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Presque Isle

Presque Isle, City of Erie, Erie County, PA

Photo: Presque Isle, City of Erie, Erie County, PA

History [1]

To millions of Pennsylvanians the peninsula that has given the Commonwealth its only port on the Great Lakes and has made Erie an important resort city is little more than an abstraction recalling the exploits of Commodore Perry. This seven-mile-long strip of wooded and slowly shifting sand, established as a State park in 1921, is actually a vast playground that draws a million persons annually, with holiday crowds of fifty thousand thronging its beaches during the summer months.

When the thermometer climbs toward the nineties — and vacationers from eastern Pennsylvania flock by train, bus, and automobile to the New Jersey coast — thousands from Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and western New York make for Presque Isle Peninsula. Here a cool breeze, miles of sandy beaches, shaded picnic areas, forest-bound lagoons, and bridle paths offer respite from the heat. In addition, there are attractions such as game sanctuaries, facilities for lake and bay fishing, and the only operating lighthouse within the State of Pennsylvania.

Presque Isle Peninsula, named Presqu'lle, or peninsula, by the French, juts out into Lake Erie and then curves back toward shore to form Presque Isle Bay. It played an important part in the Nation's history, especially during the Republic's infancy. Forming, as it does, a beautiful natural harbor for Erie, it was responsible for the early military movements in this region under three different flags, with an interim of several years when only the Seneca Indians roamed the territory.

French troops under Chevalier Marin were sent from Canada to Pennsylvania in 1753 to help establish possession of the Ohio Valley by building forts at strategic points. On the harbor mainland opposite the peninsula they erected Fort Presque Isle — on the west bank of Mill Creek at the foot of present Parade Street, Erie — the first of a string of frontier forts built to protect French interests against the English. The French then built a road to LeBoeuf, present-day Waterford, and constructed a fort there in 1753. In 1754 they continued the road to the mouth of French Creek (Franklin) where they built Fort Machault, and then went on down the Allegheny, erecting Fort Duquesne at the Ohio Forks where Pittsburgh now stands. Presque Isle, because of its landlocked harbor, became a supply and munitions depot for the other forts. Supplies from Canada, brought to Presque Isle by boat, were transported by carrier and by packhorse over the French Road to LeBoeuf, and from there were floated by way of French Creek and the Allegheny River to Fort Duquesne.

The British in 1758 regained supremacy at the Ohio Forks, and by 1759 they had also forced the French out of the Erie district. They built a blockhouse at the neck of the peninsula and a stockade to protect their cattle pastured along the peninsula's eastern end. They also rebuilt Fort Presque Isle, which the French had burned before retreating to Canada. The Seneca, in Pontiac's rebellion, attacked the fort in 1763 and destroyed it. From then on the region was traversed only by hostile bands of Indians, until "Mad Anthony" Wayne crushed their spirit of resistance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in 1794. The next year Captain Russell Bissell of Wayne's army arrived at Presque Isle. He built an American fort on the east side of Mill Creek, and the Stars and Stripes fluttered over this section of the country for the first time. In the meantime, Pennsylvania had acquired title to the Triangle lands, which included Presque Isle Peninsula, from the Indians and by sundry quitclaims from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and the United States.

The narrow strip of wooded sand and its sheltered bay again figured prominently in American historical annals during the War of 1812. Early in that war the British, having control of the Great Lakes, were in a position to strike a disastrous blow at any time upon the American settlements on the south shore of Lake Erie. No major American military movements could be made in the region because of the British fleet, which not only prevented any campaigns against Canada, but left the United States vulnerable to attack from the north.

Captain Daniel Dobbins, an experienced navigator on the Great Lakes, was among the few who immediately recognized this danger. He made a hurried trip to Washington to inform President Madison of the perilous situation. Madison, realizing that a fleet was necessary to cooperate with General Harrison's army in Ohio, authorized Dobbins to proceed with the construction of a fleet on Lake Erie.

