Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-03-04.
The peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie along the shores of Pennsylvania forms the Erie's natural harbor at Presque Isle Bay. Three lighthouses help protect the harbor with the Erie Land Lighthouse being the first one erected in 1818.
The French explored the area during the 1720s, which led to the area being called "Presque Isle," which translates to "almost an island." The French took control of the area in the 1750s and constructed Fort Presque Isle in the summer of 1753.
The British also sought to control the area leading to the French and Indian War. With the British victory at the Battle of Fort Niagara, the French withdrew from the area, burning Fort Presque Isle during the retreat.
After the American Revolution, there were competing claims to the area known as the Erie Triangle. New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts all laid claim to the territory. The federal government took control of the area in 1786 and in 1792 sold the rights to the area to Pennsylvania, as it was the only landlocked claimant.
An act of Congress dated May 1, 1810 authorized the construction of several lighthouses throughout the United States, with a lighthouse "on or near Presq'isle, in Lake Erie." A site was chosen on the bluff overlooking the entrance to the harbor, and on April 2, 1811, several acres of land were acquired from Brigadier General John Kelso of the Pennsylvania militia.
The War of 1812 put the lighthouse construction projects on hold.
During the War of 1812, many of the United States' naval ships were pinned down at Black Rock, near Buffalo due to the British stronghold at Fort Erie and their batteries that dominated the Niagara River. After receiving intelligence of the British fleet on Lake Erie, a recommendation was made to establish a ship yard at Presque Isle due to the quality of the lumber growing there.
After amassing several ships, in September of 1813, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry successfully defeated Robert Heriot Barclay in the Battle of Lake Erie, which took place near Put-in-Bay.
On March 3, 1817, an appropriation of $17,000 was made for the construction of the lighthouses at Erie and Buffalo, New York. Although both were placed in the single contract, it is unknown which lighthouse was constructed first. Although no conclusive document is known to exist, most believe the honor of the first lighthouse on the American side of the Great Lakes goes to the Erie Land Lighthouse, not the Buffalo Lighthouse.
A construction contract was signed with the firm of Beall and Thaxter of Hingham, Massachusetts for $3,000. The firm had finished up the construction of the West Chop Lighthouse on Martha's Vineyard the year before.
Although no known photographs exist of the first Erie Land Lighthouse, known as the Presq'isle Lighthouse at that time, an archaeological dig that took place between 1997 and 2000 shows that it was most likely a square 20-foot stone tower erected on an elliptical-shaped, 4-foot-thick foundation of crushed stone, mortar, and lime, which was constructed 200 yards to the west of the current tower.
The first keeper, Captain John Bone, along with his family lived in a one-story frame dwelling, which was constructed nearby.
By 1838, many of the nation's lighthouses were being inspected and reported on by various members of the U.S. Navy. In the tenth lighthouse district, which spanned from the St. Lawrence River down into Ohio, Lieutenant Charles T. Platt handled the inspections. For the Presque Isle (Erie Land) Lighthouse, he put the following text in his report:
Presque-isle light-house, 10 lamps; fixed. This light is considered one of the most useful on the south shores of the lake, and is kept in first-rate order. I find here, again, a fault in the chimneys, being too short, not reaching above the scallops of the reflectors. The dwelling, and everything appertaining thereto, is without fault.
Problems for the tower began to rise in 1851 when an inspection showed the tower was settling. Over the next several years, various repairs were made to try and extend the life of the tower. The following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the year 1857:
1858 Erie Land Lighthouse
The Presque Isle (or main light tower at Erie, Pennsylvania) required extensive repairs, and it was designed to make them this season; but other works of a pressing character have delayed the commencement until it will be too late to do so prudently this season.
A new 56-foot-tall, round lighthouse, made of Cream City brick imported from Milwaukee, was erected in 1858. This move incensed the citizens of Erie. They felt that the local brick industry should have benefitted from the construction. Also constructed at that time was a one-and-a-half-story brick keeper's dwelling.
This tower would also fall victim to a sinking foundation. A report in the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances dated October 26, 1865 had the following dire wording:
The light-house tower at Presque Isle having been reported to require immediate attention to preserve it from falling, a special examination was made. It was found to have settled very considerably; the masonry, moreover, being cracked, with a tendency to further insecurity. It is recommended that this tower be taken down upon the close of navigation this season, and rebuilt upon a proper and more suitable site. A special estimate to cover the cost is submitted.
The tower was taken down the following year in 1866. Test borings at the site indicated a layer of quicksand underneath where the 1818 and the 1858 towers were erected. To ensure that the new lighthouse would stand tall for many years, two things were necessary, a new location and a solid foundation.
A new location, further back from the bluff was selected, and to ensure a solid foundation, a hole was excavated to a depth of 20 feet, enough to get under the layer of quicksand. Inside the hole, eight courses of solid oak timber, twenty feet in length, twelve inches square were laid. Atop the timber, six feet of finely crushed limestone was laid in Portland cement. In the bed of Portland cement, solid courses of stone, eight feet thick, were laid.
The site preparation, before the Erie Land Lighthouse was even constructed, was a sum of nearly $40,000. Atop the solid foundation, a 49-foot circular, unpainted, tapering tower of Berea sandstone was erected. The inside of the tower was lined with brick to promote ventilation and a set of circular cast iron provided access to the lantern.
Attached to the side of the tower was a nearly 16-foot by 5-foot combination work / oil storage room. Entrance to the workroom is via a steel door with the year of construction "1867" chiseled into the stone above it.
