Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-03-19.
The peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie along the shores of Pennsylvania forms the Erie's natural harbor at Presque Isle Bay. Today, three lighthouses protect the harbor with the Presque Isle North Pierhead Lighthouse being one of them.
The French explored the area during the 1720s and called the area "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, which led 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." After a construction delay due to the War of 1812, an appropriation of $17,000 made in 1817 restarted the construction of the lighthouses at Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, New York.
During 1818, the Presque Isle Lighthouse, today referred to as the Erie Land Lighthouse, was erected on a bluff overlooking the entrance to Presque Isle Bay and the Erie Harbor. Its position on the bluff sometimes made it hard to see. This led to improvements being made near the harbor's entrance.
A survey of Erie Harbor was made in 1819 by Major John Anderson of the Topographical Engineers. It showed a sandbar at the entrance to the harbor and a narrow, crooked channel with a depth of 6 feet. Strong currents often ran into and out of the bay depending on how the wind blew.
By an act of March 3, 1823, an appropriation of $150 was made for a new survey and to establish a project for improving to the entrance to Erie Harbor. Captain T. W. Maurice, of the Corps. Of Engineers was put in charge of the project.
His plan was to constrict the width of the channel, hoping that the strong currents would scour out the sand bars, thus increasing the depth of the channel. An act of May 26, 1824 appropriated $20,000 to start the construction of the breakwaters and dredging the entrance to the channel. The work continued until 1829 when the initial construction phase of the harbor was completed.
In 1830, Congress appropriated $2,500 for a beacon light to mark the end of the pier. The new light was a square, white, wooden beacon erected at the end of the North Channel pier.
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 North Pierhead Lighthouse he put the following text in his report:
The beacon, standing on the pier, is in as good condition as the mutilated state of the pier will admit. It should be rebuilt, as well as the dwelling in which the tender resides; but, before undertaking to rebuild either of these buildings, it will be both judicious and economical to remodel the pier with stone. When this is accomplished, one thousand dollars will be amply sufficient to establish the beacon now erected on a solid and permanent foundation; and an expenditure of five hundred dollars will then render the dwelling comfortable.
With the establishment of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852, the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys were removed from oversight by the U.S. Treasury department and put under the auspices of a group, which consisted of distinguished military officers, and civilian scientists who understood the business.
1859 Presque Isle Pierhead Lighthouse (NA)
One of the first tasks carried out by the newly appointed board was to outfit lighthouses with the more efficient Fresnel lens. Due to the number of lighthouses in use, this task would be carried out over the course of several years.
Fresnel lenses came in six sizes, or orders. Orders one through three were usually reserved for larger coastal lighthouses, while the smaller lights would typically be outfitted with orders four through six. With that, in 1854, the Presque Isle North Pierhead Light would get the smallest, a catadioptric sixth-order Fresnel lens illuminating an arc of 270°.
That same year, a pair of range lights in Erie Harbor that were privately maintained at the expense of mariners were adopted by the Lighthouse Establishment.
In 1855, a vessel attempting to enter the harbor during a gale would destroy the wooden pierhead beacon and a portion of the pier. To temporarily reestablish the light, a gallows frame was erected to support a lens lantern showing an arc of 225°.
To start the reconstruction, a 28 x 33-foot section of the pier first had to be rebuilt. The cost was estimated at $1,731.07. The cast-iron components to make up the new two-story tower ran $938.64; the cost of a new lantern was $431.95, a new sixth-order Fresnel lens, which included freight and setting it up was $501.64. Other miscellaneous expenses brought the total of the new tower to $5,250.
The temporary light on the gallows frame would serve for another year until the new 34-foot-tall wrought iron lighthouse was constructed in 1857. At that time, the lower half of the tower was an open framework with its spiral staircase visible.
In 1869, some general work was carried out. The dwelling was painted and repaired, the beacon was repainted, a new woodshed was built, and some concern was shown for beach erosion near the dwelling.
That year, the Erie Range Beacons were repaired and upgraded. The Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of Finances had the following entry:
31 and 32. Beacon ranges Nos. 1 and 2. - New masts have been erected for the range lights, and covers made for the lanterns to protect them from the weather, provided with locked doors to prevent interference with the lenses, and a plank footway for the keeper provided. The ventilation of the lanterns has been secured, and the lights are now well sheltered from all interfering causes, and give entire satisfaction.
