The Erie Maritime Museum spotlights a colorful chapter in the Navy’s swashbuckling past
It was a beautiful early fall day, temperatures in the high 70s with blue skies and sunshine. We made the trip from Cleveland, Ohio, to Erie, Pennsylvania, traveling east on I-90 in less than two hours.
My wife Carol and I were in search of Oliver Hazard Perry, victorious commodore at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, midway through the War of 1812.
Erie is an interesting, yet modest destination on the eastern end of Lake Erie. Centuries ago, it was a centerpiece of the war effort. A great spot to learn about Perry and the area’s role in the war is the Erie Maritime Museum, located on Presque Isle Bay’s south shore.
Perry was actually an East Coaster, from Newport, Rhode Island, and the son of a naval captain, who went to sea as a 12-year-old midshipman. As the war began, Perry bucked his craving for military glory up the chain, where he was found and hired by the head of Great Lakes operations, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, who saw control of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes as key to defeating the British. Perry wound up at Presque Isle, in charge of building a fleet of nine warships.
The museum is not all about Perry. The chief exhibit and an attraction all its own is the U.S. Brig Niagara, a replica of Perry’s relief flagship docked at the museum.
The original Niagara was built as part of Perry’s Great Lakes fleet. The Niagara now in Erie is the third-generation\ ship, built in 1988 and the second re-creation since 1913.
Interestingly, the Niagara was not Commodore Perry’s original flagship—that was the Lawrence, named for the late Commodore Lawrence, whose battle slogan “Don’t Give Up the Ship!” was adopted by Perry.
The battle began poorly for Perry. Mortality was high and 80 percent of the Lawrence’s original crew—155 officers and men—were lost. The Lawrence was pounded useless by British cannon fire, so Perry took his slogan flag and in a rowboat with four others got to the Niagara and assumed command. The British fleet was also badly damaged, and Perry is said to have received the enemy’s surrender within 15 minutes.
The museum exhibit’s gun crew is four, a grim number, as the typical gun crew totals seven. The exhibit shows mid-battle conditions—some crewmen are bare-chested and barefoot, the lack of shoes for better footing on blood-drenched decks.
The exhibit crew has the implements of war—a worm, to clean the remaining burning debris from a previous shot; a sponge, to fully clean the gun tube; a ram; and wadding. Practiced and fully staffed, a gun crew could fire once every 90 seconds.
A guided tour of the Niagara gives insight into life aboard a fighting ship in the Age of Sail. Most noticeable is the ceiling below decks where six-footers are out of place. The only members of our tour standing fully erect were in the 5’5” to 5’6” range, the average sailor’s height in 1813.
The Erie Maritime Museum also has displays on lighthouses, fisheries and diving.
Other attractions in Erie include Presque Isle State Park, Presque Isle Downs & Casino (live horse racing May-September) and the Erie Sea Wolves, an AA Eastern League baseball team.
Harry H. Peck spent most of his career in tourism marketing or as a group travel specialist. Stops along the way included work at amusement parks, a convention & visitors bureau, five hotel companies and five years with Premier Travel Media.