Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2015-03-29.
Within Presque Isle State Park stands what looks like a small steel lighthouse. Many have come to refer to as the Erie Waterworks Lighthouse, but what exactly is it? Read on to find out.
Like many of the cities in the northeast on the Great Lakes during the mid-to-late 1800s, Erie, Pennsylvania was moving into an industrial economy. Once the Civil War ended, Erie's population continued to swell due to its growing industrial base.
City leaders knew that if they wanted the city's growth to continue, they would need an abundant supply of fresh water. At that time, Erie was served by several public wells and springs located throughout the city. Many citizens, even had to drill their own wells for water.
As the city discharged much of its sewage into Presque Isle Bay, it had a hard time trying to get clean water. After several failed attempts, the City of Erie voted to install a submerged water intake system in the bay. However, as the intake was only four feet below the water's surface, much of the water was still contaminated.
As the occurrences of Typhoid fever continued on, it was clear that the drinking water being pulled from the bay was still contaminated due to the raw sewage, a fact that the city ignored. To get around this, local citizens forced the formation of a water commission by enacting legislation.
To ensure its success, a pump house was completed in 1869, however, by 1880, the number of Typhoid fever cases were dangerously high. Many citizens attributed it to the outflow pipes that pumped raw sewage into the bay a mere 100 yards from the water intake pipes.
By the 1890s, the Water Commission acknowledged that they had a problem and made a decision to extend the intake pipe further into the bay, which would place it close to the ferry slip on Presque Isle. This work was completed by 1897.
With over 180 deaths from Typhoid fever in 1902 alone, the Water Commission came to the realization that something else would have to be done. A request was made to stop dumping raw sewage into the bay, which was ignored like the many requests that came before it.
Two proposals were brought forth. The first was to alter the intake pipe to follow the curve of the bay floor and extend the pipe down to a depth of 34 feet. The second proposal was to extend the intake pipe an additional 10,000 feet, which would require running the pipe through the Presque Isle peninsula, placing the intake 5,000 feet into Lake Erie.
Later that year, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania provided 175 acres of land on Presque Isle to the Water Commission, allowing for a location to establish settling ponds. T.A. Gillespie of Pittsburgh carried out the work, which was started in 1904. The work was completed on September 16, 1908, allowing the new intake to be activated.
During the early 1900s, with the exception of a rough bridle path and two walking paths, the main access to Presque Isle was via boat and there were several ferry slips at numerous locations along the peninsula.
As improvements were being made to the facilities on Presque Isle, it was decided to erect an emergency water intake on the bay side of the peninsula, which was incorporated into a ferryboat slip.
To provide a pump for this emergency intake, in 1906, a short steel tower was constructed at the end of the ferry slip to house gears which would drive the pump. Although it was made to look like a lighthouse, the tower never housed a light or had electric run to it. Today, many people affectionately call it the Erie Waterworks Lighthouse.
In May of 1921, the Pennsylvania state legislature authorized the creation of the "Pennsylvania State Park at Erie." In the early 1920s, many citizens started using the area on the Waterworks for picnicking and sunbathing. As a proposal for a road onto the peninsula was in the planning stages, the Park and Harbor Commission built a shelter and bathhouse on the beach at the Waterworks.
The road onto the peninsula was completed and opened to the public in August 1925, which led to increased usage of the area for recreational purposes. In 1926, the U.S. Department of Commerce agreed to contribute $5,000 to extend the road to the Presque Isle Lighthouse. The Park and Harbor Commission matched the funds, and within two years, the road to the lighthouse was completed.
It wasn't until 1937 that state publications began referring to it as Presque Isle State Park. Today, nearly 13 miles of roads have been laid on the peninsula and the park hosts over 4 million visitors annually.
Recreational activities include hiking, biking, fishing, boating, cross-country skiing, and bird watching to name a few. If you think you have strong legs and are up for a challenge, try running the Erie Marathon at Presque Isle.
While at the park, make sure you visit the Presque Isle Lighthouse, constructed in 1872 and make your way out to the end of the peninsula, where you can walk out to the Presque Isle North Pierhead Lighthouse.
Directions: The lighthouse sits just inside the grounds of Presque Isle State Park in Erie, PA. You pass the tower shortly after entering the park.
**Note: These GPS coordinates are approximated. If you have more precise coordinates, please email them to me and I will update this page.
Access: The gear house is owned by the Erie Waterworks. Tower closed, grounds open.View more Waterworks Lighthouse pictures