Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-03-11.
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 Presque Isle Lighthouse being one of them.
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, 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." 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 project on hold for several years, but in 1817, an appropriation of $17,000 was made for the construction of lighthouses at Erie, Pennsylvania and Buffalo, NY.
During 1818, the Presque Isle Lighthouse, now referred to as the Erie Land Lighthouse, was erected on a bluff overlooking the entrance to Presque Isle Bay and the Erie Harbor. Although both the Erie Land Lighthouse and the lighthouse at Buffalo, NY were erected in 1818, most people commonly believe that the Erie Land Lighthouse was erected first, making it the first American lighthouse erected on the Great Lakes.
By 1857, the lighthouse was sinking due to settlement in the foundation and was torn down. A new lighthouse was erected in 1858, but by 1866, its foundation, was also settling, and was torn down.
A new lighthouse was built further back from the bluff and upon a solid foundation of oak timbers in 1867. Around this same time, the Lighthouse Board began to look into placing a lighthouse on the Presque Isle peninsula.
Within the next two years, the Lighthouse Board would move forward with the planning and funding of the new lighthouse. In government documents, the lighthouse was being referred to as the Presque Isle Lighthouse, as its location would be on the Presque Isle peninsula.
This conflicted with the current Presque Isle Lighthouse located on the bluff on the Erie mainland. To avoid confusion, the 1867 lighthouse erected on the mainland was referred to as the Erie Harbor Lighthouse, which eventually became known as the Erie Land lighthouse, as it was located on the mainland.
By 1871, the Lighthouse Board had requested an appropriation of $15,000 for a "lake-coast light on the northern side of Presqu'isle." On June 10, 1872, an appropriation was made for a new lighthouse with an attached keeper's dwelling.
The Annual Report on the State of the Finances for the year 1873 had the following detailed entry:
515. Presque Isle, Lake Erie, Pennsylvania - An appropriation was made June 10, 1872, for a new tower and keeper's dwelling attached. Proposals were publicly invited in July for the delivery of the necessary building materials, but no acceptable offers were made, except for the stone of foundation, the water-table, and for the metal work of tower; the other materials had to be bought in open market, and the plans approved by the Light-House Board had so far to be altered as to substitute iron for stone in the cases of sills, outside steps, and tablet, and as to use of brick, instead of stone, above the water-table. These different dispositions delayed the work so much that ground could not be broken before September 2, 1872, and the progress of the structure was furthermore made slow by the difficulty of landing materials, the shore being so dangerous that in the calmest weather only approach is possible, and that no insurance company would take any risks in vessels or cargoes; and notwithstanding all the precautions taken and delays incurred, a scow with 6,000 bricks was lost.
The masonry of the dwelling being completed, and that of the tower nearly so, by the end of November the house was roofed, the tower covered, and the openings were boarded up, and the work was suspended December 8, 1872 until April 16, 1873.
Presque Isle Lighthouse before being raised in 1896.
When it was completed on July 1, 1873, the structure sat upon a limestone foundation, which was five courses thick of brick to protect it from fierce Lake Erie storms. The tower was 40 feet tall and was topped off by a polygonal lantern with a round bottom. Inside the tower, the 72 steps and six landings formed the cast-iron steps, which were forged in Pittsburgh.
Inside the lantern was a fourth-order Fresnel lens lit by whale oil, and visible for 15 miles. The characteristic was a fixed white light, varied with red flashes. The lens revolved on a series of ball bearings, with red panels affixed to the outside of the lens, rotated by a clockwork mechanism with chains and weights. Every four hours, the keeper would check the oil and wind the weights.
The attached keeper's quarters were a two-story structure constructed of red brick, which contained ten rooms. Other buildings were erected on the station grounds over the years, which included a barn, storage buildings, and privies.
The light was first exhibited on July 12, 1873 by Charles Waldo. His journal included the following entry: "This is a new station and a light will be exhibited for the first time tonight..."
Over the next few years, minor repairs were made to the station. However, in 1879, a recommendation for an additional boathouse was made at a cost of $500.
At the start of the 1882 navigation season, the characteristic of the light was changed to flashing red and white at intervals of 10 seconds. The entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board also noted that the "dwelling would soon require protection from the encroachment of the sea, which is washing the beach away in front of the dwelling."
The erosion had continued, and during the period from 1884 to 1886, the shoreline had receded 30 feet. To combat this, starting on July 6, 1886, contractors had built a 400-foot long, 10-foot wide jetty of stone-filled cribs. This work was successful as it was noted in the 1890 report that the beach had formed for a length of 265 feet on the westward side and 187 feet on the eastern side.
That same year, a new boardwalk was laid leading from the dwelling to the barn and some 300 linear feet of the superstructure of the jetty were raised up and leveled to a height of three feet above water level.
