An 11 km long peninsula juts out of the city of Erie into Lake Erie and forms a magnificent natural harbor called Presque Isle Bay. Today two active lighthouses protect the ships on Lake Erie. The North Pierhead Lighthouse is one of them.
When visitors come to Presque Isle State Park, they have favorite spots that they usually go to. Beach 6, Waterworks, Kite Beach, Presque Isle Lighthouse and Beach 11 are just a few. Many visitors do not even know about the park’s hidden gems hidden in the US Coast Guard and on North Pier Road.
Since the beginning of the voyage on the Great Lakes, storms have devastated boaters and trade on the lakes, taking lives and ships away. The lake is known for its unpredictable storms, blizzards, fog banks, and thunderstorms that can overwhelm the lake without warning. Part of the problem is that Lake Erie is on a perfect west-east axis and the prevailing winds share that axis.
In May 1810, Congress approved the construction of several lighthouses in the United States. One should be on or near Presque Isle on Lake Erie. Due to the War of 1812, all actual construction was delayed until 1818. That year the lighthouse, now known as the Erie Land Lighthouse, was built on a high cliff in Erie overlooking the entrance to the bay.
More:North Pierhead Lighthouse from Presque Isle
This would lead to improvements in the port and its entrance. The first step was in 1827 when the federal government cut through the sandbars that were clogging the port. Then they built pillars to hold back the moving sand. Finally, for the first time, a uniform depth was achieved and a straight passage into Presque Isle Bay was possible. Due to local pressure, the state and federal government invested more than $ 827,000 in port improvements between 1823 and 1897.
In 1828 a simple octagonal wooden tower fire was erected at the far eastern end of the new pier at the harbor entrance. A whale oil beacon was placed on top of the tower and required constant maintenance. At the time it was called the Tower Beacon Light.
This new light was needed because the Presque Isle lighthouse’s original location east of town made it difficult for all ships heading east to see. More importantly, Erie’s narrow port of entry blended into the woods of Presque Isle in the twilight and darkness.
Over time, many ship captains wrote to officials in Washington telling anyone who would listen that the light from these lamps was not visible enough from the lake. In 1854 a new catadioptric apparatus with a sixth order Fresnel lens was added to the tower. This new equipment lit an arc of just over 270 degrees and cast the light much farther away.
More:The North Pier Lighthouse in Erie is depicted on the 2021 postage stamp
This helped for about a year, until the sailing schooner Pilgrim Progress ran across the pier during a stormy storm. The accident destroyed the tower, the beacon and the new lens. Many city dwellers believed that it wasn’t just the storm that caused the disaster, but that a healthy dose of rum might have helped.
It took about 18 months to replace the tower. This time, a two story cast iron structure with a new sixth order Fresnel lens was built and placed on top of a new 28 foot by 34 foot pier extension.
What happened next is a strange story about what was done in those 18 months before a new beacon was operational. They planned to install a temporary light, so they brought a frame for it from Pittsburgh – a gallows. While death by hanging had gone out of fashion due to public outrage, it was still legal in Pennsylvania. In retrospect, this strange looking new temporary light sparked a lot of discussion.
For many years the lighthouse was relocated whenever the North Pier was expanded. After the last move, better iron was placed on the frame of the tower. In 1940, the lighthouse service boxed the iron tower with a heavy steel coating and painted it with its distinctive large black and white stripes. At the same time, the color of the flashing light changed from white to red, as before. The last change to the traffic lights was in 1995 when they were powered by solar panels. The Coast Guard, who oversees the operation of the lighthouse, donated the lens to the Erie Maritime Museum.
Today anglers, pier visitors and lighthouse fans all over the world visit the pier and the lighthouse. The pier is also home to mink families who steal fishing bait and fish in the nearby waters. It’s also the summer home of Harry Heron, who asks the anglers on the pier for fish.
More:Minks feel at home on Presque Isle’s North Pier
As visitors drive to the pier, they pass the very picturesque Horseshoe Pond, which is home to 24 houseboats of all sizes and shapes. Herons, herons, cormorants and swans love this unique pond, and across the street is the frog pond. This whole area is worth a trip.