History and Memorabilia | Erie Pennsylvania

The History of the City and County of Erie, Pennsylvania.

Presque Isle Lighthouse

Presque Isle Lighthouse is located on the north shore of Presque Isle State Park at Lighthouse Beach in Erie. The construction of the lighthouse began in September of 1872 and was completed in July of 1873. Initially the square brick tower was only 40 feet high so an additional 17 feet were added to the tower in 1896 to enhance the projection of the light from the Fresnel Lens out into the lake. The Presque Isle Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 4, 1983, as part of a group listing of lighthouses and light stations operated by the United States Coast Guard on the Great Lakes.

Erie Land Lighthouse was the first lighthouse at Erie, also the first American lighthouse on the Great Lakes. It was constructed on a mainland bluff in 1818, not far from the site of Fort Presque Isle. In 1870, plans were begun for a lighthouse on the north shore of the Presque Isle peninsula that would replace Erie Land Lighthouse on the mainland. This new light would be several miles nearer the lake, and being located directly on the peninsula, would better mark that navigational hazard. Congress appropriated funds for its construction on June 10, 1872, and proposals were solicited for the necessary building materials. The lighthouse was originally going to be built of limestone, but when this provided to be too costly, bricks were used instead.

Construction on the peninsula began in September 1872, and the light from atop the forty-foot tower attached to the keeper’s dwelling was first exhibited on July 12, 1873. The hazard of landing material at the site was evidenced by the loss of a scow carrying 6,000 bricks. The walls of the lighthouse tower were built with five courses of brick in order to withstand the fierce storms and buffeting winds that blow off the lake. Though square on the outside, the tower is circular inside and supports a spiral staircase, forged in Pittsburgh and barged to Erie. The brick keeper’s dwelling originally had an oil room, bedroom, dining room, kitchen, and summer kitchen on the main floor, and three bedrooms and a drying room on the second floor. Beneath the dwelling were located a cistern and a cellar. The cost for the lighthouse was $15,000.

Charles Waldo was the first keeper of Presque Isle Lighthouse, earning an annual salary of $520. On the day of the inaugural lighting, Keeper Waldo wrote, “This is a new station and a light will be exhibited for the first time tonight - there was one visitor.” Prior to sundown, Waldo would have lit the lantern inside the tower’s Fresnel lens and then throughout the night returned to check the oil level in the lamp. In 1882, the tower was equipped with a revolving fourth-order Fresnel lens that alternately produced a red and white flash every ten seconds. Before this, the tower exhibited a fixed white light punctuated each minute by a red flash. With the other lighthouses at Erie displaying fixed lights, the Presque Isle Lighthouse stood out from the others and was often referred to by the locals as the flash light.

The old Erie Land Lighthouse on the bluff was discontinued in 1880, much of its purpose having been assumed by Presque Isle Lighthouse. The lighthouse was partially dismantled and the property was sold off, but the light was re-established in 1885 after mariners protested the decision to extinguish it.

In 1876, Keeper Waldo’s wife, Mary, gave birth at the lighthouse to a baby girl, the first child to be born on Presque Isle. During their seven-year stay at the lighthouse, the Waldo family had an isolated existence, as the road to the peninsula was not completed until 1927. In fact, Keeper Waldo referred to the station as the loneliest place on earth. To reach civilization, the keepers and their families would have to walk along a 1.5-mile pathway, part of which was originally a boardwalk due to the marshy terrain it traversed, to reach the station’s boathouse on Misery Bay. A lengthy row across the bay and another walk were then required to reach the nearest school or store where provisions could be obtained. The pathway was finally paved in 1925, which led to its being called the sidewalk trail.

The Lighthouse Board noted in 1886 that the shoreline in front of the lighthouse had receded thirty feet during the previous two years. To curb this erosion, contractors built a 400-foot-long and 10-foot-wide jetty composed of stone-filled cribs during the summer of 1886. The work was successful as five years later it was noted that the beach had built up substantially on both sides of the jetty, which extended perpendicular to the shoreline.

In 1894, a tight board fence, 396 feet long and 5 feet high, was built on the east, north, and west sides of the dwelling to protect the station buildings and the keeper’s garden from the encroachment of sand. To increase the range of the light, the height of the tower was increased seventeen feet, four inches in 1896 to produce a focal plane of seventy-three feet. When kerosene was adopted as the fuel for the light in 1898, an oil house was constructed near the northeast corner of the station to provide detached storage for the volatile liquid. A year later, the extended tower was painted white to provide a more prominent day-mark for vessels on Lake Erie.