Plans were underway the following year to upgrade the illuminating apparatus in the range beacons. In 1870, a breakwall, 245 feet long, was erected along the shore in front of the keeper's dwelling to stop the erosion. That same year, a boat shed was provided for the keeper, and a buoy shed was in the built on the north side of the pier, between the beacon and one of the range lights.
A fog bell was erected at the end of the pier in 1880. At this time, there were two pairs of range lights, in addition to the pierhead beacon. A number of harbor improvements were in process, and upon completion of them, one pair of range lights would be discontinued.
A number of changes were carried out in 1882, which included the pierhead light being moved to the end of the newly lengthened pier and the placement of the fog signal in the lower section of the tower. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
593, 594, 595, Presqu'ile Ranges, Erie, Pennsylvania - The following changes in range-lights were made at this station: The iron skeleton tower, which stood on the crib behind the north pier of the entrance to Erie Harbor, was moved to the outer end of the north pier. The fog-signal, which was in a separate structure near the outer end of the pier, was moved and placed in the base of the iron tower. The outer end of this pier settled badly during the spring gales, so much so as to endanger the beacon. The beacon was at once shored up, made level and secure. Since then, the engineer in charge of the Erie Harbor improvements has leveled up the pier and heavily riprapped it with stone, so that no further settlement is feared. A mast 50 feet high with a disk was erected in front of the keeper's dwelling, from which a light was suspended, and the beacon near the west end of the north pier was raised 10 feet. This beacon with a mast-light forms a range for the newly dredged channel to the wharves at Erie, Pennsylvania. Minor repairs were made to the dwelling and boat-house. The pier of protection east of the dwelling is in a dilapidated condition and should be rebuilt at once, for which an appropriation of $4,000 is needed.
That same year, the characteristic of the light was changed from fixed white to fixed red upon opening of the navigation season.
The following year, 1883, saw additional changes carried out at the Presque Isle North Pierhead Beacon. To start, the tower was sanded and painted. Then, to allow the keeper to safely traverse the pier during inclement weather, 934 feet of elevated walk was built from a point in front of the keeper's dwelling, out to the end of the pier, where the tower was located.
Other improvements carried out at that time were the rebuilding of the protective pier in front of the keeper's dwelling and the lens was upgraded. Lenses were swapped between the Presque Isle Pierhead beacon in Pennsylvania and the Crossover Island Lighthouse in New York.
The sixth-order Fresnel lens was removed from the Presque Isle Pierhead Light and sent to the Crossover Island Lighthouse in the Thousand Islands region of New York State. Its larger fourth-order lens was then sent to Erie, Pennsylvania and placed in the pierhead lighthouse.
Like the fog bells at the Oswego Pierhead and Rochester Harbor Lighthouses, mariners complained that the fog bell at the Presque Isle North Pierhead was also ineffective. In 1890, the Lighthouse Board recommended that $4,300 be appropriated for a new steam fog signal.
That same year, the pier was set to be extended 450 feet lake-ward in the fall, and plans were made to move the beacon and extend the elevated walk once that work was completed. By 1892, the lighthouse and the fog signal were moved to within 30 feet of the end of the pier. An additional 458 feet of elevated walk were added to the end to bring it to the tower. Other sections of the walk were either rebuilt or repaired.
No progress was made on the fog signal, and it was requested again in the Annual Reports of 1891 and 1892. Finally, on February 15, 1893, Congress approved the request provided it wasn't to exceed $4,300. However, no money was ever appropriated, forcing the Lighthouse Board to reiterate their requests in 1893 and 1894.
In 1895, a well was drilled and lined with 5⅛-inch casing of galvanized pipe. The following year saw the wood shed rebuilt and enlarged and 90 feet of plank walk rebuilt.
Starting in 1898, the Lighthouse Board recommended that the keeper's dwelling be replaced. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
1237. Presqu'ile Pierhead, Erie Harbor, entrance to Presqu'ile Bay, Lake Erie, Pennsylvania - The keeper's dwelling is old and in poor condition. It should be rebuilt and enlarged to accommodate the families of the two keepers, who now together occupy the one small building. It is estimated that a proper dwelling can be built for not exceeding $6,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of that amount be made therefor.
