Presque Isle State Park, a peninsula extending seven miles into Lake Erie, attracts four million visitors each year. Since the late 1800s, the park has been an ecological and recreational paradise where visitors can enjoy solitude, reflection, and the wonders of nature. At times strong storms are driven in off of Lake Erie, however, and since 1814, man has been struggling to protect Presque Isle against the forces of nature that constantly cause destruction and erosion on the park.
Through extensive research and vintage images gathered from the collections of author Eugene Ware, the Erie County Historical Society, Erie County Public Library, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, and various local sources, A History of Presque Isle reflects the history and special aura of the park. It traces the long and rich past of Presque Isle and Erie, Pennsylvania, from the peninsula's formation in the ice ages to the early 1950s. Through a series of conversations with Joe Root, the legendary hermit who lived in the park from approximately 1880 until nearly 1915, as well as his own personal reflections, Ware provides an unforgettable glimpse into the beauty and majesty of Presque Isle, including what it offers visitors today.
A History of Presque Isle documents the history and complete story of a Pennsylvania park known for its ghosts, legends, and gift for influencing visitors to this day.
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Read an Excerpt
A History of Presque Isle
As Told through Conversation with the Park's Legendary Hermit, Joe Root
By Eugene H. Ware
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Eugene H. Ware
All rights reserved.
It is just a few minutes before daybreak as I walk onto North Pier to meet with Joe for the first time. The pier is varnished with an overnight rain and sparkles in the morning light as I move toward a channel-side wooden picnic table. The first rays of dawn glisten off the nearby grass and tree leaves creating a thousand tiny rainbows in the morning glow. There are patches of fog appearing and disappearing on the pearl-grey lake.
Moving to the table, I open my knapsack and spread out the material I will need this morning. Today Joe and I will begin our talks by covering how the park was formed. I still have some quiet time before he is due to arrive, so I sit back and light my pipe and watch the eastern sky move from grey to purple, and then little by little slide into a stunning display of burnt orange; just another peaceful day on Presque Isle.
Suddenly, like a ghost, Joe is there. I didn't see or hear him come down the path or pier. He was just standing beside me.
Today he has on an old brown hat, modest overalls with a large hole in one knee and the other in perfect shape. His smile is bright, and he seems in a good mood. Slowly, he takes off his hat and brushes the dusty brim with his fingers. I am sure he might call what he is wearing a hat, but to me that would be a stretch. It has seen so many years of service that it could only be called a hat because it is resting on his head.
"I'm hoping I can 'member enough 'bout Presque Isle to help ya with that there book. I know ya must love Presque Isle 'cause it is writ all over yer face. When I lived here, some of them old fellas from town would row their dinghies 'cross the bay, and we'd meet by the campfire, drink coffee and talk fer a great while 'bout the peninsula, fishing and trapping. Life wuz sure good on Presque Isle."
"Joe, I'm sure you will be a big help. Before we start talking about the history of this sand spit we call Presque Isle, why don't you tell me about that old legend that was passed on from the Indians on how the park was formed. I've heard it is pretty interesting."
"Sure will. Ever since I moved out here, I wondered how this little-bitty strip of sand and grass come to be. It seems to me, this whole peninsula always is trying to move down the lake toward Buffalo. I wuz wondering why? All the years I been coming to the park, legends 'bout Presque Isle have always been floating on the winds and through them bars in town.
"The old legend you be talking 'bout says them Injins that lived around these parts had their own version 'bout how Presque Isle wuz formed. I heard them Eriez Injins, some folks called them the Cat People, believed the Great Spirit created the world. That meant he made all them Injins, other people, animals and fishes, lakes, forests and streams. Everything. They believed that they wuz the Great Spirit's chosen people. To show his love, The Great Spirit led them to the shores of a great lake and gave them what they needed to live a real good life. That lake wuz Lake Erie.
"Them Eriez mostly lived on the shores of Lake Erie and wandered inland to near French Creek. That be somewhere near Waterford, which was a far piece down the road.
"Like me, them Eriez hunted and fished to live. They wuz good at building birch bark canoes from trees they got in them nearby woods. Now, that is where that great Presque Isle legend begins.
