North East was the first of the original sixteen townships in the Erie Triangle to be settled by New England emigrants. It is slightly inland from Lake Erie because the Pennsylvania Population Company's earliest settlers found the flatlands immediately surrounding the lake too gravelly for cultivation. Sixteen Mile Creek supplied hydraulic power for grist and saw mills. Due to the long growing season and favorable soil conditions, farming prospered. In the early 1800s, North East had over 1,000 residents, while Erie had only 635. Those numbers reversed following the influx of shipbuilders to Erie for the War of 1812. The township surrounding North East was Lower Greenfield, but after several name changes, the borough became North East in 1834.
The first winery, South Shore Wine Company, opened in 1869, although grapes had been cultivated locally since 1850. The Concord grape is the most widely grown variety in the area, prompting the Welch's company to build a large factory here for the production of jams and jellies. There are also several more wineries and acres of chrysanthemums and cherries grown in the region. The North East Chamber of Commerce sponsors the Wine Country Harvest Festival in the fall and the summer Cherry Festival.
The borough hosts a railway museum in its former Lake Shore Railroad Depot (1899) at 31 Wall Street. The frame, Greek Revival First Baptist Church (43 S. Lake Street) was dedicated at the start of the Civil War, while the stone First Presbyterian Church (25 W. Main Street) was built by local master builder Royce Puttle in 1855. The McCord Memorial Library (1913–1916; 32 W. Main Street) of tan brick has a red tile roof, as specified by Chicago architect George A. Nagle. In the 1980s, a Main Street manager helped to preserve many of the town's older commercial buildings.
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