As no action was taken on the dwelling, in 1899, the Lighthouse Board advised Congress that the old dwelling could be repaired for $3,500 and requested that amount, however it would still only comfortably accommodate a single family.
Presque Isle Fog Signal Station (Courtesy USCG)
The following year, the keeper's dwelling was finally rebuilt and enlarged to accommodate the two families. Other work was carried out as well, such as a well being drilled, a new foundation for the boathouse being built, and a telephone line connecting the pierhead station with the Presque Isle Lighthouse and the fog signal station, was installed.
Although a steam fog signal was approved as far back as 1893, no funds were ever appropriated. In 1899, a new fog signal station was established on Presque Isle, located 1¼ miles west of the pierhead beacon. The steam signal had a blast characteristic of 5 seconds, followed by a silent interval of 25 seconds.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
80. Presqu'ile peninsula fog-signal station, west of entrance to Presqu'ile Bay (Erie Harbor), Lake Erie, Pennsylvania - This station, just established, is located near the water line about 1¼ miles westerly from the beacon on the outer end of the north pier entrance to Presque Ile Bay (Erie Harbor). The station consists of a fog-signal house, in which have been installed duplicate steam-water tube boilers and apparatus complete, including 10-inch whistles and Crosby automatic apparatus for regulating the signals. They will be ready for operation by August 1, 1899.
Further down, in the same Annual Report, the Erie Pierhead was listed as having a fog bell operated by a clockwork mechanism. So it seems more likely that the funds appropriated were used to build a shared fog signal station for use by both the Presque Isle Pierhead and the Presque Isle Lighthouses, however, the keepers of the pierhead light were responsible for its operation.
On September 22, 1900, the color of the fog signal building at the Presque Isle Fog Signal Station was changed from brown to white.
That same year, the fog bell at the Presque Isle Pierhead Lighthouse was removed from the lower section of the tower, and placed in an open framework structure on an extension near the end of the north pier. At that time, the characteristic of the fog bell was changed from single blow every 20 seconds to a single blow every 10 seconds.
Although it is unclear when, most likely between 1900 and 1903, the lower half of the tower was sheathed with wood and then covered over with metal shingles to give it durability.
In 1921, the Pennsylvania state legislature authorized the creation of the "Pennsylvania State Park at Erie." It wasn't until 1937 that state publications began referring to it as Presque Isle State Park.
That same year, an entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses noting that the lack of a road to the fog signal station increased the cost of supplying it with coal and other necessities. The same entry stated that electricity could easily be brought to the station, improving the signal, and which could then be run to the Presque Isle Lighthouse and the other lights in the area, increasing their intensity.
The following year, it was recommended that the steam fog signal be discontinued and the building moved 500 feet easterly, closer to the north pier where it would be more effective. Again, it was noted that electricity could easily be brought to the signal house and it was recommended to install a compressed air fog signal, which would be more powerful and have instantaneous operational control from the north pier.
It also noted that once electricity was brought to the fog signal station, it could be run to the pierhead, the two range lights, and the Presque Isle Lighthouse. In 1923, the funds were appropriated and the work was started. On July 18, 1924, the lights of the north pier were electrified.
The final move of the Presque Isle North Pierhead Lighthouse took place in 1940 when the tower was moved 509 feet to accommodate the changes of the pier. At that time, the lower section of the tower was covered over with heavy steel plates and it was given its unique black and white paint scheme. The light was automated at that time.
It is unknown as to when the fog bell and the two range lights were discontinued, however, the pierhead lighthouse was outfitted with a radio-beacon on September 13, 1941.
The Coast Guard removed the fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1995. Today, the lens is on display in the Erie Maritime Museum. The keeper's house is still standing, which is at the end of Coast Guard Road, gated off from the public.
The Presque Isle State Park has been listed as a National Natural Landmark since 1967, one of the best places in the United States to watch birds, and has been chosen by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Parks for its list of "Twenty Must-See Pennsylvania State Parks." Today, the pier is a popular fishing spot, drawing anglers from far and wide.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on the grounds of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA. The light itself sits off of Coast Guard Road in the north-eastern corner of the park. There will be a parking lot, and then you can walk the short distance to the breakwater.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. Pier open. Tower closed.View more Presque Isle North Pierhead Lighthouse pictures