Dobbins hired some carpenters in New York, among them Noah Brown, who later did meritorious work in the construction of the fleet, and Henry Eckford, a noted architect. Returning to Erie, Dobbins proceeded with plans to build an American squadron, but the small community of a few hundred inhabitants had no cordage, iron, tools, canvas, paint, or other materials necessary in the construction of war vessels. It had only the timber. Supplies and other essentials had to be brought from Pittsburgh and Buffalo.

There was no time for seasoning the green timber. Giant white oaks were cut in the morning, to be laid as the keel of a ship that night. Men worked night and day chopping down pine, oak, and chestnut trees, trimming the branches, whip-sawing them into planks and beams, and fitting them into place. The task would have been less difficult had there been sufficient men, especially carpenters, but Dobbins was handicapped in that respect also.

When Captain Oliver Hazard Perry arrived over the lake ice to take command of the "squadron" at Erie on March 27, 1813, he found only two brig keels laid down and two gunboats nearly covered with planking. The shipyard, on the bay shore where the Government had leased some land, extended from the foot of what is now Sassafras Street to beyond Cascade Street.

Perry was further chagrined to learn that the sixty volunteers guarding the ships had no muskets. They would be unable to put up any defense against the British and Indians, should they cross the lake to attack. He dispatched Dobbins to Buffalo for two cannons, and when Sailing-Master Taylor, who had served under him, arrived at Erie, Perry immediately left for Pittsburgh, where he ordered muskets, powder, ropes, sails, and tools. Dobbins returned from Buffalo with only one cannon, but Perry strengthened his inadequate forces by the addition of five hundred soldiers from the command of General Mead, then encamped near Erie.

Despite difficulties in procuring skilled craftsmen and sorely needed supplies, construction on the six ships went ahead with the 150 workers available. The gunboat Porcupine was launched April 15, and the Scorpion, a schooner, on May 1. These, built at the foot of Sassafras Street, were followed on May 24 by the brigs Lawrence and Niagara, built at the foot of Cascade Street, together with the pilot schooner Ariel. The latter site is now marked by a stone with a bronze plaque.

Perry had left Erie on May 23 to aid Commodore Chauncey in an attack on Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. He played a heroic role in its capture, was cited by Chauncey for bravery and gallantry in action, and brought back from Gonjaquade's Creek at Black Rock five vessels, the Caledonia, Somers, Trippe, Ohio, and Tigress, which the Americans had been unable to move out into the lake until Fort George fell.

The ten ships rode at anchor in the bay July 10. But now that he had the ships, Perry did not have the men. The fleet's complement was figured at 740, with the two brigs requiring 180 men each, yet there were not half enough men and officers to man even one of the brigs. Secretary of the Navy Jones wrote to him repeatedly with instructions to proceed immediately to General Harrison's assistance in Ohio. Perry in turn pleaded with Commodore Chauncey at Sackett's Harbor and the Secretary of the Navy for more men, at least enough for a minimum crew on each ship. The Secretary finally sent some men in response to his plea, but routed them by way of Sackett's Harbor where Chauncey, ever apprehensive of an attack, appropriated them for his own fleet. Perry then opened up recruiting stations at Erie, Buffalo, and Pittsburgh, where a few landlubbers were induced to enlist for four months, at $10 a month, or until a decisive battle was fought.

This period was one of keen vexation and worry for Perry. He was anxious to engage Commodore Barclay and the British fleet, which almost daily sailed defiantly within sight of Erie, daring him to come out and give battle. For days at a time the British anchored off the sand bar at the entrance to the harbor and blockaded the town. Constant vigilance was kept by Perry lest they land under cover of night and destroy his ships. His plight grew worse as the days went by, though a few stragglers joined his fleet and Chauncey spared him an ill-assorted lot from his own squadron.

