When I first found out that Erie had a maritime museum, I was a bit confused. After all, Erie is more than six hours by car from the Atlantic Ocean. The truth, though, is that the Erie Maritime Museum makes perfect sense once you learn a bit more about the city’s history.
My first clue to the importance of Erie as a port city came from the shape of Pennsylvania. If you look at a map of the state, there is a nice straight line that creates the New York border from the Delaware River until you get to the 42nd parallel near Wattsburg, Pennsylvania. At this point, the Pennsylvania-New York border juts up north until it reaches Lake Erie.
This triangle-shaped piece of land, dubbed the Erie Triangle, was contested by Pennsylvania, New York, and randomly enough, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Ultimately, the land was sold in 1792 to Pennsylvania since it was the only state that was landlocked. This despite the fact that the Port of Philadelphia was the largest in America at the time.
While Erie was an important fishing city, it became vitally important to the United States during the War of 1812. After the British captured Detroit and secured control of Lake Erie, the US began construction of a fleet of warships in Erie’s port. Erie was chosen because Presque Isle prevented the British warships from entering the port.
In September 1813, nine American ships met six British ships off the coast of Ohio. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry led the US on the USS Lawrence. However, when the Lawrence was nearly destroyed, he took command of the US Brig Niagara and eventually won the day and the lake for the Americans.
It’s this little known American battle that is the focus for the Erie Maritime Museum. The interior of the museum features many artifacts relating to both the Battle of Lake Erie and the entire War of 1812. Several videos talk about both the battle and the US Brig Niagara.
There is also an area that has recreated part of the mid-section of the USS Lawrence, complete with real cannon damage. This area does a great job explaining both how sailors fought a battle, but also the basics of working on a ship in the early 19th century. There is even a hands-on area where you can attempt to tie a variety of knots.
The upstairs portion of the museum focuses on the USS Michigan, which was commissioned in 1843 to protect the US from the then British-controlled Canada. The Michigan served the US Navy for 79 years, protecting Lake Erie against pirates, rebels, and the Confederacy.
Renamed the Wolverine in 1905, the ship was finally decommissioned in 1923. The Erie Maritime Museum features many artifacts from the ship including its bell and steering wheel.
As interesting as the inside of the museum is, however, the highlight is the reconstructed USS Niagara that ports just outside of the museum. When it’s docked, the Niagara is open for guided tours, which are included in the price of admission. Tours last roughly 30-45 minutes and allow visitors to understand this recreated ship. You can also take boat tours of Erie on the Niagara.
While the ship has almost no original parts, it is a faithful reproduction and is worth touring. The staff is very knowledgable about the boat’s history, and it’s fascinating to learn more about what life was like in America’s Navy during the War of 1812.
Unfortunately, the US Brig Niagara isn’t always in port. As the flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Niagara is a working ship that sails to ports around the lake as an ambassador for the state.
While this offers a great chance for others to view the ship, it does decrease the value of the museum. Therefore, I would recommend making sure to check the ship’s schedule before planning a visit to the museum (The ship’s most current schedule can be found here).
Overall, the museum is worth visiting even if the Niagara isn’t in port (though they should discount admission when tours aren’t available). However, if you have the chance to visit and tour the Niagara, this is a definite must-see attraction for anyone interested in nautical history.
Note: My visit to the Erie Maritime Museum was hosted by Visit Erie. However, as always, the opinions expressed in this article are my own.
Erie Maritime Museum
Hours: Vary. See website.
Cost: Adults: $10, Children: $5
Address: 150 East Front Street