones. The bones were placed in a box for transport and the flesh was reinterred beneath the flagpole. Legend has it that on the return journey the box fell from the cart and the bones were scattered. His sons gathered all the bones in the area and continued home. General Wayne is said to haunt his estate and the cemetery seeking his lost bones. Tours of his estate are offered and are very popular in October. He is buried in Radnor, Pennsylvania’s St. David’s Episcopal Church cemetery.
The original blockhouse burned down in the 1830s and was reconstructed in the 1880s. The two-story Wayne Memorial Blockhouse is open for tours and contains Wayne’s original tombstone.
The city was designed in 1795 and by the turn of the century was a thriving port just in time to play a pivotal role in the War of 1812. The major causes of the War of 1812 were British trade restrictions, impressment of Americans, and American territorial expansion. Lake Erie was incredibly important because water routes were the roads of the era and it was nearly impossible to move troops and supplies over land. British Commander Robert Barclay controlled the Great Lakes at the start of the conflagration so the U.S. established facilities to construct a squadron of ships on Presque Isle. In July 1813 the squadron was complete and under the command of U.S. Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry.
On September 10, 1813 Perry and Barclay met in the Battle of Lake Erie. After Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence, was put out of commission, he moved to the Brig Niagara. Even with the British advantage of long-range guns Perry was victorious in less than three hours. This was the first time a British fleet was forced to surrender and their surrender gave total control of Lake Erie to the U.S. It was also the first U.S. Naval fleet action.
Dear General, “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem,” — Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, Sept. 1813
The Erie Maritime Museum and Flagship Niagara is a phenomenal museum that relates the maritime history of Lake Erie with a special emphasis on the Battle of Lake Erie. Exhibits, dioramas, artifacts, videos and informational panels interpret the history of the region. Guided and self-guided tours are offered and should begin with the orientation film. The most comprehensive thematic exhibits are based around Perry and the battle; this section is best understood by watching the ten-minute film about the battle. Two screens simultaneously tell both the British and American sides of the story. Additional highlights include a life-sized diorama of a cutaway of the frigate’s deck, a replica of Perry’s battle flag with the words, ”Don’t Give Up the Ship,” and panels dedicated to the African American sailors and the Native American perspective. Nearly 25 percent of Perry’s crew was of African descent. I was intrigued to learn that sailors worked the deck barefoot because they did not want to slip in the huge puddles of blood found there despite the use of sand as an absorbent. The words embroidered on the flag were the last words of Captain Lawrence, the namesake of Perry’s flagship.
The original U.S. Brig Niagara was a dual-masted, square-rigged, wooden-hulled ship with a crew of 155. She was armed with 18 carronades and two long guns. She was scuttled in Erie’s Misery Bay in 1820. The jewel in the crown of the museum is the 1988 third reconstruction of the Niagara. The ship serves as an educational tool, sailing school and as the Flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Visitors can tour the Niagara (note, however, that it is not ADA compliant).
Port Erie Bicentennial Tower is located o the bayfront near the museum. The tower was completed in 1995 at a cost of $3.7 million. At the second observation level the tower is 138-ft. tall and provides a panoramic view that encompasses Erie and Canada. There are 210 steps or you can take the $4 elevator.
The Victorian Princess, an authentic paddle wheeler, leaves from the marina adjacent to the tower. The tri-level boat features a series of guided and thematic tours of the Presque Isle Bay complete with brunch, lunch or dinner. The boat can be reserved for private charters.
The Sheraton Erie Bayfront is the perfect location for a trip to Erie. It is located within walking distance of both the downtown and Bayfront Marina sites and attractions. The 200 guest rooms and suites offer views of Presque Isle Bay, all the standard amenities and Sheraton Sweet Sleeper Beds, flat screen TV, WIFI, heated pool, whirlpool and skywalk access to the convention facilities. The award-winning Bayfront Grille is open from 6:30 a.m. and is a perfect venue from which to watch the sunrise and the sunset.
Erie is truly a quiet star in American history and is equally stellar as a 365-day outdoor destination. Dig a little deeper into what makes Erie a great destination and make plans to visit.
– Photos by Renée S. Gordon
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