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History of Presque Isle State Park

Natural History

The Nature of Presque Isle

There are six distinct ecological zones on Presque Isle, each with a specialized plant and animal community. The record of geological succession can be traced through each of these zones. The zones include:

  • Lake Erie, the Bay, and shoreline
  • Sand plain and new ponds
  • Dunes and ridges
  • Old ponds and marshes
  • Thicket and sub-climax forest
  • Climax forest

Illustration of Presque Isle State Park’s Ecological Zones (PDF)

Because of the diversity of ecological zones at Presque Isle State Park, many different species of plants and wildlife inhabit the park from the shoreline to the climax forest.

Of all the plants and animals on Presque Isle, birds are the most studied and understood. The peninsula’s location along the Atlantic Flyway and the diversity of natural habitats make Presque Isle State Park a haven for bird life. Migrating birds, including several species of special concern, rest, feed, and nest here.

More than 339 species of birds have been recorded on Presque Isle, including 47 species of special concern.

In cooperation with Penn State Behrend, the Tom Ridge Environmental Center has launched the Natural History Museum Dynamic Dunes. The seven collections in Dynamic Dunes contains more than 3,800 records of species collected in northwestern Pennsylvania. The collections provide a resource for scientific studies of the ecology of the region and provide a record of the area's biodiversity.

A Migrating Peninsula

Geologists believe that, 11,000 years ago, Erie was under a giant sheet of ice called a continental glacier. As the glacier melted and retreated north, rocks, pebbles, and sand fell off, creating a ridge called a “moraine.” So much ice melted that the valley to the north of Erie became a lake. The waves of newly created Lake Erie deposited sand on the moraine and created Presque Isle.

Presque Isle is a great location to see longshore drift in action. Wave by wave, eastward-moving wind pushes water and sediments. The accompanying forces of erosion and deposition continually shape Presque Isle’s eastward migrating coast. This action greatly impacts the beaches and interior lands. When Presque Isle first formed, it probably was about three miles to the west.

The French name Presque Isle means “almost an island.” The park area has been a real island several times. Storm waves have broken through the neck to isolate the main section of the spit at least four times since 1819.

A number of shoreline management techniques dating to the 1800s have been used to compensate for the loss of beach sand and serve to protect the park. Since 1819, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has attempted to control erosion at Presque Isle and has successfully closed a number of breaches in the neck of the peninsula caused by storms.

Efforts to control beach erosion now consist of a combined thrust of 58 breakwaters and beach nourishment. Breakwaters slow erosion by partially blocking the waves, reducing wave energy.

Weakened waves drop sand, which results in less sand carried along the shoreline and a “building out” of the beaches. The breakwaters have reduced the huge volumes of sand required to nourish the beaches.

The Trail of Geology 21 - Presque Isle State Park Guide (PDF) contains detailed information about the geology of Presque Isle.


Erie Nation

The Erie Indians lived along the southern shores of Lake Erie and were early inhabitants of the area. They hunted game from the forests, gathered plants, and fished from the waters of Lake Erie in birch-bark canoes.

According to legend, the Erie ventured far into the lake to find the place where the sun sank into the waters.

The spirits of the lake caused a great storm to arise, so the Great Spirit stretched out his left arm into the lake to protect the Erie from the storm. Where the sheltering arm of the Great Spirit had lain in the lake, a great sandbar in the shape of an arm-like peninsula was formed to act as an eternal shelter and harbor of refuge for the Great Spirit’s favorite children, the Erie.

Presque Isle Lighthouse

The Presque Isle Lighthouse was built in 1872 and first lit on July 12, 1873. The 57-foot tower has a redbrick dwelling and is open for tours. It flashes a white light that is still maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard.

North Pier Light

Guiding ships into Erie Harbor since 1858, this square, metal pierhead light is located at the end of the Erie Harbor Channel. Visitors can walk out to the light and watch the boat traffic in the harbor channel.

Misery Bay and Perry Monument

During the War of 1812, Little Bay was the temporary home of the fleet of ships commanded by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Six of his eleven vessels were built in Erie at the mouth of Cascade Creek. The shores and waters of Presque Isle protected the fleet during construction.

On September 10, 1813, during the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Perry and his men defeated the British at Put-in-Bay, near Sandusky, Ohio. Perry’s first flagship, the Lawrence, was heavily damaged during the battle, requiring him to transfer his flag to the brig Niagara. He then re-engaged and defeated the British fleet using the Niagara as his flagship.

After the battle, Perry and his men returned to Little Bay and Presque Isle Bay to repair their fleet and seek medical treatment for the wounded. They stayed in the protection of the bay because of threats of another British uprising.

During the winters of 1812-1814, many of Perry’s crew suffered from poor living conditions and the harsh winters. As legend has it, many of the crew died and their bodies were buried in the adjacent pond known as Graveyard Pond. In remembrance of their hardships during those winters, Little Bay was renamed Misery Bay by the surviving sailors.

The hull of the Lawrence, then eventually the Niagara, was sunk in Misery Bay to preserve and protect them from the weather. The Lawrence was raised during 1875, but was destroyed by fire in Philadelphia during the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The Niagara was raised during 1912 and rebuilt for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1913. A replica of the Niagara sails from its dock at the Erie Maritime Museum.

The Perry Monument on Crystal Point was built in 1926 to commemorate this significant battle during the War of 1812 and the valor of the sailors in Perry’s Command.

Waterworks Park

The city of Erie developed this area in search of a cleaner water source. During 1908, workers began placing a pipe from the lake to the settling basins. In 1917, the pumphouse was built. At that time, it contained a steam boiler and engine.

Water was drawn from the lake to the settling basins and then pumped across the bay to the city of Erie. This pumphouse and water supply system operated from 1917 until 1949.

Currently, the pumphouse is used as a zebra mussel control facility for Erie’s water supply as well as a surrey and bike rental concession.