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Erie, Pennsylvania

Small Place, Big Boating

By John Morris

The Presque Isle peninsula is a 3,200-acre – 7-mile long arm that extends northeast into Lake Erie creating a large, sheltered boating paradise of a harbour.  With a string of well equipped marinas, a wealth of facilities and a very impressive yacht club, it has attractions for boaters that place it at the top of a cruising destination list. This may come as a bit of a surprise since Erie, PA is a relatively small community with a population that has hovered around 100,000 for decades. Nonetheless, it is a comparative giant in terms of boating.

Boats and Erie have a solid historic connection. If you managed to stay awake during Grade 10 history you’d have traced the communities of the lake back to the early exploration of North America. During the War of 1812 (which we know as our victory in Canada, although it seems to have had a different outcome south of the border) a 27-year-old US Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry built a fleet of ships and defeated (!) the British at the Battle of Lake Erie.

During the industrializing years of America, a canal system was hammered out of the Pennsylvania landscape connecting Pittsburgh and the rest of the state north to Lake Erie establishing its commercial importance. The south shore of Lake Erie was an expressway for sailing and steamships heading from the newly minted booming American west to the Erie Canal, which famously began at Buffalo and led to the rich markets and export ports of the US eastern seaboard.

The railways in North America eventually superseded transport by water and highways subsequently pushed the lake ports off the industrial map. The population of Erie along with neighbouring Cleveland and Buffalo has been declining since 1950s.

Today, The News Is Good

In recent years, Erie has re-discovered its magnificent waterfront. In 1996, the 57m Bicentennial Tower was built to draw attention to the harbour and things have evolved enthusiastically. Waterfront tourism and boating have become a booming part of Erie’s economy.

Today’s Erie waterfront has a rich array of marinas plus a conference centre all looking out into the stunning harbour and the state park on Presque Isle. Presque Isle Bay is a well sheltered harbour that rivals most any on the Lakes. Just east of the entrance to the Bay is Captain John E. Lampe Marina with 252 slips and other camping-oriented cruising amenities including shore power and gas (but no diesel.) 

Just inside the harbour you come to a cluster of facilities including the smaller Boat Store and Lund Boat Works Inc., and that’s where you’ll find Anchor Marine, a full service facility with a 7-ton travel lift and an elevator system that accommodates 55-footers. Anchor has some docks as well, mostly occupied by regulars. Others pay modest dockage. Next door Gem City Marina has another small batch of docks.

Moorings at Wolverine Park is a Boat/US cooperating transient marina offering temporary docking for up to 10 days. Facilities include floating docks with water and electrical hook-ups, a pump out station, laundromat, private showers, and restrooms, vending machines, ship’s store, and Smitty’s Bait Stand. These facilities are all handy to Erie’s Maritime Museum and Brig Niagara, Dobbins Landing and numerous restaurants.

Also in this cluster is The Presque Isle Yacht Club with 150 power and sail boats. Established in 1944 it offers a full slate of club type facilities including slips for boats up to 40 feet plus 30-amp service, pump-out, water, and wireless Internet included in the guest dockage rate of $1.50 a foot.

To the immediate west is 10-year old Bayfront Convention Center on Sassafras Pier with a huge Sheraton hotel. Last year a tall ship visit to the pier drew tens of thousands of visitors reinforcing Erie’s increasing focus on the waterfront.

Heading further west along the front is a collection of quite large busy marinas with large fleets of boats of all types and sizes. Bay Harbor Marina has east and west basins, 233 and 231 slips respectively, engine servicing, a fish cleaning station and all the other cruising amenities you might need.  It also has a full blown Ship’s Store.  The adjacent small but reportedly very enjoyable Commodore Perry Yacht Club has 10 transient moorings as well as gas and pump-out, but only offers reciprocal privileges to local clubs.

Next stop on the waterfront, before you get to Perry’s Landing Marina is Liberty Park, extending into the lake. The Burger King Amphitheater at Liberty Park is a 5,000 seat grass amphitheater with waterfront walkways and a children's playground. The outdoor theatre is the home to a loaded summer concert series and other big events worth taking in.

Just west of the park is Perry’s Landing Marina, like Lampe Marina and Liberty Park is run by Port Erie, the local port authority. With 242 slips it’s a big facility with a clubhouse for marine tenants and Erie residents including a striking pool with a poolside café sitting at the end of the pier and providing a fine spot for sunsets.

From any of the waterfront marinas, walk up the hill for the exploration of a city from another era. Nearby downtown Erie has a storybook feel replete with charming homes situated on sleepy treed avenues.  Up the main drag, State Street, walk through Perry Square Park to the magnificent deco Warner Theater. Built in 1929 as a movie palace by Warner Brothers, in the early 1980s Erie converted the theater to a performing arts center that has become the focus of a downtown revival. With its lavish lobby and extravagant interior, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

The North Shore of Presque Isle Bay

Another marina to consider is the area’s largest, the 500-slip Presque Isle State Park Marina located on the inside of the park on the peninsula. Staying in the marina in the park presents a natural, rather than city front setting. The park is a spectacular playground with 21 miles (34 km) of recreational trails, 13 beaches for swimming, bike and surrey rentals, paddle boats plus dunes and lots of nature including many unique habitats – according to it’s website, Presque Isle contains a greater number of the state's endangered, threatened and rare species than any other area of comparable size in Pennsylvania. It is quite rightly a frequented tourist destination and the entrance to the park, where the peninsula meets the shoreline, is a living museum of 1950s tourist fun including the legendary Sara’s and Sally’s hot dog mega-joint/diner and an amusement park.

Not far from the base of the peninsula at the western end of the Bay is the Erie Yacht Club, a jewel of a place with 1,400 friendly members including voting, junior, social etc., near 400 keelboats and another hundred dry sail boats. It has a large active fleet of Lightnings and an extensive calendar of racing, cruising and fun events emanating from a sophisticated clubhouse facility. It’s a bit of surprise that little Erie can support a club of this stature until you consider that Erie’s the closest port for much larger places like Pittsburgh.

Combining superb geography, a healthy helping of vintage Americana and some of the best boating facilities anywhere, Erie PA is a destination well worth more than one visit.

Photos (Credits John Morris)

Photo 1:  The Erie waterfront offers bustling marinas and almost rural lakefront cottages.
Photo 2:  The Bicentennial Tower beautifully dominates the city’s front.
Photo 3:  Erie’s waterfront is home to several large marinas.
Photo 4:  Sara's and Sally's at the entrance to the State Park have been all about beach food since the 50s.