Erie is located on a series of plateaus and ridges formed by the receding Wisconsinan glacier. Northward-flowing streams, including Mill and Cascade creeks, cut through the glacial drift to create dramatic scenery. French traders found that the bay at Presque Isle, the spit of land extending into the lake, accommodated their largest barques and canoes, prompting them to build Fort Presque Isle here in 1753. By 1759, advancing British troops impelled the French to burn the fort and retreat to Detroit. The British then built a fort in Erie in 1760, only to have it destroyed three years later during Pontiac's Rebellion. To pacify the native inhabitants, the colonial government banned European settlement in the area, a ban enforced until after the American Revolution. Erie gained notoriety when General “Mad” Anthony Wayne died in Fort Presque Isle's blockhouse in 1796. To commemorate that event, a reconstruction of the blockhouse was built in 1880 on the grounds of the Pennsylvania Soldiers and Sailors Home and Cemetery overlooking Lake Erie. The Indian attacks and constant ownership disputes delayed Erie's settlement until Wayne soundly defeated the tribes in Ohio and Native American attacks ceased in 1795.
The Pennsylvania Population Company of Philadelphia purchased a large tract of land in 1792. Two of their investors, Andrew Ellicott and General William Irvine, surveyed the area and laid a grid of lots from the lakeshore to the city limits, numbering the east–west streets and naming the north–south streets after trees and nations. Judah Colt acted as the company's land agent from 1796 until 1832. The area was incorporated as a borough in 1805 and a city in 1851.
Although schooners began transporting salt from Syracuse through the port of Erie in the early nineteenth century, the city was little more than a village until the War of 1812, when a small army of shipbuilders and sailors were imported to build six ships for naval commander Oliver H. Perry's nineship fleet. The town used the waterfront commercially after the war, despite efforts to center the commercial district around the diamond known as Perry Square.
By the 1830s, Erie was linked to Chicago, Buffalo, and Cleveland by steamship. To the south, the Erie Extension Canal, while never profitable, linked Erie and Pittsburgh directly in 1831, and in 1870, its right-of-way was purchased by several small rail lines. When railroads supplanted the canals, Erie's crossroads status was challenged. However, a discrepancy in the width of the rail gauges between tracks east of Erie and those heading west worked to Erie's advantage since passengers and freight were unloaded and reloaded in Erie, profiting local retailers. In 1853, the railroads standardized their gauges, and Erie's citizens, roused by their political leaders, destroyed tracks and bridges along the Erie and Northeast Railroad's line. Erie's “Gauge War” or, as some newspapers called it, the “Peanut War,” since peanut and pie vendors suffered most from the change, ended in 1856 when the commonwealth ruled that through-lines had to use a standard six-foot gauge. Most of Erie's rail lines were subsumed into the Pennsylvania Railroad by the century's end.
The Civil War again called on the maritime engineering of Erie's population to build the first iron-hulled warship on the Great Lakes, the USS Michigan (later the Wolverine). The metals industry, started in Erie after the Civil War, ultimately bestowed the title “Boiler and Engine Capital of the World” on the town. Irish and German immigration increased between 1860 and 1900 and ethnic neighborhoods thrived, such as Little Italy at 16th and Walnut streets, and the Russian neighborhood along Front Street adjacent to the docks. Each neighborhood built a church for its religious and ethnic majority. The Poles built St. Stanislaus parish in 1888, although the present Gothic Revival Church at E. 13th and Wallace streets dates from 1895. The German community published German-language newspapers and patronized breweries. Streetcars, horse-drawn as early as 1866 and electrified by 1885, connected the neighborhoods, and by 1910, an interurban trolley extended to Buffalo.
Middle-class single-family homes, often integrated with the industrial sites around them, created a mixed-use urban aspect in Erie that was enhanced by the relative flatness of the land and the wide streets. Later, major industries opened on the edges of town: the Hammermill paper factory in 1898 and the General Electric locomotive works in 1911 to the east, and Lord Manufacturing Company and Erie Forge and Steel in the W. 12th Street corridor to the west. These factories occupied large acreages and built housing nearby for their workers. At midcentury, carpenter and self-taught architect John Hill designed many of the more upscale wooden buildings and several brick Italianate buildings along N. Park Row. Erie Cemetery, a gardenlike cemetery established in 1850 (2116 Chestnut Street) contains an exquisite Gothic Revival stone chapel designed c. 1896 by Green and Wicks.
The first decades of the twentieth century saw Erie evolve in patterns familiar to many American cities. After a disastrous flood in 1915, Mill Creek was rerouted into an underground channel, eliminating many of the irregularities in the street patterns created by the creek's former path. The newly streamlined streets saw the building of several handsome buildings in the 1930s, including the former Greyhound Bus station ( ER4) and the U.S. Post Office ( ER22). During World War II, the use of Erie's port peaked, but it was eclipsed by ports in Cleveland and Buffalo.
Urban renewal projects in the 1950s produced several undistinguished buildings, including the City of Erie Municipal Building and Erie Plaza Hotel. As elsewhere, the middle-class population moved to the townships surrounding Erie in the 1960s as the completion of I-90 made the commute feasible. Additionally, just as the city began touting the vacation potential and beauties of Presque Isle in the 1960s, the pollution levels in Lake Erie peaked, and articles declaring the death of the lake put a damper on these efforts. Erie reached its highest population, 142,000, in the 1970s, and dropped steadily to 103,000 by 2001.
To counter this trend, Erie, like other American cities, began to reclaim its waterfront in the 1990s. It completed the Bayfront Highway to link I-79 and I-90 with waterfront destinations, including the Bicentennial Tower, Dobbins Landing, and the Raymond M. Blasco, MD, Memorial Library ( ER8). The Jerry Uht Park (1995, Weber Murphy Fox; 110 E. 10th Street) brought baseball fans downtown to watch the Erie Seawolves play in their 6,000seat triangular park. Erie's hockey team, the Sea Otters, plays in the arena next door.
Erie has a tradition of reusing older buildings, such as the Boston Store ( ER17) and the former Villa Maria Academy (see ER2), both of which now host low-income housing units. Three major companies and institutions have spurred development in the central business district: the Erie Insurance Group ( ER15) on the east side, Gannon University on the west side ( ER2), and Hamot Hospital near the waterfront. All appear committed to keeping an urban presence in Erie.
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