The Erie County Historical Society

Historical Societies: News and Highlights presents news and information about Pennsylvania's regional and county historical societies.

According to newspaper accounts, an informal Erie County historical organization existed during the last cen­tury on at least two occasions. In late December 1862 a meeting was held for the purpose of forming a historical society and a society for the promo­tion of the natural sciences. The impetus for this move was a desire “to collect the biographies of the soldiers of our armies who have gone from this County; it is especially desired that the histories of the citizens of Erie County who have lost their lives in the service of their country, shall be carefully pre­pared by their friends and sent to the committee.” Some years later, “in 1876, the famous Centennial year of the country, a movement was set afoot for securing in the various counties of the state, histories from the earliest period down to the current year. The Historical Society of Erie County selected three persons to prepare a history for the county, assigning a certain division of the work to each.” There is, however, no other evidence that either of these bodies survived for very long, and it was not until 1903 that an official and continuing society was established.

As has been seen, local history organizations are often born on a wave of enthusiasm for some particular event or commemoration. While the founders of 1903 may have had the 100th anniversary of Erie County in mind, it is more likely that they were simply public spirited citizens who felt that a formal effort to preserve Erie County’s heritage was long overdue.

Before many years had passed, the society found itself deeply involved in preparations for the Perry Centennial observance to be held in 1913. The major project with which it was con­cerned was the raising and rebuilding of Commodore Perry’s flagship Niagara which had rested on the bottom of Erie harbor for eighty years. The society also marked the two locations where Perry’s fleet had been built dur­ing the spring and summer of 1813.

Whether the activities of 1913 ex­hausted the society’s membership or the First World War directed their attentions elsewhere, it went into hibernation until 1921. At that time, new by-laws were adopted and the organization given a thorough over­hauling. An ambitious program of monthly events and quarterly pilgrim­ages went into effect. In the early 30s the society was successful in securing office space in the old Custom House­ – an 1839 Erie landmark. But the de­pression soon took its toll on the society’s fortunes. By 1934 member­ship had declined to fifty and lack of operating monies made it necessary to close the office during the winter months. A few dedicated individuals managed to carry on the society’s affairs. One of these was J. Elmer Reed who had authored a well re­ceived two volume history of Erie County in 1925. Over the years he continued to publish, producing a number of essays on topics such as the Erie Triangle, the Erie Extension Canal and the French Forts. Through the efforts of men such as J. Elmer Reed, the society withstood its lean years and again became actively involved.

By World War II the Niagara was once again falling into disrepair at its Misery Bay anchorage. The society helped form a Niagara Association to rescue this historic ship and in 1943 it was moved to a site on dry land near the public dock.

One of the society’s more success­ful educational efforts occurred in the 50s when it issued a series of printed leaflets entitled Erie County Historical Primer. Several thousand copies of these were distributed free of charge to area schools. The approach of 1963 thrust the society in to an active role in the community as it prepared for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. Not only the Niagara, but a number of other local landmarks were restored. Members of the society served on a variety of committees which planned and conducted a summer-long series of sesquicentennial events.

A long standing concern of the society had been the disposition of the Custom House and the Cashier’s House next door (a residence which also dates from 1839). Both buildings were in need of considerable repair and renovation, but no local agency was willing to assume responsibility for their upkeep. The society pressed for a solution which would transfer title to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. This was finally achieved and restoration by the state began in 1968. Due to construction delays and funding problems, however, work was not completed until 1974. The society then moved to the Cashier’s House and furnished several of its rooms in the style of the mid-nine­teenth century. Over three thousand people now visit the premises each year. More recently the society launch­ed a semi-annual scholarly publication – The Journal of Erie Studies – in collaboration with Mercyhurst College. It was soon awarded a Certificate of Commendation by the American Association for State and Local History.

As the society enters its fourth quarter of existence, it has a number of exciting projects underway. These include an archives and service center for local business and industry, cur­riculum materials on preservation for students and participation in a county-sponsored historic sites survey. It looks forward to the next twenty-five years as ones in which it will be of increasing service to the residents of Erie County.


John R. Claridge is Executive Director of the Erie County Historical Society.