Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.

Standing on Lake Erie’s shoreline on a summer day, your eye catches a glint of sunlight on a tiny speck white far off in the distance. Eventually, sails, masts, and rigging of a magnificent tall ship emerge over the horizon, unlike any other structure for hundreds of miles in any direction. For those on board this stately vessel, the US Brig Niagara offers an incomparable experience. They can sense the ship flexing and straining beneath them, feel the wind driving her along, and hear the distinctive cadences of the captain’s commands. They have stepped into an organic structure of wood, rope, and cloth that feels alive. But they, too, are an equally important organic structure – these crew members serve collectively as the brains and nerves and muscles of this majestic, seafaring beast from another era.

The difference between a historic ship and a historic building is somewhat akin to the difference between a horse and a stable. Keeping a ship seaworthy is much like keeping a horse healthy – both require daily care, extensive knowledge, training, and exercise. On certain summer days in Erie, individuals can experience firsthand this nautical steed as a day-sail student on board the US Brig Niagara, perhaps the most unusual project of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). The flagship’s story is legendary. It carried Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to victory over the British in the dramatic Battle of Lake Erie waged during the War of 1812. Scuttled in Lake Erie after the war, the remains were raised and first reconstructed for the battle’s centennial in 1913. The ship’s second reconstruction in 1933 was, in part, a Works Progress Administration project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the launching of the present-day Niagara. What has evolved since 1988 is truly a unique educational program.

The Erie Maritime Museum, a popular attraction along the PHMC’s Pennsylvania Trails of HistoryTM, chronicles the maritime stories of northwestern Pennsylvania. The museum features exhibits on the Battle of Lake Erie, waged in September 1813, the USS Michigan, the U.S. Navy’s first iron-hulled warship, and border relations with Canada, as well as changing exhibits on charts and navigation, marine art, commercial fishing, and the evolution of the port of Erie, among others. When the Niagara is at her home port, visitors are welcome to board for a guided tour.

Yet a guided tour – even with the finest of docents – conveys but a small glimpse of what the Niagara can teach. Interpreting a docked ship can be likened to explaining a violin to someone who has never seen or heard one. What’s missing is the most important part – the music. The Niagara is a large wooden stringed instrument powered by wind and muscle, and every performance is unique. One important component of the Niagara is the preservation of traditional skills, keeping intact the art and craft of seafaring under sail.

Unlike military maneuvers and drills, sailing the Niagara is no reenactment; there’s no “time-out” or “cut.” Instead, sailors face the challenges and consequences of unpredictable winds and real waves. The sailing experience is authentic (even though the ship is equipped with auxiliary engines and modern safety equipment). Living on board is only partly authentic, though; there is no grog, no flogging, no incoming live ammunition, no surgery without anesthetics. During the summer, the Niagara is underway four days a week, and sometimes for several consecutive weeks while on a tour. The ship enjoys its greatest visitation when she is the star attraction at other ports. The flagship – Pennsylvania’s sailing goodwill ambassador – has represented the Commonwealth during more than one hundred port visits in the last seventeen years.

The Niagara is sailed by eighteen professional crew members and up to twenty-four tuition-paying trainees. These trainees must sign on for at least two weeks, and are encouraged to stay for three or more weeks. Both the professionals and the trainees live aboard the ship. In addition to the immersive multi-week training program, the Niagara also offers a one-day introductory day-sail program out of Erie. Up to fifty persons may enroll per sail. Day-sail students do not go aloft, but they can pitch in by hauling lines on deck as sails are set or they may just observe as spectators. Throughout the sail the captain will periodically call informational musters, brief talks of ten to fifteen minutes on how the ship works, the reasons for various maneuvers, and the vessel’s history, among other topics. By the time they return to the pier several hours later, the day-sail students possess a newfound appreciation of seafaring work that could be gained in no other way. They have been participants, however briefly, in one of history’s most important endeavors, harnessing the wind through the effort of many hands.

The United States Coast Guard inspects and certifies the Niagara as a Sailing School Vessel (SSV), which satisfies a different set of standards than for passenger vessels. An SSV, for example, is not required to comply with the provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In 2008, the Niagara will voyage to all of the Great Lakes, which will limit the number of day-sails out of Erie. The standard fee for a day-sail is $60 per person (including a meal), with discounts for groups. Students must be at least fourteen years of age. There is no upper age limit, but interested individuals must understand that sailing requires all on board to be on their feet most of the day, much like a long hike or walking tour.

 

Walter P. Rybka is site administrator of the Erie Maritime Museum and the U.S. Brig Niagara.