Andrew Shaw, Jr. became keeper of Presque Isle Lighthouse in 1901 and was recognized multiple times by the Lighthouse Service for saving life and property. In 1916, when the tug Henry E. Gillen stranded on the bar at the entrance to the harbor, Keeper Shaw summoned assistance and cared for articles that washed ashore. Two years later, a yacht was driven ashore near the station, and Keeper Shaw provided food, shelter, and clothing for its three passengers. Keeper Shaw prevented a fire near the station from spreading in 1917, and in 1925 both he and the keeper of Presque Isle Pierhead Lighthouse helped fight a fire that burned for several days on the peninsula.

In 1924, commercial electricity reached the lighthouse, and an oil-engine-driven generator was installed at the station in case of power failure. Presque Isle peninsula was set aside as a state park in 1921, and after the road to the peninsula was completed in 1927, Keeper Shaw abruptly retired, as too many visitors were attracted to the lighthouse. Frank Huntington took over the responsibilities of keeper and served until 1944, after which enlisted Coast Guard personnel tended the light. On January 8, 1928, Keeper Huntington, his wife, and son rescued two boys who had fallen through the ice near the station and were in danger of drowning. The Fresnel lens atop the tower was replaced by a modern beacon in 1962.

Additions were made to the front and back of the dwelling in 1989 and 1990, and in 1998, Presque Isle Lighthouse was officially transferred to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who used the lighthouse as a residence for park personnel. In 2006, the lighthouse was opened for two days during Discover Presque Isle Weekend, and visitors waited in line for more than two hours to climb the seventy-eight steps to the top of the tower. More than 750 people paid $2 to make the climb, and there was still a lengthy line at closing time on the second day.

Keepers of the Erie Lights was formed in 2006 to gather information on Erie’s three lighthouses and to help with their restoration and interpretation. From 2006 through 2009, the committee focused on Presque Isle Lighthouse, and a Historic Structures Report on the lighthouse was published in June 2007. The report includes a history of the lighthouse and outlines a restoration plan that includes replacing the dwelling’s roof, repointing the masonry, and restoring the porch, oil house, and fence. The public helped the effort by purchasing a Pennsylvania specialty license plate featuring an image of Presque Isle Lighthouse.

In 2014, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources changed a rule that required the manager of Presque Isle Park to reside in the park. After the park manager vacated the lighthouse, and the property was leased to the non-profit Presque Isle Light Station Board, which opened the station to the public in 2015.

Former Head Keepers:

  • Charles F. Waldo (1873 – 1880)
  • Orrin J. McAllister (1880)
  • George E. Town (1880 – 1883)
  • Clark McCole (1883 – 1886)
  • Lewis Vannatta (1886 – 1891)
  • Louis Walrose (1891 – 1892)
  • Thomas L. Wilkins (1892 – 1901)
  • Andrew W. Shaw, Jr. (1901 – 1927)
  • Frank Huntington (1927 – 1944)

Presque Isle Lighthouse before the tower was extended
Presque Isle Lighthouse before the tower was extended.

Early photo of the Presque Isle Lighthouse (late 1800s)
Early photo of the Presque Isle
Lighthouse (late 1800s)

Presque Isle Lighthouse (year unknown)
Presque Isle Lighthouse (year unknown)

Presque Isle Lighthouse (year unknown)
Presque Isle Lighthouse (year unknown)

Share: Email Print

Erie's United Electrical Workers

In the 1930s, many Americans had blamed the free-market system for the Great Depression. As the depression dragged on, significant numbers of American farmers, industrial workers, intellectuals, students, and others, were attracted to Socialism and Communism, which appeared to offer an attractive alternative to the failed free market system.

A home to many large and small electrical manufacturing shops, Pennsylvania became a critical battleground between left- and right-wing forces for control of the national union. The major fight in Pennsylvania centered on the East Pittsburgh plant of Westinghouse Electric, where bitterly contested elections and heavy involvement by Father Charles Owen Rice and other Catholic unionists precipitated a split in the United Electrical Workers (UE) and its expulsion from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Following the Second World War, the governments at state and federal levels gradually dropped wartime restrictions on the production of consumer goods and on wage increases, which spurred American workers to unleash a new wave of union battles for better conditions and benefits. In fact, the 1940s and 1950s became the high-water mark of American unionism.

