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Spare Parts: Seeking the light

By Ernie Copper

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The Erie Yacht Club in July looks a lot like the opening scenes from Gilligan’s Island. Exactly why, you might ask, was I at the Erie Yacht Club? We all know the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat and the day they sell it. Well, it was the starting point of my years-long quest to visit all four lighthouses in Erie, Pennsylvania. I can’t think of a better time to recount that quest than now, because it reminds me of long days, warm nights and refreshing dockside concoctions sipped at places with names like Rum Runners.

Lake Erie in the summer is as close to “the beach “as many of us get and Erie boasts at least four lighthouses. Nothing says the beach like a lighthouse, so my wife and I have tried to visit all four Erie beacons for several years and 2015 turned out to be our year.

The Erie Yacht Club really does look a lot like the marina featured during the opening of Gilligan’s Island and its northeast corner is the sight of our first beacon. This 36-foot-tall cylindrical lighthouse peaks out of a new blue hip roof like a chimney. It’s active April through October and marks the club for all to see. You can’t tour the lighthouse, but you need to see it to fill your dance card.

The next house on our list is the Presque Isle lighthouse. We’d been hoping to tour this for several summers and were excited that this was our year. In prior years the attached one-and-a-half story lightkeeper’s house served as the residence for the state park manager who was required to stay there, which precluded tours. The lighthouse sits on Presque Isle, a Pennsylvania State Park, and recent changes to the residency requirements and a 35-year lease to the non-profit responsible for the lighthouse opened the doors for tourist to enjoy it.

The lighthouse has a 73-foot “focal plane” meaning that’s where the light is, 73 feet above ground. It was built in 1873 and raised an additional 33 feet to its current height in 1896. The quaint lighthouse keeper’s house is part of the tour too. Early lighthouse keepers were a hardy breed and guides are ready with stories of old to pique your nautical appetite, or to make you happy you aren’t the guy carrying the oil to the top of the light tower.

Next on our navigational hit list was the Erie Harbor Lighthouse. This white-and-black lighthouse has a focal plane of 42 feet. It’s a square and constructed of cast iron. It’s located on a concrete pier that marks Erie Harbor or Presque Isle Bay, depending on your name preference. Visitors can walk out on the pier to the lighthouse, watch boats coming and going, fish or just daydream. This lighthouse’s original fourth-order Fresnel lens is on display in the nearby Erie Maritime Museum. If you know where to look, you can see the fourth and final lighthouse on the tour—the Erie Land Lighthouse—from the pier. It a short ride to downtown Erie once you know where you’re going.

The 49-foot sandstone Land Lighthouse tower looks the most like a traditional lighthouse to me. It was raised to its current height a year after the Presque Isle Lighthouse project in 1897. Must have been something in the water! There is a well-kept unattached lightkeeper’s house nearby that is a private residence.

Lastly, Erie’s Bicentennial Tower, a bonus tower. The bicentennial being marked by the tower is Erie’s bicentennial. At 187 feet, it’s by far the tallest point on our tour. Though technically not a lighthouse, it does offer a breathtaking view of Lake Erie, Presque Isle and downtown Erie. There are steps, but we chose the elevator. At the top are the ubiquitous quarter binoculars and on a clear day you can see Canada.

If you’re lucky the U.S. Brig Niagara will be in port. The Niagara is a faithful replica of the relief flagship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. It’s available for tours too and, when in port, is the feature attraction of the Erie Maritime Museum. Check the schedules in advance if this is of interest to you, because the Niagara is often sailing.

You could easily ride to and tour all of these attractions in one day and still have time to enjoy the beach. Tour prices are very reasonable and won’t break the bank, leaving you plenty of cash to enjoy Erie’s great restaurants.

Unless you’re unusually hardy, I’d plan your Erie lighthouse ride for the warm summer months. Erie is very beachy in the summer, but in the winter, the lake helps Erie make the top 10 snowiest places in the U.S.

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