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Erie Maritime Museum: A New Museum Opens a Window to History

By Rod Snyder
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine and was written for the opening of the then-new Erie Maritime Museum.
Volume XXIV, Number 4 - Fall 1998

The Erie Maritime Museum

Nearly two centuries ago, a newly built squadron of United States Navy warships set sail from the shores of Lake Erie to battle a contingent of the British Navy, the most formidable naval force in the world. The ensuing battle of the War of 1812 shocked the British admiralty and boosted the morale of the U.S. Navy and the entire nation. The legacy of this battle is graphically chronicled by the Erie Maritime Museum, which opened Thursday May 21, 1998, with gala special events culminating on Friday, June 12, when Governor Tom Ridge formally dedicated the facility.

A key battle of the War of 1812 began on September 10, 1813, when United States Navy warships set sail from the shores of Lake Erie to meet the enemy at the western end of the lake, at Put-in-Bay, Ohio.  Under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, commanding the brig Niagara, America won the battle - a victory that boosted the nation's morale and which lives on at the new Erie Maritime Museum.The U.S. Brig Niagara has long been an important symbol for the citizens of Erie and a focal point of interest at the city's waterfront, and the new museum greatly expands the educational and sightseeing opportunities for visitors. It also provides a much needed new berthing area for today's Niagara, a reconstruction of the vessel Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry sailed to victory against the British on September 10, 1813.

Commodore Perry sailed from Erie aboard his flagship, the U.S. Brig Lawrence, to meet the enemy squadron near Put-in-Bay, Ohio, on the western end of Lake Erie, where he hoisted his now-famous "Don't Give Up the Ship" battle flag. Perry's initial engagement with the British warships Detriot and Queen Charlotte resulted in the crippling of the Lawrence and the death or wounding of much of her crew. Perry left the Lawrence—but not without taking along his signature battle flag—and with a crew of four men rowed to the Niagara, which had largely been spared damage in the early action. Hoisting the flag on the Niagara, Perry swiftly re-engaged the British ships, broke their battle line, and forced surrender. The American victory, in what became known as the Battle of Lake Erie, reopened transportation on the Great Lakes, boosted the nation's morale, and secured the Northwest Territory for the American side. Even so, the War of 1812 remains one of the nation's least-remembered (and little understood) conflicts.

Because the battle of Lake Erie took place during one of America's least understood wars, the Erie Maritime Museum features a video explaining the issues that brought about the War of 1812, and the importance of its outcome.The Erie Maritime Museum—headquartered in a handsomely rehabilitated former Pennsylvania Electric Company steam generating plant overlooking Lake Erie's picturesque Presque Isle Bay—offers a window into early nineteenth-century America, revealing what frontier maritime life was like, as well as realistically depicting seamanship of the early nineteenth century. "In those days, there was a distinct maritime culture among seamen," says Walter Rybka, captain of the Niagara. "This was a craft that had been developed over many centuries. So there is a larger story than that of one warship, in one campaign, in one battle, of one war. It's representative of a larger whole.

"There is a lot of maritime history to be developed here, but initially our primary focus and responsibility is the U.S. Brig Niagara and the War of 1812," continues Rybka. "That's a story that hasn't been told extensively in this country. The War of 1812 is probably our least-understood, least-interpreted war."

The first stop for museum visitors features a fifteen-minute introductory video providing a brief overview of the Niagara and her service in the Battle of Lake Erie. The video is augmented with ample opportunities to understand, through both static and dynamic exhibits, the intrigues and issues that brought about the War of 1812 and the importance of its outcome and aftermath. The museum's key to successfully engaging visitors—both young and old—is the many interactive exhibits that Commordor Oliver Hazard Perry leaves his crippled ship, the Lawrence, and rows towards the Niagara.encourage people to touch, hear, and directly experience what life was like aboard an early nineteenth-century sailing warship. For instance, a fighting sail deck, an actual working portion of a sailing ship's deck, is replete with mast, spars, and rigging. This exhibit area, which fits with ease in the expansive former steam generating plant, enables museumgoers to experience what it is like to work the lines and sails in a way they would otherwise not be able, even when aboard the real Niagara.

"We realize that there are certain things we can show inside which you would not even see touring her (Niagara) outside," Captain Rybka says. "So setting up a portion of the rigging inside—actually those are some of the highest elements of the rigging, they are seventy feet off the deck when you are at sea, and here you can get up close to the—gives the visitor a unique experience."

The museum's first floor includes a "live-fire" exhibit that forcefully shows the hazards of going to war at sea. The museum replicated the mid-section of the Lawrence, Perry's original flagship in the Battle of Lake Erie, and then subjected it to actual live fire from the Niagara's guns. The firing took place at the Pennsylvania National Guard's training facility at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County. Using two of the ship's carronades, the crew leveled 12-and 24-pound cannon balls, along with grape shot, at the reconstruction.

