The Great Lakes are dark at night.
Even today, in a world where light pollution is a thing, the Lakes are just plain dark. When I lived in Chicago, one of my favorite things to do after dark was go sit on the lakeshore and stare out at the darkness. It sounds really teenage-style moody, I know, but it just baffled me that there was a place on this earth where you simply couldn’t see anything.
Imagine what that was like back in the 18th and 19th centuries, when shipping on the Great Lakes was just – ahem – finding its sea legs. Back before sonar, GPS, or reliable navigational charts, sailors out on the Great Lakes had very little to go on in order to keep from crashing into shore in the dead of night.
The solution of the times: Lighthouses.
In 1810, right as the young United States was getting into the swing of things, Congress earmarked some money for the construction of a lighthouse “on or near Presq’Isle” (now spelled Presque Isle, French for “almost an island,” referring to the peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie from Erie, Pennsylvania). In the end, “near Presq’Isle” was favored, with the idea that a lighthouse on the mainland could help guide ships into the harbor at Erie, PA.
The history of said lighthouse, dubbed the Erie Land Lighthouse, reads a bit like something out of a Monty Python sketch. In 1818, they build the lighthouse. But that one sank into the ground. In 1858, they built a new lighthouse. But that one also sank into the ground. Before things got too far into Monty Python territory, an investigation was carried out as to why the lighthouses kept sinking, and they discovered that the plot they’d carefully chosen for the lighthouse was undermined by quicksand. When a third lighthouse was constructed in 1866, no chances were taken. The foundation was dug 20 feet into the ground and lined with the sturdiest timber the builders could lay their hands on, reinforced by cement, then topped with a layer of stone. The current lighthouse does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
The neighborhood around it is changing, though. No longer on the outskirts of town, the lighthouse is tucked away in a neighborhood. Driving down the narrow street, I thought for sure my GPS had taken me to the wrong place. When I arrived at a parking lot which appeared to be in someone’s front yard, I realized that my GPS knew what it was doing all along, and was glad that I withheld my cursing and name-calling.
While the city of Erie, PA has grown up around the Erie Land Lighthouse, the plot of land that it sits on is now a protected heritage site. The lighthouse itself is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the site is maintained by the Erie-Western Pennsylvania Port Authority.
Visiting the Erie Land Lighthouse
Getting there: You’re best off driving. Plug this address into your GPS (and trust it as it takes you through a neighborhood with incredibly narrow streets): 1200, Lighthouse St, Erie, PA 16507.
Admission: There’s no admission for wandering around about the lighthouse.
Hours: The grounds around the lighthouse are open to visitors between 8AM and 9PM daily.