Erie County is part of the geological region in Pennsylvania carved out by the Wisconsinan glacier less than 15,000 years ago. The county is covered with compacted silts and clays whose undulating surface makes excellent farmland. As the glacier receded, it paused periodically, leaving a series of steps, or terraces, along the margin of Lake Erie that provide level east–west transportation routes. Because of their proximity to the lake, these terraces have an exceptionally long growing season and today are filled with orchards, vineyards, and greenhouses. Streams in the county flow north into Lake Erie or south into the Allegheny River.
The name of the lake, county, and city—Erie—stems from their association with the Eriez Indians, so-named by French explorers. They were an agricultural people who spoke a language related to Iroquois and were conquered and dispersed by the Seneca, part of the Iroquois confederation, in 1656.
French soldiers and traders used the Native American Venango Trail as their military road between Canada and Fort Duquesne at Pittsburgh. This combination of land and water routes connected Lake Erie to the Ohio River. After a fourteen-mile overland portage south of Lake Erie, water travel resumed at Le Boeuf Creek, which feeds into French Creek at Waterford. That creek flows southeast to the Allegheny River and ultimately to the Ohio. The French immediately understood the importance of this connection, and in 1753, they built forts at Erie (Fort Presque Isle) and Waterford (Fort Le Boeuf) to guard these sites (both forts are now demolished). English colonists, wary of the French dominance presaged by these forts, sought to oust the French. Ultimately, the English defeated them, only to have their settlement interrupted by a coordinated Native American attack in 1763 called Pontiac's Rebellion. Again, the English prevailed.
After the American Revolution, Connecticut claimed a three-county-deep swath of land along the entire northern boundary of what is today Pennsylvania. The rancorous dispute was not settled until 1787. Later, there was rampant confusion over which state held the Erie Triangle, the northwestern corner of the commonwealth. In addition to Connecticut, three states—Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania—laid claim. Finally, New York and Massachusetts relinquished their claims to the federal government, which in 1792 sold the 202,187 acres to Pennsylvania for $151,000. Through this transaction, Pennsylvania gained a port on Lake Erie.
Lake Erie defines the northern edge of the county. Because the lake is shallow, it has proved treacherous to sailors, and remnants of hundreds of shipwrecks lie at its bottom. However, just off the shore of Erie County, the lake reaches a depth of nearly two hundred feet in a yawning well, allowing the port of Erie to welcome ocean-going vessels. Erie is connected to Buffalo and to Cleveland by their lake ports. New York named its canal after the lake that was its western terminus. Yet many are surprised to learn that the Erie Canal never entered Erie County or that the city of Erie is not its western terminus. The city's only canal connection was to the Pennsylvania Canal in 1844 by way of a system called the Erie Extension Canal that flowed southwest to Beaver County, not east.
The towns of Erie and Waterford were both surveyed and plotted by Andrew Ellicott and General William Irvine as part of the state reservation project undertaken between 1783 and 1795. Towns along the western border, including Pittsburgh and Beaver, were similarly laid out. Much of the land in Erie County was purchased by the Pennsylvania Population Company of Philadelphia, a private land company, rather than by individual settlers.
The Erie and Waterford Pike built between 1806 and 1809 carried the salt trade between Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Salt shipped through Erie was transported south along the turnpike, and then floated to Pittsburgh via French Creek and the Allegheny River, bringing a steady stream of workers through the area. Early settlers included carpenters and shipbuilders from New York and Philadelphia, who arrived during the War of 1812 to build the two large brigs in Erie's protected harbor that were used to defeat the British on Lake Erie. Many stayed in Erie County, establishing farms and using power for sawmills and gristmills from a series of streams that drop into Lake Erie.
When railroads supplanted the canals, Erie's crossroads status was challenged, but the railroads brought new industries. Corry, in southeast Erie County and incorporated in 1866 at the junction of four rail lines, hosted the Climax Manufacturing Company from 1888 to 1928, which built over a thousand geared locomotives especially suited to uneven terrain and that were a key element in the growth of the oil and lumber industries. Corry, though, never rivaled the city of Erie in size or manufacturing capacity.
Erie's diversified twenty-first-century economy includes electronics, instruments, and insurance, whose development was spurred by the intersection of two federal highways, I-90 and I-79. The county's fifty miles of shoreline provide excellent recreational opportunities and have inspired the construction of several small resort communities. But the lake's shallowness makes it vulnerable to “dead zones,” oxygen-free areas that kill fish, plants, and insects and, ultimately, the water birds that feed on them. This phenomenon is being studied in Lake Erie, as it can have a devastating effect on tourism.
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