"It seems that on one of them fishing trips, 'bout 1500 or so, they went a far piece out on the lake looking fer the place where the sun sinks into the water. That's when them ghost voices of the lake called out warning them to go back. When they wouldn't obey, the spirits of the lake wuz angered and caused a terrible storm on the lake. Injin legend says that huge waves big as their lodges wuz thundering and crashing down on them.
"Now, If'n ya ever been out on the lake 'round here in a storm, you'd understand what fear they musta felt. I'm sure them poor Injins wuz near scared out of their wits.
"Anyway, the Great Spirit seeing this stretched out his left arm and put it down deep into the lake to protect them from the storm. Where the arm of the Great Spirit had dipped into the lake, a huge sandbar in the shape of an arm was formed. The legend then says that the Great Spirit told them this sandbar would be there forever to protect the tribe. So now, that small sandbar is this here peninsula and is known as Presque Isle State Park."
"Wait a minute. I think that legend is impressive, and I love the way you tell it, but you do know that scientists have other ideas on how Presque Isle came to be, don't you?"
"Don't nobody question that, but their fancy ideas git so frightful boring. Fact is, a fella one time told me a scientist at a public hall meeting back in 1900 wuz talking and put the whole town meeting to sleep. Every last person that showed up wuz sound asleep."
"Well, even if that's true, Joe, they still usually get most of their facts right. It seems scientists believe six hundred million years ago, the whole middle of North America was covered with a shallow saltwater sea. These scientists say that over a twenty million year span, volcanic activity nearly split North America in two. This warming and cooling of the sea deposited sand, salts and silt all over the area. Over many years, compression and tremendous heat turned these deposits into shale, limestone, and sandstone. Then, like magic, the region transformed from fire to ice with the arrival of the ice age.
"People with more education than me say that for five to six million years huge glaciers advanced and retreated many times over this area. They were called the Wisconsin Glaciers. These giant sheets of ice leveled mountains dug valleys and moved huge deposits of the sand, rock and shale. In the northern and western regions of North America, this ice bumped into tougher bedrock, while in the southern areas it just moved the softer shale and sandstone aside."
"Jest a minute there. How many times do ya think the ice mighta covered the Erie area and what 'bout up yonder in Canada? I bet the ice up there musta been thicker in some areas, so it dug in more. I thought I heard somewhere that this ice mighta been up to two miles thick. Could that be true? That sure would'a been powerful heavy."
"It was heavy, Joe. In fact, in some places they do believe the ice could have been well over two miles thick. Most of the scientists believe the large drop between the lake levels from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario at Niagara Falls was caused by the weight of glacier ice pushing the land mass down in that area which did not contain really heavy bedrock to support that much weight.
"From what I have been able to come across, the ice covered this locale as many as fifteen or twenty times. In fact, in one book I found, they said the whole earth was covered with ice at least twice. Up in Canada and in the upper Great Lakes areas where it stayed colder, the ice advanced and retreated but didn't melt as often. This ice was considerably thicker and heavier, so it cut into the surface much deeper. The weight of these glaciers crushed the earth's crust all over North America. When they moved or melted, the earth's crust sprang back changing the structure of the land. Rivers could and did reverse their flows, and basins, lakes and ponds would form and disappear almost at random."
"Them boys down at Reeds tavern said that when the ice began to melt, the Great Lakes wuz formed fourteen thousand years ago in the big dips in the area, and that huge lakes wuz formed between them ridges left behind. Mosta the big dips wuz from the big ice glaciers that wuz, like ya said a mile or two thick. That sure musta made a huge amount of water, and I bet it filled them new lakes real quick."
"You are right about that. As the ice retreated northward, a whole series of ice dams were left behind. Large lakes began to form behind these ice dams in each of the Great Lakes' basins, or as you call them dips. Each lake left a deposit of sand, rock and even sandbars along the new and changing shorelines.
"Like all bodies of water, it was the elevation of the lake's outlet that controlled that particular lake's water level. As the ice retreated and readvanced over perhaps a million years, water levels rose to the next higher ice-free outlets. Over time, there were more retreats than advances, so each of the Great Lakes' basins lowered.
"The first of the Great Lakes to come into being from this melting was 'Lake Maumee.' This later became known as Lake Erie, and formed in the lowlands created by the valley of the prehistoric east-flowing Enigan River, which I am sure you have never heard about. Very few people realize that this lake and river ever existed."
"Well, where'd that there river and lake go?"
