A bit of History -
In the 1600s, the Erie region and Presque Isle were occupied by members of the Eriez tribe of Indians. The warlike Eriez, by their reputation alone, kept many of the early explorers away from the Presque Isle region. The Eriez were known as the Cat People. That name came from the fact that this whole area, at the time, was home to many varieties of big cats, and the Eriez were well known for making beautiful long flowing robes from their pelts. These cats, plus bear and wolves were found on Presque Isle as late as 1800. The Eriez and the Seneca Indians were constantly at war with each other, but in 1645, the Eriez men were massacred by the Seneca, and their women and children scattered among the various Seneca villages.
History is an important part of Presque Isle’s heritage; however, due to several reasons, the area’s history was never documented before 1753. Lake Erie, even though it is the most southern of the Great Lakes, was the last to be discovered by the European settlers and explorers. The French were the first white men to settle the area in 1753, by building Fort de la Presque Isle. They named the peninsula “Presque Isle”, which means “almost an island” in French.
It only took a few years for the British to move into the region and take over the French forts in northwest Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, the French had burned them down to keep them out of British control. The two nations fought over the forts in this region until 1764 when the French withdrew for good. Nevertheless, British control of Presque Isle did not last long, as the Revolutionary War was underway. By 1776, their claims to Presque Isle faded. The British were, however, slow to move out of the fort at Presque Isle and held it for four years after their 1773 surrender. In 1795, Fort Presque Isle officially became the town of Erie.
From the middle 1700s into the early 1900s, the point where Presque Isle attached itself to the mainland included a large land area. Commonly known as the “Head”, it was three to four hundred flat acres of land with a stream and small pond. The point of attachment at the time was about one mile west of where it is today due to the constant eastward migration of Presque Isle caused by the westward flowing lake. In 1780, somewhere between twenty and thirty Seneca Indian families still lived on this land. Slowly, over a number of years, they abandoned their homes, and by 1798, all were gone.
Later, this Head area would become Erie’s party capital and change its name to Massassauga
Point. Hotels, dance halls, bars and a small fishing village were located there. Massassauga Point, served by several ferryboats that visited both the Head and one or two areas on Presque Isle, prospered from 1872 until the main hotel burned to the ground in 1882. The hotel was rebuilt, three years later; however, the area slowly lost the interest of the people of Erie.
Presque Isle has a rich maritime history which includes three lighthouses, the first iron U.S. warship, and Admiral Oliver H. Perry’s building of a fleet here during the War of 1812. In the early 1900s, Erie including Presque Isle Bay were known as the freshwater fishing capital of the world. At the time, about sixty-five fishing boats worked out of the Erie harbor, with as many as twenty of them moored on Presque Isle.
The War of 1812 is commonly referred to as our second war of independence and has forever provided Presque Isle with an honored place in the history of our nation. As hostilities began to seem certain, the natural harbor of Erie was recognized as a possible site for building a Great Lakes fleet to challenge British dominance of the lakes. An Erie businessman and sailor, Daniel Dobbins, had what he believed to be a brilliant idea, which was to build a fleet of warships in the protected harbor of Presque Isle. After six months, the Secretary of the Navy agreed.
Perry worked with Dobbins to build this new fleet at Presque Isle. When the fleet was completed, he sailed it out of the bay to meet the British in battle. He met them at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, and a huge battle resulted, in which Perry was victorious. After the battle, he returned to bury his dead in the waters of the park. The pond where they were said to have been buried, is today called Graveyard Pond. Little Bay, where Perry’s fleet was moored, was renamed Misery Bay.
Finally, at the conclusion of conflict, many of the naval ships of Perry’s fleet were sunk in Misery Bay in hopes of raising them for service later. At the time, this was a common practice done to preserve wooden ships. Only the Niagara, his flagship, was kept in service. In 1825, the Niagara was also sunk in Misery Bay
Much activity began to take place on and around Presque Isle and the bay soon after the end of the war. In 1820, the federal government declared Erie an official U.S. port, and that declaration set up a Federal Revenue Cutter Station on Presque Isle and officially announced its intent to manage the peninsula. Nevertheless, by 1833, the City of Erie also claimed ownership of the peninsula.
In 1824, the Army Corps of Engineers began a full survey of the peninsula and the harbor at Erie. The intent of this survey was twofold. First, it was to develop a plan to stabilize the neck or west end of Presque Isle. The second intent was to improve the east harbor entrance. Before this time, two parallel sand bars shielded the eastern harbor entrance and were a hazard to navigation. The survey began a three year project which created the present pier-protected channel leading into Presque Isle Bay.
Before the western neck survey, projects to close the open water breaches were a common event in severe weather. From the late 1820s until 1864, Lake Erie periodically broke through the park at the neck, and Presque Isle became an island. In fact, one breach allowed a channel a mile wide and fifteen feet deep to develop. Boats and ships started using this as an alternate entrance to the bay. In 1863, the Army Corps decided to close this opening for good. With the help of nature and timber bulkheads, the channel was closed. This action by the Army Corps marked the real beginning for the development of Presque Isle. In 1871, after being under federal, City of Erie, and for a time Marine Hospital Corporation management, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania exercised both ownership and control of the park.
Many commercial ventures at one time called the peninsula home. This included a speakeasy, a caviar processing plant and many commercial fishing operations. In 1921, the Park and Harbor Commission was appointed, and the legislature passed the necessary resolutions to make Presque Isle a State Park. Further development of this nature was effectively stopped. In fact, since then, all commercial business enterprises on the park have been closed. After a few years, the Commission fell under the authority of the Department of Forest and Water, which later changed its name to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Under the DCNR’s direction, the facilities to serve visitors on the park began a measured growth to meet the needs of the ever-increasing attendance. Over the years, the Commonwealth, with the support of the federal and local governments, undertook Presque Isle with a long list of projects, including two historic lighthouses, a Coast Guard Station and the original Erie Water Works holding ponds and pumping operations for the City of Erie. Recent additions have been a multi-purpose trail that circles the whole park, a major picnic shelter, and with the help of the Presque Isle Partnership, many historical panels depicting the park’s rich past.
The success of Presque Isle State Park symbolizes the need of man for recreational activities, and a place to find solitude and relaxation in nature. Nature is an unending circle that reaches into everyone’s life, and Presque Isle embraces that need.
See you on the park!!
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