There were two galleries at the Erie Land Lighthouse, a larger one at the top of the tower, which surrounded the lantern, and a smaller one that surrounded the lantern glass. Inside the lantern was a third-order Fresnel lens manufactured by L. Sauter and Son of Paris, France at a cost of $7,000, which provided visibility of up to 17 miles into Lake Erie.
An appropriation of $7,500 on March 2, 1867 was made for the construction of a new keeper's dwelling, however, it was never utilized. Almost immediately after the new tower was erected, plans were being made to construct a new lighthouse out on the Presque Isle Peninsula. By 1869, its location was selected and the Lighthouse Board requested an appropriation of $28,000 for its construction.
Prior to the consideration of a new lighthouse on the Presque Isle Peninsula, the lighthouse on the mainland, was called the Presque Isle Lighthouse in government documents. Once the new lighthouse on the peninsula was in the planning stages, the Lighthouse Board began referring to that new lighthouse as the Presque Isle Lighthouse.
This name conflicted with the current Presque Isle (Erie Land) Lighthouse located on the bluff on the Erie mainland. To avoid confusion, the 1867 lighthouse erected on the mainland was now referred to as the Erie Harbor Lighthouse, which eventually became known as the Erie Land Lighthouse, as it was on the mainland.
The issue of the dwelling came up again in the Annual Report of 1870. It listed the walls of the house as "perfectly good, but floors, window casings, plastering, &c., &c., require renewing." The following year, a new appropriation was made on March 3, 1871 for renovations to the dwelling. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1872 had the following entry:
485. Erie Harbor, Pennsylvania - An appropriation was made, March 3, 1871, for renovating this station. It was expended in raising the roof, renewing the brick-work around windows, renewing floors, replastering the house, renewing the barn, and building a fence partially around the buildings. The station is in good order.
Over the next few years, the Lighthouse Board turned its focus on the new Presque Isle Lighthouse, which was constructed north of the lighthouse, on the Presque Isle peninsula, so little was done to the Erie Land Lighthouse. In 1880, some minor work was carried when the tower was repointed and the kitchen was replastered.
With the new Presque Isle Lighthouse erected on the peninsula, the Erie Land Lighthouse's days were numbered. The station was discontinued and the property sold at a public auction on March 1, 1881 for $1,800 to Myron Sanford. As the lens, lantern, iron stairs, and several other pieces could be reused, they were removed and transported to the lighthouse depot at Buffalo.
Public outcry over the light's discontinuation raged on for a few years leading to the government to repurchase the property in 1884. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1885 detailed the light's return:
Erie, outside of Erie Harbor, Presqu'ile Bay, Lake Erie, Pennsylvania - Congress, on July 7, 1884, appropriated $7,000 for the re-establishment of this light, which had been discontinued, and on March 1, 1881, the real estate was sold at public auction. The site has been repurchased, and a correct survey of the site and right of way made. As the property was endangered by tramps, a custodian was placed in charge until the station was ready to be lighted. The work of restoring the metal-work of the tower and repairing the dwelling was commenced early in the spring. Upon assorting the metal-work of the tower, which was stored at the light-house in Buffalo, it was found that some of the castings and wrought-iron work were missing or broken, and the replacing of these somewhat delayed the work and increased its expense. New illuminating apparatus was provided and the station was put in good order. The light was shown on July 1, 1885, for the first time since its re-establishment.
In 1894, some 297 feet of wooden fence, on the west side of the station was almost entirely rebuilt with cedar posts and wire. That same year, a natural gas well, 30 feet from the dwelling, was tapped and ran to the keeper's dwelling to be used for fuel.
Minor repairs were undertaken in 1896. The house was repaired throughout and the back porch was enlarged. The lighthouse would only serve through December 26, 1899, the close of the navigation season, after which, it was discontinued.
In 1901, the third-order Fresnel lens that was used in the Erie Land Lighthouse was transferred to the Marblehead Lighthouse in Ohio. At that time, the lantern of the Erie Land Light was removed and covered over with a cap.
The City of Erie assigned the land around the lighthouse as parkland in 1912. On June 12, 1934, the federal government turned the lighthouse and property to the City of Erie for "public-park purposes."
As part of a national bicentennial in 1976, funding was acquired to restore the property and appoint a caretaker. Two years later, the Erie Land Light was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
To restore the tower to its former glory, a wooden replica of its lantern was fitted in 1990, and the Erie Land Lighthouse was dedicated a Pennsylvania landmark. On December 26, 1999, exactly 100 years after it was extinguished, the lighthouse was symbolically relit to celebrate its history.
A gale, which came off Lake Erie in 2003 damaged the wooden lantern, ripping it from the tower and smashing it on the ground. Grants totaling $400,000 were collected from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to fund the restoration work that was needed.
Fiske and Sons of Erie were contracted to power wash the exterior, restore the interior stairs, and replace deteriorating bricks. A 6,300-pound copper replica of the original lantern was built at that time as well. On March 19, 2004, the replica lantern was placed atop the tower and an official relighting ceremony was carried out on June 19, 2004.
In August of 2011, the tower was opened for tours for the first time as part of a joint project between the Erie Port Authority and the Erie Playhouse. Actors from the Erie Playhouse dressed up in period costumes and lead groups to the top of the tower while highlighting the history of the structure.
Each summer since then, the Erie Playhouse conducts tours of the lighthouse as part of a fundraiser for the group's Youtheatre program.
Directions: From Alternate Route 5 (East Lake Road) in Erie, PA, head north on Lighthouse Street. At the end of this street will be the lighthouse.
Access: Grounds open. Tower opened for tours on occasion.View more Erie Land Lighthouse pictures