Museums and Historic Sites presents news and information about the historic sites and museums of PHMC.

Erie’s claim to maritime fame came early in its history. And this was due mainly to its geographic location.

War was declared by the United States against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. The British were much better prepared for the war. Along the Great Lakes they had military posts from Niagara to Sault Ste. Marie and, equally important, had a fresh water navy.

The summer campaign of 1812 in this region was a series of disasters to the Americans. Hull surrendered Detroit without a fight, Van Rensselaer was defeated at Niagara in October. And a final blow was the capture of the Adams, the only armed vessel the United States had. Thus, the British maintained full control of the lake.

Capt. Daniel Dobbins of Erie had the schooner at Mackinaw and was captured by the British that summer. Re­leased, he returned to Erie and, upon reporting to General Meade, was sent on to Washington to give a full report to President Madison and his cabinet. Dobbins advocated building a fleet powerful enough to challenge the enemy. As a result of the Washington meeting, Dobbins was com­missioned a Sailing-master in the U.S. Navy, given a $2,000 draw, and ordered to Erie to begin construction. He had named Erie as the only comparatively safe place for the building, as the peninsula formed a sheltered harbor from the enemy.

On Sept. 16, 1812, Dobbins received his formal orders to proceed with the building of the fleet. Two weeks earlier, Capt. Isaac Chauncey had been picked to command the U. S. forces on the Great Lakes and he turned his attention to Lake Ontario matters. Lake Erie was to receive the full attention of the number two officer, Master-Commandant John D. Elliott. The latter tried to recommend Black Rock, N.Y., as the most suitable place to build a fleet, and Chauncey accepted this recommendation. Neither of these two officers knew what had taken place in Washington nor that Erie harbor was the ideal spot to construct any large ships.

Dobbins started construction on the gunboats at Erie. He continued to keep Chauncey informed by letter of his situation, but for many weeks failed to get a reply. It ap­peared the commander had turned his back on Erie. Some­what desperate, Dobbins wrote to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, telling him about the lack of communication and also that the $2,000 had been spent, and he was unable to make further contracts.

The correspondence to Washington paid off. The situation at Erie was resolved with a visit by Chauncey and Henry Eckford, architect and designer. Chauncey now agreed with Dobbins that Erie was the place for construc­tion, and, pleased with what construction had taken place, ordered the building of two brigs.

Erie then was a small (some four hundred permanent residents) and very isolated community. Consequently, find­ing skilled labor and getting it there was a problem. Noah Brown, who was to become building superintendent, left New York with fifteen men on Feb. 21, 1813. A few days later thirty more departed. March 27, 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry arrived in Erie from the east coast by way of Sackett’s Harbor, N.Y.; within a few days he was off to Pittsburgh to find supplies, materials and more men. He found some men there who had started from Philadelphia and he brought them back when he returned to Erie. The journey had taken five weeks from the opposite end of the state, and the men could not be put to work immediately, for they were with­out their tools. Inflation was evident in the pay received; e.g., ship carpenters who normally got $1.25 or $1.00 per day made $1.75 and $1.50 in this small frontier town.

There was an unlimited timber supply and, because of the pressure of getting the job done, only unseasoned wood was used. A tree early in the day was often part of the ship later in the day. Inspection of the Niagara years later showed various types of wood that had been used, such as in her ribs, which were oak, poplar, cucumber and ash. Planking for the frames usually was white or black oak. White pine was laid on the decks; it was used too for the bulwarks that were secured to stanchions of red cedar and black walnut.

The other materials and equipment that were needed had to be brought much greater distances, often on primitive roads. Sixty-five cannon of various sizes and types were sent to Erie. Over half (thirty-six) came from Washington, the balance from New York and from Sackett’s Harbor, at the east end of Lake Ontario.


Six Vessels Built

Eventually six vessels were built in Erie – two brigs, one schooner pilot boat, and three gunboats, namely the Lawrence, Niagara, Ariel, Scorpion, Porcupine and Tigress. By July 23, 1813, Perry stated everything was ready aboard his fleet – except he did not have the necessary personnel to man them. (The Lawrence, the Niagara and the Ariel were built at the foot of Cascade Creek; the three gunboats were constructed at Lee’s Run, which is between Peach and Sassafras Streets today.)

By early August enough men had arrived to fill out the needed complements on the ships. But a problem still remained: getting the brigs over the sand bar at the entrance to the harbor and out into open water where they could engage the enemy. Captain Barclay, commander of the British fleet on Lake Erie, had kept an eye on the work at Erie for some weeks; but on July 31 he sailed away to Canada.

At dawn on August 1 the first of the small vessels, the Scorpion, and then others, crossed over the bar by lightening and warping. Normal depth of water over the bar was about six feet. Perhaps a false tide was at work, as the level had fallen to four to five feet. By using camels or pontoons The Lawrence was brought over the bar in two days of hard labor; the Niagara was brought over on August 5. By noon August 6, 1813, all were in Lake Erie, re-armed and ready to go.

The battle for the supremacy of the lakes came on September 10. The six Erie-built vessels plus three others which had come up the lake from Black Rock to join Perry at Erie met the enemy, under Captain Barclay, off Put-in-Bay at the west end of Lake Erie. Perry had the Lawrence as his flagship until she became so badly shot aloft as to become unmanageable, with every gun dismounted. He transferred flag to the Niagara from where he further directed the fight. Within a short time, victory was achieved.