Sixty more men arrived near the end of July, but they were in no condition to work or fight. Some were sick, some were recovering from fever, and very few had ever helped to man a ship or fire a gun. The command now mustered three hundred men for the fleet, when the two brigs alone required three hundred and sixty, but despite this shortage of men, Perry decided to act. His mind was already made up when Commodore Barclay suddenly lifted his blockade and sailed for Canada.

The shallow water of the harbor entrance, which had prevented the British fleet from entering Erie harbor, now presented a serious problem to the Americans. Commodore Barclay had made no effort to destroy the American ships because he thought Perry would never be able to get them over the sand bar. He intended to return shortly to find the ships grounded upon the bar — an easy prey to his guns.

Perry anchored his vessels near the harbor entrance on the first of August and found the water at the bar only six feet deep. As the Lawrence and Niagara drew nine feet of water, it was impossible to get them over the obstruction without lightening them. Five small gunboats were sent over the bar the next day to bear the brunt of attack in the event the British made a surprise appearance. When the Lawrence grounded halfway across the bar, Perry ordered her guns dismounted and set up on shore, with muzzles trained toward the harbor entrance. Lead ballast and everything movable were lightered from the ship, but she remained fast.

The only alternative now was to float her over with "camels," large wooden air-chambers used in buoying ships over shallow places. The camels were placed on each side of the Lawrence, and water was pumped into them until they sank into position and were made fast to ropes under the keel. Then the water was pumped out. The Lawrence slowly rose, but the ropes broke and the ship settled back upon the sand. After two days and two nights of incessant work the Lawrence was finally lifted and floated over the bar.

Perry ordered the Niagara to be lifted over next. Her guns were dismounted and taken ashore. At this point, five ships of the enemy suddenly appeared from the northwest, and everything was confusion. Though the camels had by this time been unfastened from the Lawrence, her guns were still ashore. While in that condition a freshening wind swung the two helpless brigs around until they were broadside to the British. Fortunately Barclay's vision was obscured by the haze, and he was thus unaware of the defenseless predicament of the two brigs. Thinking the Americans actually preparing to pour a broadside into him, he turned about and sailed away to get the Detroit, a new ship larger than any of Perry's or his own five.

That evening Perry completed the task of lifting the Niagara over the bar. With his force of three hundred men, many ill and most of them lacking naval experience, he set sail. He searched the Canadian shore for a day but, unable to find any trace of the British, returned to Erie, where he took on additional supplies and provisions for a longer search. Before he could start out again, the glad tidings reached him that Captain Elliott with a small force was marching from Sackett's Harbor to join him. The Ariel, sent immediately to meet the detachment, returned a few days later with Elliott and 102 men.

The next day, not knowing the whereabouts of the British fleet, Perry sailed up the lake to join General Harrison. His fleet was armed with fifty-four guns and had a total burden of 1,671 tons. The British fleet, six ships with a total burden of 1,460 tons, had 450 men and sixty-three guns. The British superiority lay in their long guns and the stout construction of the flagship Detroit, which had planking more than a foot thick, making it invulnerable to grape shot.

Perry anchored off Sandusky and went into conference with General Harrison concerning a plan of campaign against the enemy. He had dispatched the Ohio to Erie for supplies, so that on the morning of September 10, when the British fleet was sighted in Put-In Bay, Perry sailed out to meet it with only nine ships. Of his brilliant victory he wrote modestly: "We have met the enemy and they are ours. .. ." This triumph, considered by some authorities as one of history's great naval victories, gave renewed hope to the Americans and greatly weakened Britain's hold on the Great Lakes.

The Lawrence was sunk in Misery Bay, just off the peninsula, in 1815, and the Niagara was sunk there a few years later. The Lawrence was raised in 1875 and taken to the 1876 Centennial at Philadelphia, where it was destroyed by fire. The brig Niagara was raised and rebuilt in 1913 to participate in the Perry Centennial at Erie. Older residents of Erie, who have fished from boats anchored near the historic wreck, remember perch and sunfish darting through holes in its planking or lying motionless under the curve of the oak ribs protruding from the keel, long since covered with sand. For many years the Niagara lay at anchor off the Public Dock, then was taken to the peninsula to be rebuilt for the second time. Its restoration was proceeding on the peninsula's bay side in the summer of 1941, with the Pennsylvania Historical Commission supervising the project.