"As the glaciers grew, advanced and retreated those many times, they destroyed the Enigan River and its valley. The ice moving deepened, flattened and enlarged, and finally destroyed the whole river basin. Lake Maumee became the eastern portion of Lake Erie. Historians think this took nearly a million years.
"Because this area was located in the southern-most and warmest region of what would become the Great Lakes, the glacial ice here became thinner as it retreated across the Lake Erie basin. This thin ice did not have enough power to dig deep into the earth's surface like the glaciers that formed the upper Great Lakes. For that reason, Lake Erie became the shallowest of the Great Lakes."
"Someone once told me that fer a while, all the water in them Great Lakes ended up flowing down to that big old Mississippi River. That's not true, is it?"
"Historians and scientists disagree, but many do believe that at first Lake Maumee waters flowed toward what is now Fort Wayne, Indiana, and down the Wabash River and into the Mississippi River. They think this because of the many ice dams left in place by the retreating ice.
"However, later when the glaciers finally retreated far enough north and west, they allowed the ice-dammed waters to flow eastward through the much lower Niagara outlet. Many think when this happened, a huge flood of water made its way into what is now the Mohawk Valley. It was much like someone pulling the plug in a large bathtub. Water rushed eastward into Lake Ontario flooding the whole region. The Mohawk Valley, even today, is filled with the thick, coarse deposits that suggest a massive flood.
"Some people believe that this huge flood reduced some of the other Great Lakes' water levels to pond size. In fact, some scientists believe that after this massive movement of water, the western end of Lake Maumee was as far east as North East, Pennsylvania. Over a time period of almost five thousand years, the land in the Niagara district returned to its former heights, and the Great Lakes' water levels rose to nearly today's levels. Other scientists believe that Lake Maumee has always flowed as it does now down the Niagara River, and never flowed to the west. Nevertheless, almost all agree the removal of the ice dams may have caused a great flood down river in the Mohawk Valley."
"Hold yer horses there. How the heck can anyone know who's right 'bout what happened back then? That wuz a long time ago, and none of us wuz 'round back then."
"You know, you're right. There's no real way to be sure whether either theory is completely accurate. After all, it happened over 14,000 years ago. Either way, the result is as we see it today.
"Further north and west of the Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the Niagara River regions, other glaciers and their melting formed Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. The glaciers in these areas were much thicker because of the colder weather there than the glaciers in the Lake Erie basin. These lakes filled with huge amounts of water and backed up into the lower area that we know today as Georgian Bay. Scientists believe Georgian Bay once drained down the Trent River into a newly forming Lake Ontario. This meant that some of the water never made its way over Niagara Falls.
"As this ice withdrew and continued to melt even further, new channels were cut, and immense amounts of water poured into all the lakes left behind. Over time, this water began to flow toward the Atlantic Ocean by the St Clair River, Detroit River, Niagara River and St. Lawrence River. The Great Lakes were formed almost as we know them today. The Indians called them the 'Sweetwater Lakes' because they were fresh water."
At this point, Joe jumps up and walks away down the pier toward the Channel Light. As he walks off, I notice he is indeed short and stoop-shouldered. His walk has a slight limp. After a short while, he returns, pulls on his beard and sits back down. As I work with Joe, I begin to notice when he is bothered about something. You can count on him just jumping up and walking away for a time.
"Sorry 'bout that, but them Jeebees needed to talk to me a bit. They been hearing what we wuz talking over and wuz wondering why'd them waters from way up north and out west in Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron start flowing to Lake Erie and Lake Ontario down them there rivers. Them Jeebees been thinking maybe them there scientists wuz right and the waters shoulda gone south down the Mississippi."
"Wait for a minute, Joe. Who or what are the 'Jeebees?' I never heard of them before."
"Them Jeebees is my little people friends. I talk to them all the time. Most people never see them. When I'm walking they hide behind the trees and jump out thinking they can scare me some. They been my friends since I wuz with the circus. They are very curious 'bout everything. Them boys at Reeds think I be a bit crazy when I talk to them. But, they don't know nothing 'bout them Jeebees."
"As far as your question, you just answered it with the words, 'down the rivers.' It all has to do with the fact that waters flow downhill. Lake Superior is 600 feet above sea level. Lakes Michigan and Huron are 577 feet above sea level. The water of Lake Erie is 565 feet above sea level, and Lake Ontario drops to only 243 feet. Water just did the natural thing and began to flow eastward from lake to lake, and finally down the rivers toward the Atlantic Ocean which is at sea level. You should think of this water movement as like walking down a series of steps.