The defeat of Captain Barclay’s fleet was an important accomplishment, for it opened a transportation route that was vital to American recovery of Detroit and the old North­west; and it lifted American morale, which had been badly battered by defeat.

In 1815, orders were issued to dispose of the surviving warships. The Niagara was kept afloat as a receiving ship some years for when she was beached on the northeast side of Misery Bay (part of Erie harbor). On June 12, 1826, the Niagara plus three other vessels, the Lawrence, Detroit, Queen Charlotte, were sold to Benjamin Brown of Rochester, N.Y. Capt. George Miles and others bought them from Brown in 1836. Miles sold his interest to Leander Dobbins in 1857. By 1908, title had passed to Capt. John Fleeharty of Erie, Mary A. Dobbins of Buffalo and John R. Dobbins of California.

As the centennial of 1913 approached, plans were made by state and local people for a major celebration. Appropria­tions were passed and the state became the owner of the submerged Niagara. Capt. William L. Morrison of Erie in mid-summer of 1912 had been authorized by Gen. A. E. Sisson, in behalf of the Pennsylvania Perry’s Centennial Commission, to employ a diver to inspect the old Niagara. They found “the wreck located in about twenty feet of water, buried on an average in six feet of sand and mud. The starboard side was intact to a height of some six feet. The port side was more completely buried in the sand and seemed to be in fair condition. The stem and stern-post were intact.”

The contract for raising and beaching the Niagara was let Nov. 10, 1912, to William Paasch of Erie. Due to severe weather and snow storms, work progressed slowly, most of the time through holes cut in the ice covering Misery Bay. A sand sucker was used to uncover the hull, and with the re­moval of the sand, four chains were eventually placed under­neath the hull. There was one forward, one aft, and two amidships; these chains were made fast to strong beams, supported on pontoons, one on either side of the wreck. As Captain Morrison reported, she was “raised a link at a time by means of a twenty-foot lever.”


The Niagara Rebuilt

The Niagara was brought to the surface on a blustering day, March 6, 1913, without any damage. The actual beaching did not take place until April 1 because of ice and bad weather.

Contracts for the rebuilding went out. Hansen & Lund of Erie did the hull work. Masts and spars were placed by Noley Baker and Dan MacDonald of Erie. The sails and rig­ging were supplied by the Upson-Walton Company of Cleveland.

Although no detailed plans of the Niagara were available, she was rebuilt as near as possible to the original. From stem to stern-post she measured 118 feet long, with a thirty-foot beam and a draft of about nine feet. Pine and white oak were used in the work. The hull job was done in Misery Bay on the beach while the final completion was done off State Street in the West Basin. About ten percent of the original ship was used – keel, keelson, ribs or trams in all the lower part of the hull, stern post, and bow stem. Below decks had complete quarters for the crew – including bunks, galley and head. Replicas of her guns were cast in a local foundry, ex­cept for the two long guns on her bow which date back to the era of the battle.

It took approximately ninety days to rebuild the Ni­agara. By July 2, 1913, she was at the Public Dock, her rig­ging going into place.

July 6-12 was named Perry Week in Erie. A number of government revenue cutters and gunboats came in from different stations on the lakes: the Morrell and the Essex from Detroit, the Hawk from Buffalo and the Dubuque. Special events held included a naval parade, boat races, an address by Secretary of Navy Daniels, concerts by the Marine Band and a display of fireworks. The C & B Line had its big steamer City of Erie giving two-hour lake rides.

The U. S. Navy sent three officers, three one-time chief petty officers, a gunner’s mate and six enlisted men to be assigned duty on the Niagara.

On the evening of Sunday, July 13, 1913, the Niagara started up the lake under tow of the Wolverine, with Cap­tain Morrison commanding. The Wolverine was just as noteworthy as the pre-built Niagara, if not more. She was built at Erie in 1843 and was the U. S. Navy’s first iron hulled ship. Stops were made along Lake Erie at such places as Fairport, Lorain, Toledo, and later, Buffalo. On at least one occasion some of her sails were set and she started to over­take the Wolverine, so the sails were lowered. Her cruise took her as far as Green Bay, Milwaukee and Chicago. She returned to Erie and was placed on display off lower State Street. But time and the elements worked on the ship and by the late 1920’s a group was formed which tried to raise funds to preserve and maintain the ship.

A second major rebuilding was undertaken in 1933 with the contract going to Herman Lund of Erie, who had also worked on her 1913 rebuilding. Men who worked on the Niagara in 1933 were Mike Miller, Al Woodell, Nels Nielson, Hans Sorth, Lou Petri, Otto Wilhelm, Tom Christensen, Carl Lund, Pete Harrity and Clarence Gay. Financed by the W.P.A., the work was started on the peninsula and con­tinued until funds ran out. The hull was about complete, but the main deck had not been put in, and the work was not completed for at least another year.

Finally the hull was brought over to the west basin and was placed on concrete supports. It was not until the sesqui­centennial of 1963 that the Niagara had some new masts, spars, and rigging placed.

The Niagara is once again undergoing major repair work. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which maintains the ship, recently authorized work on the Niagara in order to make it safer for the many persons who visit her each year.


Robert MacDonald, an avid scholar of Erie’s naval history, is indebted to Louis Petri and Herman Lund for much of the information on the rebuildings.