Near Perry Memorial Park in Misery Bay is another historic battleship, the Wolverine, originally christened the U.S.S. Michigan. This, the first American ironclad battleship, was launched in Presque Isle Bay in 1843. It was the only warship on the Great Lakes for more than a half-century, serving later as a training ship. It navigated under its own power until 1926, when it was moored near the Perry Memorial after more than eighty years of service.

Presque Isle Peninsula is the base for several marine aids that assist in making Lake Erie safe for navigation. The United States Coast Guard Station near the North Pier forms a concrete break-wall on the north side of the channel, leading into Presque Isle Bay. Regular coast guard duties are performed by a Coast Guard unit. The Lighthouse Service, operating under the Coast Guard, maintains a lighthouse, tower flash light, fog horns, range lights, buoys, and other aids helpful in guiding ships in and out of the harbor.

Congress recognized the necessity of navigation-aids on the Great Lakes as early as 1810, when it passed an act authorizing the construction of a lighthouse at Buffalo and one at Erie, a straggling town of four hundred people but important as a supply and transportation link between the East and West. Actual work on the Erie lighthouse was delayed because of the impending war with Great Britain, and the matter was forgotten until again called to the attention of Congress by Commodore Perry in 1813.

The Land Lighthouse, first American lighthouse on the Great Lakes, was built in 1818 on the mainland's "Garrison Hill." Probably of brick, it stood on a sixty-foot bluff overlooking the harbor entrance, not far from where Perry had mounted long guns in 1813 to prevent the British fleet from entering the harbor while his fleet was in construction on the bay shore. In 1858 the original Land Lighthouse was replaced by a structure of Milwaukee brick, and this in turn was replaced at a cost of $33,000 in 1867 by one of Berea stone, which operated until 1885.

Even with a lighthouse, navigation of the channel entrance was difficult because of the two long, winding sand bars that formed it. The shifting sands caused a fluctuation in the depth of the channel water, making it necessary for the larger ships to anchor at the harbor entrance, where they unloaded their cargoes to lighters poled in and out of the harbor. To assist navigation, early but crude attempts by the citizens were made to construct a channel entrance with hemlock logs and branches. The Federal Government cut through the sand bars in 1827 and built piers to hold back the sand, thus insuring a straight passage and uniform depth through the channel.

An octagonal wooden tower beacon light was erected the following year at the east end of the peninsula pier near the harbor entrance. About thirty years later the schooner Pilgrim's Progress ran into the pier during a storm and damaged the beacon. The tower was then replaced by a cast-iron structure, and a frame dwelling was built on the beach for the keeper. In 1880 the pier was lengthened and the tower transferred to its end. The Presque Isle Pierhead Light, as it is now known, is still maintained on the North Pier, close by the North Pier Fog Horn.

Pennsylvania's only operating lighthouse today, the Presque Isle Lighthouse, on the north shore of the peninsula, was built in 1873 at a cost of $15,000. It has a square, white-painted tower of brick, sixty-eight feet high, with a red-brick dwelling attached. The alternating, flashing red and white beams can be seen at distances of twelve and sixteen miles, respectively.

The first definite steps to preserve the peninsula's wild beauty were taken in 1919 when a local movement was started to create a State park. The enabling act creating the park was passed in 1921, and the area's subsequent development along recreational lines was made possible. Roads were built along its entire length, a memorial park was established at the southeastern tip, a water line was extended from the mainland, and the entire peninsula was developed to promote recreational and health facilities.