For this purpose, some 24,160 feet, board measure, of abandoned oak timber was gathered from the beach in the vicinity of the station. The 350 bolts, 24 inches long and 1 inch in diameter for securing the material, were salvaged from the burnt portion of the pier at Oswego.
The beach nourishment project seemed to work really well. By 1894, the dwelling and garden were being encroached upon by sand. That year, to protect the area, a tight board fence was built along the north, east, and west sides of the dwelling.
In 1892, the boathouse was moved to a new location. At that time, it was thoroughly repaired and provided with a winch and ways for taking the boat out of the water. The old wooden plank walk was re-laid and extended to the boathouse.
A few years later, in 1895, some 14,400 feet of white pine lumber was purchased and delivered to the boathouse. This lumber was used to repair the plank walk leading from the dwelling to the boathouse, which was a distance of 1&fac12; miles.
Major repairs were undertaken in 1896. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year provides the details:
1219. Presqu'ile, entrance to Erie Harbor, Presqu'ile Bay, Pennsylvania - Repairs were made to the dwelling. A drain 130 feet long was dug and laid with 4-inch tile. A well was dug 8 feet deep, connected by pipes with the kitchen and provided with a pump. An old outbuilding was rebuilt and enlarged. The barn was rebuilt on a larger plan. About 6,000 feet of the walk leading from the dwelling to the boathouse was widened to 2 feet, elevated, and leveled. A new foundation for the boathouse was built in 4 feet of water and the boathouse was repaired and placed on it.
The lighthouse after being raised in 1896.
Later that year, due to the light being partially obscured by trees, the lantern was raised 17 feet 4 inches, bringing the focal plane of the light to 73 feet.
The Lighthouse Board had changed the illuminant of many lighthouses to the more efficient kerosene during the 1880s. Although kerosene was a better illuminant, it had some drawbacks as well; the biggest was its volatility.
Where other types of oil could safely be stored in the tower or dwelling, kerosene was stored away from other structures. An iron oil house was constructed at the Presque Isle Lighthouse in 1898.
The following year some 300 feet of walk leading to the boat landing was rebuilt and the hardware within the boathouse was upgraded. That same year, the color of the tower was changed from the natural red brick color to white to better serve as a day mark.
After that, things seemed to be quiet as there were very few entries in the Annual Reports.
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.
On April 20, 1922 a storm broke through and carried away a large section of the protective jetty in front of the lighthouse. It was estimated that the cost of rebuilding the jetty would be $3,240, and it was recommended to strengthen it to withstand the weather.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1922 also mentioned the ease of which electricity could be brought to the station and the increase in the intensity of the flashing light that would be achieved. It was estimated that the work could be carried out for around $5,000.
It would take nearly two years, but in 1924, electricity was run to the station. A diesel generator and a bank of batteries were also kept at the station ready to take over in the event of power failure.
In 1927, the first road to the lighthouse was opened. As it was on the lakeside of the peninsula, it was repeatedly washed out by storms. In 1948, it was moved to its current, more protected location.
The U.S. Coast Guard took over duties in 1941. Indoor plumbing came to the dwelling in 1957, and in 1983, the lighthouse was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places. Several years later, in 1986, the State of Pennsylvania signed a 25-year occupancy license agreement with the Coast Guard.
Due to a Pennsylvania law, one of the park managers were required to live in the park, so the keeper's dwelling was used by the Presque Isle State Park for employee housing for a number of years.
In 2006, the Keepers of the Erie Lights committee was formed to gather information on the three lighthouses in Erie. The following June, the Historic Structures Report was completed, which outlined a restoration and preservation process for the Presque Isle Lighthouse.
The group had recommended that the lighthouse be restored to the 1899 to 1911 time period when the station was most complete. With that, they started a fundraising drive to raise the funds and rebuild the outbuildings.
The Pennsylvania legislature approved a vanity license plate, which featured the lighthouse; $17 from each plate would go towards the restoration efforts. An architectural study carried out in 2007 estimated that a complete restoration of the structure would cost nearly $880,000.
A limited restoration plan was put forth in 2011, but at a cost of $450,000 and no funding, it too went nowhere. Some help came in December of 2012 when Portia Norton, an Erie resident, donated a substantial amount of money.
The Portion Norton Presque Isle Historical Structures Fund was established through the Erie Community Foundation, which made a $196,348 donation to the Presque Isle Partnership and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The donation will fund an endowment, which will be used to preserve and maintain the Presque Isle Lighthouse and the Perry Monument, both in Presque Isle State Park.
In July of 2014, the Pennsylvania DCNR signed a 35-year lease with the newly created Presque Isle Light Station organization. The law requiring the park manager to live within the park was scrapped in 2014, allowing the group to transform the Presque Isle Lighthouse into a public museum. After the necessary maintenance is done, the lighthouse will be opened to the public.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on the grounds of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA.
Access: The lighthouse is currently owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Grounds open. Tower closed, but plans are in progress to open the tower.View more Presque Isle Lighthouse pictures