The Lawrence was retreived nearly a century after the battle.Carronades were a key technical element of the battle. Perry's Lawrence and Niagara were armed largely with them, while the British squadron employed conventional, long-barreled cannon because their carronades had been captured before its ships were completed. Named for the Carron Iron Works in Scotland where they were developed, carronades were short-barreled, lightweight cannon that fired relatively large rounds intended to crush the hull of enemy ships during close, broadsides fighting. Their light weight meant that a ship could carry more guns, or larger caliber ones, than it could if equipped with conventional, long-barreled cannon. However, the combination of short, light barrels and small charges gave the carronades only a short range. Perry knew that he had to risk hits from the British before he would be close enough to fire his carronades. The British hoped to pound Perry before he was within carronade range, and the long hits they scored on Lawrence during the half hour before she got within that distance proved crucial. Even though Lawrence was hopelessly damaged, she ultimately caused enough damage to the H.M.S. Detroit and the H.M.S. Queen Charlotte that Perry was able to devastate them when he transferred to Niagara and raked them with broadside salvos.

One of the most striking exhibits at the Erie Maritime Museum is a replication of the mid-section of the Perry's original flagship, the Lawrence, which has been subjected to live fire by 12- and 24-pound cannon balls, and demonstrates first-hand the actual damage that cannon fire can cause to wooden warships.For the exhibit, the live firing was performed at two hundred yards, the approximate distance between the Lawrence and the Queen Charlotte during the Battle of Lake Erie. "The live-fire project came to us from looking at what we could show people that they are not going to see on the ship or, for that matter, in any other museum," Rybka says. "It's not unusual to have partial reconstructions to show the structure of a ship, but I'm not aware of any other exhibit that has this realistically subjected a true

Just a few steps from the live-fire exhibit, visitors can step into an officer's quarters, which is an actual-size reconstruction of the cramped accommodations for the ship's officers. The tiny, low-ceilinged room gives the officer little more than a foot or two of space in front of his cot; a door gives him what little privacy existed on an early nineteenth-century brig. "I believe people will think it is scaled down so we will have to explain that this is the actual size, and this is good quarters compared to what the crew gets," explains Bob Johnson, museum administrator. The crew, on the other hand, would share space to hang their hammocks, sleeping in shifts because there was not enough space for everyone, and because some members of the crew always needed to be on watch.

Docked near the museum, the Niagara presents a picture of peace, unlike the fire and destruction that hallmarked its mission during the War of 1812.Above the main floor of the museum, on the first mezzanine, hang tapestry banners emblazoned with silhouettes of the American and British ships arranged in battle order. The banners include information about the crews of the American ships; information about the British crews is still being researched. Also on the first mezzanine level is the restored prow of the U.S.S. Michigan/Wolverine, the first ironclad warship in the U.S. Navy. During the Civil War, the U.S.S. Michigan, a steam-driven side-wheeler with sails, guarded a camp of Confederate soldiers on Johnson's Island, near Sandusky, Ohio. Renamed the U.S.S. Wolverine when new battleship Michigan was commissioned in 1908, the ship has strong ties to Erie and the Niagara . She also represents the important transitions of sail to steam and wood to iron in maritime and naval history. The Wolverine towed an earlier reconstruction of the Niagara around to Great Lakes ports during the centennial celebration of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1913.

Exhibits and installations are only a part of the visitor's experience at the Erie Maritime Museum. The museum's observation deck offers visitors a panoramic view of the Niagara, Presque Isle Bay, and the Perry Memorial Monument. Museumgoers can also examine indoor exhibits detailing the three reconstructions of the brig. These installations, including photographs and video, give viewers an appreciation of the perseverance involved in the reconstructions of the Niagara and the development of the site. The Niagara, docked in her custom berthing area, is open for tours when in port, making it literally the museum's largest exhibit. Before the opening of the museum, visitors often traveled to Erie expecting to see the Niagara, only to find it was off on a voyage to Great Lakes ports or the eastern seaboard. Now, whether or not the Niagara is in port, the Erie Maritime Museum will attract visitors and history buffs to the bay front. "I think having a museum is going to be a huge benefit because, of course, it has been a great disappointment when visitors come expecting to see the ship and she is away," Captain Rybka says. "It is certainly an enhancement if they can see the ship as well, but to have a museum, with good exhibits, that you can visit when the ship's away is going to be very important." The museum also plans to invite other vessels and historic ships to visit the dock when Niagara is out of port.

