February 22, 2013 8:48 am Published by Leave your thoughts

As unusual as it may seem, for nearly 18 months Presque Isle was the home of a gallows. The gallows was borrowed from the City of Pittsburgh. It was used in a special emergency on Presque Isle. No, don’t worry, the only hangings on this particular gallows were the hanging of two whale oil-burning lanterns.

So here is the where, how and why of this tale. It is both normal and strange all at one time. It is the story of one of our favorite and best recognized places on Presque Isle. It is the small lighthouse at the end of North Pier. Its official name is North Pierhead Lighthouse, however to most visitors it’s simply the North Pier Light.

When the sandbars across the harbor entrance were removed and pier walls installed along the channel into Presque Isle Bay, a simple octagonal wooden tower was erected on the then far eastern end of the northern wall of the pier in 1828. In 1830, a beacon light was placed at the top of this tower. It was powered by whale oil and had t Whale oil was used during the early 1800s as the fuel of choice due to its bright burning characteristics. It was obtained by boiling the blubber of whales and harvesting the refined oil.

Boiling  Whale OIl

Boiling Whale OIl

However, it was soon found that when mariners were approaching the channel, they often had difficulty spotting the pier light until they were right on top of it. To help solve this problem, in the early 1850s the light was equipped with a new sixth-order Fresnel lens so its beacon could more easily be seen. A Fresnel lens is simply a complex lens, first used in 1823, that concentrates and magnifies light. Even today they are used in automobile headlights, overhead projectors and even in solar power applications plus thousands of other products.

This tower and light served mariners visiting Erie until one stormy evening in 1857. During that night a large sailing schooner slammed into and over the tower in the furious storm. After the accident, the storm took less than an hour to finish the job and sweep the tower and light completely away. Since that time, there have been questions about the sobriety of the schooner’s capitain.

Knowing that the light was critical to the safety of mariners, the design and construction of a new tower and light were started immediately. At the time it was found that the final design, forging and delivery of a new wrought iron tower would take at least 18 months and cost $5,250. To fill the gap, a gallows became the solution. Erie had none, so arrangements were made to borrow one of Pittsburgh’s extras. While hangings were still legal in Pennsylvania until 1920, not many were being done at the time. A fairly large lantern was attached to the gallows and served as Erie’s channel light until the new tower was in place by fall of 1858.

This is just one of the stories that Presque Isle hides in its hidden and wonderful history. I hope to tell you many more in coming blogs. Until then:


See you on the park!!


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