Erie’s Historic Lighthouses Harbor a Rich Maritime History

Presque Isle Lighthouse from Lake Erie

The picturesque shores of Erie, PA, are not only home to stunning beaches and vibrant sunsets but also harbor a rich maritime heritage beautifully preserved in its historic lighthouses. Nestled along Lake Erie’s coastline, Presque Isle Lighthouse, Erie Land Lighthouse and North Pier Light have guided sailors and ships for generations.

The first two U.S. lighthouses on the Great Lakes were completed in 1818 in Buffalo NY and the Erie Land Light in Erie PA. By 1871, the continuously shifting sands of Presque Isle made the Erie Land Lighthouse obsolete. Congress quickly appropriated $15,000 to construct a new lighthouse on the north side of Presque Isle.

Exploring Erie’s historic lighthouses is a delightful journey into the region’s past. As you visit the three lights, you’ll glimpse the fascinating maritime history and breathtaking views of Lake Erie.

Presque Isle Lighthouse

The US Lighthouse Service began constructing the Presque Isle Lighthouse September of 1872. At the cost of $15,000, the Service completed it in July 1873. Despite an original, costly design of cut stone blocks, from the ground up, the lighthouse was built five bricks thick.

Like all good historic buildings, this lighthouse is, of course, haunted. And one of the men hired to build it may be doing the haunting! As a boat full of workers was crossing Misery Bay one morning, a violent storm caught them. All but one survived. His is the only recorded life lost during the entire project.

Initially, the square brick tower was only 40 feet high. Later on, the Service added 17 feet-4 inches to the tower in 1896, to ensure ships further out into the lake could see the light. Eventually, the bricks of the tower were painted white, so that the tower would serve as a day mark for travelers. The lighthouse tower is attached to a four-bedroom lightkeeper cottage.  

This should be your first stop. The house museum has interesting displays in the main level and knowledgeable volunteers. Climbing to the top is timed, to prevent too many folks from going up at once.

Getting there: Presque Isle State Park, 301 Peninsula Dr, Erie, PA (Parking is available across the street from the lighthouse.)
Hours: Memorial Day – Labor Day, daily 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Website: Presque Isle Lighthouse

Erie Land Lighthouse

Although not the most famous or visible of Erie’s lighthouses, the Erie Land Lighthouse was Erie’s first. And it seems as though problems plagued this lighthouse throughout its existence.

The Erie Land Lighthouse, originally known as the Presque Isle Light, is the first commissioned lighthouse on the Great Lakes in the United States. The current light is actually the third at the site. Originally positioned on a cliff overlooking the entrance to Presque Isle Bay, that first light only lasted 50 years before it began dangerously listing. The original structure was a 20-foot-high square wooden tower with an enclosed lantern room.

In 1857, the US Lighthouse Service constructed a new, 56-foot-high round tower. But the soft ground and poor foundation proved to be problematic. Just 10 years later, in 1867, they built the current lighthouse 200 feet east of the original. To ensure this light’s longevity, they laid a 20-foot foundation of oak timbers, crushed limestone and Portland cement to support the round brick tower with Berea sandstone exterior. That’s what we see today. The lighthouse operated until 1880.

Presque Isle is a dynamic landmass, called a sandspit, that changes over time. In the early 1800s, submerged sandbars made the bay nearly impassable. Congress eventually approved construction of a channel to ensure navigation into the bay. However, over time, the changing peninsula that we know as Presque Isle shifted beyond where the lighthouse could actually aid navigation.

Getting there: 2 Lighthouse St., Erie, PA
Hours: Memorial Day – Labor Day, Friday – Monday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; grounds open daily from dawn to dusk.
Website: Erie Land Lighthouse

North Pier Light

The light, located at the far eastern end of Presque Isle State Park, helps ships and boats navigate their way into the narrow channel to Presque Isle Bay.

The US Lighthouse Service originally constructed this lighthouse as a wooden tower in 1830, slightly farther west, closer to the current location of the current US Coast Guard Station. However, a schooner crashed into it trying to enter the channel during a gale, destroying the tower in 1857. In 1858, the Service extended the North Pier and built a two-story structure.

Again in 1883, the Service extended the North Pier and moved the lighthouse closer to the end of the pier. They also added a 934-foot-long elevated walkway, attaching the iron tower to the keepers cottage. But once again, in 1891, they extended the North Pier, again moving the tower and extending the walkway. Electricity came to the North Pier Light in 1924, allowing the light to be electrified and easing the keepers’ workload.

The US Lighthouse Service extended the North Pier one last time in 1940, and moved the light to its current location. The Service encased the tower in steel panels and painted its distinctive white with black stripes. The US Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in the 1940s. After 1945, the USCG didn’t need a lighthouse keeper at the North Pier Light. Worth noting: the unique square-pyramidal design of the lighthouse is the only surviving example of this type left in the United States. 

Getting there: Presque Isle State Park, located on the North Pier adjacent to the Coast Guard Station, near beach 11.
Hours: grounds open only, during Presque Isle State Park operating hours
Website: North Pier Light

Know Before You Go

For both Presque Isle Lighthouse and Erie Land Lighthouse, you’ll have a steep climb up iron spiral steps (with small landings each half circle) and a very steep iron step ladder of sorts to get to top and a small hatch to climb through. Presque Isle Lighthouse has an accessible entrance to the house with a video tour of the house and tower located in the kitchen. The tower and other spaces in the home are not accessible. Erie Land Lighthouse is not accessible. The North Pier Light is not open.

Looking for more to do and see in Erie PA? Check out Visit Erie, as well as the articles below:

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