Steel breakwaters now prevent storms from severing the peninsula from the mainland, and they also delay wave action that tends to carry sand from the western end to the eastern tip. Soil erosion studies and reclamation work have accomplished some good, but not enough to eliminate entirely the damage done by severe lake storms. Trees planted along the lakeside now help to keep the sand from being blown away. These young poplars take a firm hold in the sand and in a few years become good windbreakers. Steel jetties, large stones on the beaches, stone jetties, and storm fences have been enlisted in the defense against storms that threaten to breach the peninsula's neck, or western extremity, which at some places is only one hundred feet wide. Vegetation that springs up also prevents the dried sand from being washed away by the water or blown away by the winds.

Driven by the prevailing west wind on Lake Erie, the waves wash sand, gravel, and shingle from the bluffs west of Erie and deposit them against the perpendicular northeast shore-line to form a "recurved sandspit." The rate of deposit is rapid when one considers that the peninsula, more than a mile wide at the eastern end, and resting in from twenty-five to forty feet of water, is growing eastward at the rate of twenty-six feet a year.

The peninsula's growth eastward is caused by deposits which form beach pools in the bay, isolating them into ponds and eventually lagoons. The seed of the cottonwood poplar sprouts up around the edges of these ponds and forms hedges of trees. In time the lagoons become filled with sand, and brush grass grows between the trees. Bearberry, a hardy evergreen shrub, appears about forty years later and forms a heath. Humus forms on the heath, and several years later red cedar and white pine trees take root. The white pine forest forms a dense shade that prevents the heath and white pine seedlings from growing, and the white pines thus last only one generation. But red oak successfully combats the shade and eventually supersedes the white pines. Hemlocks penetrate the oldest red oak section, and, according to some authorities, sugar maples will finally replace other trees and become the permanent forest.

This unusual combination of sand plains, marshes, ponds, and forests has always attracted a variety of wild life. A few deer roam the park at will. At the eastern tip is a sanctuary for hundreds of gulls. Mallard ducks at Fox's Pond have become so tame they will eat from the hands of visitors. Goldfinches, bluebirds, wild canaries, bobwhites, blue jays, crows, and many other birds enliven the woods with their musical calls and bright plumage. Woodcock and quail may be seen as well as the strutting pheasant, and a pair of eagles have their eyrie in one of the highest trees.

The peninsula tip curving back against the mainland forms the largest landlocked harbor on the Great Lakes. Freighters, packet ships, and coal, iron-ore, pulpwood, fish, and grain boats tie up at modern docks and elevators. The bay is dotted with rowboats, motorboats, sailboats, yachts, and scout kayaks. Muskellunge, grass pike, black bass, and many other varieties of freshwater fish lure anglers from the Tri-State area. Regattas, swimming meets, skating, ice boating, and ice fishing likewise attract thousands in season. The Erie Power Squadron conducts classes in navigation to promote interest in aquatic sports and to improve nautical skills.

Only from a sufficient height in the air can one comprehend the freakish outline shown on the map, which encloses the 3,200 acres of natural beauty found on this weird sandy stretch. Fifteen miles of trails and equestrian paths, and hundreds of picnic tables and stoves are hidden by virgin timber. Visible changes are the eleven miles of concrete roads, a city reservoir, parallel channel piers, stone jetties, steel breakwaters, Coast Guard buildings, the Presque Isle Light, and minor structures. But the sandy beaches, lily ponds, lagoons, the swampy lee-side area, Misery Bay, the dense growths — all are pretty much the same as when Monsieur Le Mercier, engineer under Pierre Marin, paddled his canoe into the bay in search of a site for a French fort and a shorter route to the Ohio country.This French soldier was the first recorded white man to view "the finest spot in nature," as Duquesne, Governor of Canada, described it to the French King.

  • Writers Project, Works Project Administration, Pennsylvania: A Guide to the Keystone State, 1940, Federal Works Agency, John M. Carmody, Administrator
  • Presque Isle Map

    **Information is curated from a variety of sources and, while deemed reliable, is not guaranteed.
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