Presque Isle State Park
Presque Isle State Park, so designated in 1921, is a 3,200-acre sandy peninsula that arches lakeward into Lake Erie. It also became a National Natural Landmark in 1967.
Diverse and rare plants and animals attract naturalists. The park contains a greater number of the state’s endangered, threatened and rare species than any other area of comparable size in Pennsylvania.
The first users of the inland waters of the peninsula were the Eriez Nation. The Eriez inhabited the Lake Erie shoreline, giving Lake Erie and them city of Erie its name. They were defeated by the Iroquois in 1654.
According to the Legend of the Sheltering Arm of the Great Spirit, the Great Spirit led the tribe to the peninsula because of the abundance of game that would feed and clothe; the pure water; and the cool, health-giving breezes “coming from the land of snow and ice.”
Misery Bay was the temporary home of the fleet of ships commanded by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the War of 1812. Six of his nine vessels, including two brigs, were constructed in Erie Bay using trees from the local vicinity, most likely from the peninsula. The shores and waters of Presque Isle protected Commodore Perry’s fleet during construction. Commodore Perry and his men engaged the British in battle on September 10, 1813, at Put-in-Bay (near Sandusky, Ohio).
After the battle, Perry and his men remained in Misery Bay and Erie Harbor because of threats of another British uprising. During the winter of 1813-1814, many of Perry’s men suffered from smallpox and were quarantined in Misery Bay. Many of them died, and their bodies were buried in the adjacent pond known as Grave Yard Pond.
The hulls of the Lawrence and the Niagara were sunk in Misery Bay to preserve and protect them from the weather. They were later raised, and the Niagara has been rebuilt, and is docked at the foot of Holland Street, Erie.
The Perry Monument on Crystal Point was built in 1926 to commemorate this significant battle. Misery Bay received its name in remembrance of the hardships of that winter following the Battle of Lake Erie.
The Presque Isle Lighthouse was built in 1872 and first lit on July 12, 1873. It is the second American lighthouse built on Lake Erie. The 74-foot tower has a red-brick dwelling at the base, and is currently used as a park residence. It flashes a white light, and is still maintained by the US Coast Guard.
Presque Isle is a recurving sand spit. Geologists believe it formed more than 11,000 years ago. Over time the coastline “floated” as the forces of wind and water carried sand from the neck of the peninsula eastward, depositing it at Gull Point and causing the Gull Point area to grow.
This growth and migration of the peninsula occurred rapidly, at least in geologic time. Scientists believe that the peninsula has moved eastward one-half mile per century, although they see smaller changes every year. These changes created an extremely diverse and fragile environment.
Presque Isle’s location relates to a ridge of sediment called a moraine that crosses Lake Erie. Huge slowly moving glaciers carry moraines, consisting of clay, sand, and gravel.
The glacier that formed the moraine across Lake Erie was a late, minor advance of the last major ice sheet that covered much of northern Pennsylvania. The moraine marks the location where the glacier stopped, and was left behind as the ice melted away.
Although the French name Presque Isle means “almost an island,” the area has actually 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. One gap remained open for thirty-two years.
See map of the park.
We would like to thank the following for contributing to the information on this page:
- David Rutkowski, Assistant Park Manager, Presque Isle State Park
- Ann Rhodes, Senior Biologist, Pennsylvania Flora Project
- Morris Arboretum and Tracylea Byford, Manager, Kaskey Memorial Botanical Garden, Greenhouses and Animal Faculty, Biology Department, both of the University of Pennsylvania
- Walt Hawley, a former resident of Erie PA, for the story of King of the Peninsula
(This page was updated in November 2012.)