Museum-goers can also examine indoor exhibits detailing the three reconstructions of the brig.
Bob Johnson explains that the presence of the museum and its striking setting—part of a larger bay front renaissance in Erie—increases the potential for continued growth. "Another real plus is that we now have a ferry boat that goes back and forth between Dobbins Landing and Presque Isle, which is the most-used state park in the whole United States," adds Johnson. " Presque Isle State Park draws five million visitors a year. Visitors can enjoy the beach at Presque Isle, ride the ferry, visit the Niagara and see the museum, and have access to the other amenities Erie has to offer." He notes that the museum has developed a close partnership with the new Erie County Library and the Erie County Historical Society, and will seek similar opportunities with other cultural institutions and visitor attractions in the area.

From the observation deck, visitors are encouraged to venture outside to Niagara Plaza and a 150-seat amphitheater for performances by first-person interpreters in period costume, such as "Mrs. Lowry," an Erie woman who will recount, "first-hand," the events in Erie during the tumultuous summer of 1813. Plans call for increasing the variety of interpretive programs for both school children and adult visitors to the ship and the museum.

In addition to telling the story of the Battle of Lake Erie and early nineteenth-century seamanship, the Erie Maritime Museum features a copiously illustrated exhibit, "The Great Lakes: Treasure of Two Nations," which focuses on the ecological and geological development of the Great Lakes. Additional exhibits, devoted to the local and regional maritime history of northwestern Pennsylvania and the Great Lakes, will be installed over the next few years. "There is quite a lot of maritime history that can be developed here in the future-the later trades on the lake, the fishing industry," Rybka observes. "Erie at the end of the nineteenth century was the largest freshwater fishing port in the world. There are quite a few later aspects that we can develop, but this time around we said that we're going to have our hands full telling the story of the brig and the War of 1812."

Commodore Perry's famous flag, with the motto Don't Give Up the Ship.
The Erie Maritime Museum is open, April to December, Monday through Saturday, 9 A.M. to 5 P.M.; Sunday, noon to 5 P.M. January through March, the museum is closed Monday through Wednesday. Visitors are encouraged to either write or telephone the museum to inquire when Niagara is in port. There is an admission fee. For more information, write: Erie Maritime Museum, 150 East Front Street, Suite 1, Erie, PA 16507; telephone (814) 452-2744; or visit the U.S. Brig Niagara's Web site at http://www.brigniagara.org. Persons with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation should telephone or write the museum in advance of their visit to discuss their needs. Persons who are deaf, hard of hearing, or speech impaired who wish to contact a hearing person via Text Telephone may use the PA Relay Center at (800) 654-5984.

Erie has a wealth of attractions that visitors can enjoy on day-long, weekend, or extended trips to the region. Attractions include the thirty-two hundred-acre Presque Isle State Park, a popular shore-front location for swimming, boating, picnicking, and environmental education. In downtown Erie, the Erie History Center at Discovery Square features changing exhibits, a library, and archives. The Cashier's House is a stunning example of Egyptian Revival style architecture, built in 1839 for the United States Bank of Pennsylvania. Celebrating its centennial this year, the Erie Art Museum offers a year-round program of exhibits, concerts, tours, and children's programs. Other attractions in the community are the Firefighters Historical Museum, housed in a 1903 firehouse, and the Erie Bicentennial Tower.

Southwest of Erie, in Girard, the Battles Museum of Rural Life documents and interprets the development and changes in the lives of Erie County's pioneering farm families and village settlers on Lake Erie's southern shore. The Judson House in Waterford, built in 1820 by Amos Judson, is an excellent example of Greek Revival style architecture. The Lake Shore Railway Historical Society in North East operates a public railway museum featuring exhibits, archives, and a library.


At the time of publication, Rod Snyder of Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, was an editor with the publications program of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. He is a former staff member of The Associated Press.


For Further Reading

Altoff, Gerard T. Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie. Put-in-Bay, Ohio: N.P., 1989.

Claridge, John R., ed. 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie: Journal of Erie Studies - Special Issue. 17, 2 (Fall 1988).

Dillon, Richard. We Have Met the Enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry, Wilderness Commodore. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1978.

Horsman, Reginald. The War of 1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968.

Reed, Diane B. "Sail On, O Ship of State: An Interview with Capt. Walter Rybka of the U.S. Brig Niagara ." Pennsylvania Heritage. 19, 3 (Summer 1993)

Rosenberg, Max. The Building of Perry's Fleet on Lake Erie, 1812-1813. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1987.

Skaggs, David Curtis, and Gerard T. Altoff. A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Stagg, John Charles Anderson. Mr. Madison's War: Politics, Diplomacy, and Warfare in the Early American Republic, 1783-1830. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Valle, James F. "The Battle of Lake Erie: A Victory for Commodore Perry." Pennsylvania Heritage. 14, 4 (Fall 1988).

Welsh, William Jeffrey, and David Curtis Skaggs, eds. War on the Great Lakes: Essays Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991.