In 1946, the electrical, steel, and auto industries experienced the greatest wave of strikes in American history. These job actions helped American workers achieve major improvements in working conditions and higher wages, which contributed, in turn, to a major boost in national consumption, production, and thus prosperity. But the strikes also led to a political backlash, as conservatives in Congress in 1947 won enough support from moderates to pass the Taft-Hartley Act, which considerably weakened the legal protections that American workers had won in the path-breaking Wagner Act of 1935.

In the late 1940s, the United States also entered its long and dangerous Cold War with the Soviet Union. One of the Taft-Hartley Act's provisions required union officials to sign affidavits that they were not a member of the Communist Party nor affiliated with such a party.

Initially, many unions fought the affidavits and their union officials refused to sign, arguing that they were an attack on civil liberties. As American anti-communist hysteria continued to mount, however, the unions caved. By 1949, even officials of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Union (UE), one of the nation's more progressive unions, signed affidavits as rival unions intensified raids on their locals.

Elected chief steward in 1940 and then president in 1942, John Nelson was the charismatic leader of the militant, younger workers inside Local 506, which represented the more than 10,000 employees of the vast General Electric locomotive plant in Erie. In 1943, Nelson left to serve with the army in Germany. Again elected union president upon his return from the service in 1945, he led the union during the strike of 1946, and helped hold the workers together when other electrical workers' locals were being split by religious and political differences.

This commitment to political tolerance received a major boost from the relatively conservative, first president and elder statesman of the local, James Kennedy. Replying to persons who accused the UE of harboring Communists, Kennedy pointed to the union's constitution, which opened membership to all electrical workers regardless of race, sex, religion, craft, or political belief.

"Can anyone take exception to this and consider themselves an American?" Kennedy asked during the height of the struggle. Nationally, however, divisions within the CIO increased as the Berlin blockade fueled Cold War tensions. When the UE supported Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for President, over Democrat Harry Truman in the presidential election of 1948, CIO president Phillip Murray resolved to either to take over or expel the UE.

In the fall of 1949, the UE split from the CIO, which then formed a rival organization, the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE), which began raiding the UE. In 1950, the IUE branded Nelson as a Communist in an unsuccessful attempt to replace the UE as collective-bargaining representative of the Erie workers. Nelson, a devout Catholic who had spent two years in the seminary studying for the priesthood, successfully deflected the anti-Communist Catholic clergy's attacks on the union. But he was not immune from attacks by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who as chairman of the Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee led the anti-Communist purges then taking place in Washington, D.C., and around the nation.

Pressured by McCarthy, General Electric, under the leadership of its president Ralph Cordiner, instituted a policy to fire employees who the company believed had failed to clear themselves of charges of Communist affiliation. In 1954, Nelson became the first of twenty-eight activists that GE fired under the so-called Cordiner doctrine. For the next six years, Nelson and the UE fought GE to restore his job. The national union defended his civil rights in court while his union local made the presidency a full-time position to protect his employment. Only forty-two years old, Nelson died in 1959 — after he had again been forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee — his health undermined by the attacks on himself and his family.

The anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s split the once large and powerful electrical-workers union. While the UE survived, its membership, and that of the rival UIE dropped significantly. The Red Scare had a profound impact on the labor movement in the United States, and especially in Pennsylvania. After the reuniting of the house of labor in 1955 under the merged American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the American labor movement reached its peak in numbers, but it had also become much more conservative and far less critical of the operation of the American free-market system.

Once a mighty vehicle for reform and progressive legislation, the labor movement began its slow but steady slide toward a conservative and largely defensive attitude. Union support for the Vietnam War and alienation from the civil rights, women's movement, and environmental movement led to its relative political isolation when the unionized manufacturing sector began its collapse in the 1970s, and powerful national forces became increasingly anti-union. In Pennsylvania, the electrical workers remained divided until the collapse of the Pennsylvania electrical industry in the 1980s.

Local 506 Union Hall, United Electrical Workers. In the photograph, the sign was retouched to eliminate the letters "CIO" under "UE" (1940s)
Local 506 Union Hall, United Electrical Workers. In the photograph, the sign was retouched to eliminate the letters "CIO" under "UE" (1940s)

United Electrical Workers, Local 506 Membership Meeting. (1946)
United Electrical Workers, Local 506 Membership Meeting (1946)

Local 618 President Roy Christoph, United Electrical Workers, Addressing a Mass Demonstration in Erie (July 29, 1949)
Local 618 President Roy Christoph, United Electrical Workers, Addressing a Mass Demonstration in Erie (July 29, 1949)

Erie Workers Protest Wage Freeze, United Electrical Workers (February 17, 1952)
Erie Workers Protest Wage Freeze, United Electrical Workers (February 17, 1952)

Share: Email Print