It Was The First of Three Lighthouses on This Site

November 6, 1818

In northwestern Pennsylvania, a lighthouse in the borough (now city) of Erie began operations when keeper John Bone lit the oil wick in the new structure. The lighthouse had been built on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie and was specifically located across the water from Presque Isle, a seven-mile (11.3-kilometer)-long peninsula that helps form a natural harbor for Erie known as Presque Isle Bay.

The lighthouse was among the first to be constructed by the United States on the Great Lakes. Congress, mindful of the need for improved water navigation in the region, passed an act in 1810 that authorized the U.S. secretary of the Treasury to establish a lighthouse “on or near Presq’isle in Lake Erie.” About two acres (.8 hectares) of land at the eastern entrance to the harbor were subsequently acquired from someone named John Kelso for the lighthouse. Work on the new structure, however, was delayed for a few years due to the War of 1812. The end result of this work was a wooden tower that stood 20 feet (6.1 meters) in height

This lighthouse was the first of three built at that site during the course of the 19th century. The original lighthouse was called Presque Isle Light, and so was its immediate successor. That replacement lighthouse’s own successor likewise went by the same name until a new structure built on the other side of the bay was dubbed Presque Isle Light. The third and final lighthouse constructed across from Presque Isle then became widely known instead as the Erie Land Light. (Another popular name for this lighthouse, as well as its two predecessors, is the Old Presque Isle Light.)

After first illuminating the original lighthouse in 1818, Erie native John Bone remained its keeper for 14 years. According to the 1830 U.S. Census, he resided in a one-story, three-room house near the lighthouse with his wife and their four daughters and two sons.

For a number of years, the first of the lighthouses to stand guard on the eastern side of Presque Isle Bay received high marks for its presence and performance. An inspector visiting the structure in 1838, for example, noted that the lighthouse was in good condition overall and considered it to be “one of the most useful on the south shores of the lake.”

Ultimately, though, the long-term deficiencies of the lighthouse far outweighed any of its advantages. An inspection in 1851 confirmed that the foundations of the lighthouse had become so weak that the structure was gradually sinking into the ground. In an effort to mitigate this situation, metal bands were placed around the lighthouse to stabilize it. This did not prevent the continued descent into the soil, and the lighthouse was replaced with one made out of bricks in 1858. This new version, measuring 56 feet (17.1 meters) in height, was nearly three times taller than its predecessor.

 Unfortunately, the second lighthouse also had less-than-adequate foundations and began sinking into the ground over time. This structure was replaced in 1867 by a lighthouse built from sandstone. This third and final incarnation, which is 48 feet and 10 inches (15 meters) tall, has enjoyed much more success staying in place and not sinking despite the soil’s best efforts.

The most potent threat to the viability of the lighthouse as a navigational aid came from another source, namely the debut of the current Presque Isle Light in 1873. The introduction of the new lighthouse on the other side of the bay reinforced the perception of many that the Erie Land Light had outlived its usefulness. Consequently, in 1880, the U.S. Lighthouse Board shut down operations at the Erie Land Light. Numerous mariners and local residents protested this action, and the lighthouse was placed back into service in 1885. This reactivation inevitably proved to be nothing more than a temporary stay of execution, with the Erie Land Light permanently decommissioned 14 years later.

Nonetheless, the Erie Land Light is still around today as a popular landmark in that region of the Keystone State. The lighthouse was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In 2004, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission provided a total of $400,000 in grants to help restore the Erie Land Light. For more information on all three versions of what is commonly called the Erie Land Light, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erie_Land_Light.

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