Last Visited: August, 2002
French soldiers controlled the area in the 1700s as a strategic military location and named the six-mile-long peninsula, jutting out into Lake Erie, Presque Isle (French for "almost an island"). The British gained control of Erie during the French and Indian War in 1760, and it became part of the state of Pennsylvania in 1792 after the American Revolution.
Erie holds the distinction as being the site one of the first U.S. lighthouses on the Great Lakes, with a tower built on the mainland in 1818 (Buffalo, New York, also established a lighthouse in 1818). Erie gained importance as a shipping port, especially with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1824 and subsequent extensions of the shipping canal network connecting the eastern United States to the western frontier.
Swampy terrain presented problems, and a layer of quicksand far below the original lighthouse caused it to sink into the ground. A sandstone tower replaced the original light in 1867 (deactivated in 1899).
Placing a lighthouse on the peninsula made sense because it would help mariners safely navigate past the spit of land on an otherwise fairly straight coastline.
Construction began in 1872, but the area terrain again challenged builders.
A scow loaded with 6,000 bricks bound for the construction site was lost at sea. Washouts were another concern with the ever-present threat of separation from the mainland during storms.
Workers constructed a crude road through the swamp between the lighthouse site and the mainland, a road later planked with boards to help make it more passable, and eventually paved with concrete in 1925. That path exists today as a short hiking trail.
Workers completed the lighthouse, at a cost of $15,000, in 1873.
Today Presque Isle is near Erie's busy downtown, but the Presque Isle Lighthouse's first keeper, Charles Waldo, characterized the location as "the loneliest place on earth".
The original 40-foot tower had five layers of brick, to help it withstand the frequent storms, and housed a whale oil light. Workers increased the tower's height to 57 feet in 1896 to increase the light's range, and painted it white in 1898 to increase daytime visibility.
Other changes over the years included: electrification of the light in 1924, construction of a peninsula road in 1927, and automation of the light in 1962. The lighthouse earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources took over ownership of the lighthouse in 1998, and the lighthouse with its keepers' dwelling serves as a private residence for Presque Isle State Park management.
The lighthouse is located within Presque Isle State Park. The park is open daily.
Nearest Address: Peninsula Dr, Erie, PA
- From I-90 at the PA/Ohio border, take I-90 east to exit 18 (old exit 5), SR832.
- At the end of the ramp take a left onto SR832, Sterretania Rd.
- Take SR832 for 5.9 miles until you get to the intersection with Route 20.
- At the lights, go straight across the intersection onto Peninsula Rd.
- Follow the road for about 6 miles or so into Presque Isle State Park. Once in the park, follow the signs for the lighthouse. Eventually you will be on a road that parallels the beach. You'll see the lighthouse on the left. Park on the right side of the road.
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