"This system of gravity-fed rivers acted like a drain, and water levels of the lakes dropped a great deal. As I said before, at times this happened quickly. Finally, about four to five thousand years ago, all the Great Lakes' levels moved to the current levels, and the Great Lakes as we know them today were born.
"Because of the thin glaciers in this area and their slow movement across this region, Lake Erie was left with a few features not found in the other Great Lakes. One is the twenty or so islands that are found in the western basin of the lake. Five are large, with the two largest being Pelee and Kellys islands. There is also an array of smaller islands which are all found in this shallow western basin.
"Scientists say the islands in this portion of Lake Erie were formed when the glaciers, with huge carbonate rocks embedded within them, scraped the surface of the earth in a massive display of nature's power. As they moved on and started to melt, they dropped the rocks. Over time, the rocks collected sand and silt and eventually formed the islands in the shallow area of the lake. Not many islands are found in the other Great Lakes because of their much greater depth. For example, the average depth of Lake Erie is just 62 feet. The average depth of Lake Superior is 462 feet and the deepest part over 1,300 feet. While many great rocks may have been dropped by the glaciers into the other lakes, they are today under hundreds of feet of water.
"Because the western parts of Lake Erie contained this carbonate rock which is resistant to erosion, this portion of the lake stayed the shallowest. The eastern and much of the central areas consisted of shale and sandstone, so the glaciers easily dug out and moved more material. This region is deepest, with a depth of 210 feet just off Long Point, Canada.
"The other distinctive features of Lake Erie are the shallowness of the lake as a whole, the two recurved sand spits that are Long Point and Presque Isle, and the strong current that flows through the lake from west to east."
"Ya know something 'bout Lake Erie jest began to bother me. When I was thinking, I suddenly got what it wuz. Lake Erie is really jest like a big old river and flows by Presque Isle on its way to that big falls over there by Buffalo. If'n you be out in the lake in a boat, you'd float right on by Presque Isle like ya had a sail attached. A few old-time ship captains told me that the water moves right fast out in the middle of the lake."
"Yes, you're close to being right. As a body of water, Lake Erie behaves as much like a river as it does a lake. Because Lake Erie's main axis runs along the same lines as the prevailing winds, it is really just a large lake with all the currents and characteristics of a river. What also helps this is that the lake is extremely shallow. Studies have shown that a drop of water entering the lake from the Detroit River takes a little over two years to flow over Niagara Falls. On the other hand, in the larger and deeper Lake Superior, a drop of water takes nearly 24 years to flow out of that lake into Lake Huron.
Excerpted from A History of Presque Isle by Eugene H. Ware. Copyright © 2013 by Eugene H. Ware. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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Table of Contents
An Introduction to Joe Root.................... xv
Chapter I The Beginning.................... 1
Chapter 2 Early History—Erie Indians Era.................... 13
Chapter 3 The French and Indian Era.................... 31
Chapter 4 The Transition Years.................... 47
Chapter 5 The American Experience Begins.................... 51
Chapter 6 A Settlement on Lake Erie.................... 61
Chapter 7 Early Erie—A Beginning—Judah Colt, Saint or Demon................ 90
Chapter 8 The War of 1812 and The Battle of Lake Erie.................... 102
Chapter 9 Perry Arrives.................... 133
Chapter 10 The Battle of Lake Erie and Perry's Return to Erie.............. 159
Chapter 11 The Lighthouses of Presque Isle and Erie.................... 178
Chapter 12 Changes in Early Erie and Presque Isle 1800-1899—Part I......... 199
Chapter 13 Changes in Early Erie and Presque Isle 1800-1899—Part II........ 228
Chapter 14 Waterworks Park— Part I Clean Water for the Town................ 246
Chapter 15 Waterworks Park—Part II Expansion on Presque Isle............... 262
Chapter 16 Progress and Setbacks Come to Presque Isle and Erie—Part I...... 269
Chapter 17 Progress and Setbacks Come to Presque Isle and Erie—Party II.... 283
Chapter 18 Presque Isle and Early Erie History—The Finishing Touches....... 295
Acknowledgements and Photo Credits.................... 307