Bob Downing

ERIE, Pa.: Most Ohioans know that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry is honored with a towering monument at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island in western Lake Erie.


The 352-foot-tall monument has a big name: Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. It marks his defeat of the British fleet on Sept. 10, 1813, in the War of 1812.


Far fewer know that the 28-year-old hero of the Battle of Lake Erie is also honored with a tower at Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle State Park.


The park — a 3,200-acre peninsula covered with sand dunes that sticks seven miles into Lake Erie — features a 101-foot limestone monument to Perry. It was built in 1926 for $45,000 and renovated in 1969-1971 for $500,000.


That monument on Crystal Point is a great destination for walkers or bicyclists, who can approach it on the 13.5-mile asphalt trail that circles the peninsula, the Karl Boyes Multi-Purpose National Recreation Trail.


The ultra-flat trail is off-road through the woods and along the water or a lane along the edge of the park road.


Yes, of course, you can also drive to the monument that is surrounded by interpretive signs.


Erie and Presque Isle have strong Perry ties. It is where Perry built six of his 11 Lake Erie warships and where he and his men endured the bitterly cold winter of 1813-14.


Sailing master Daniel Dobbins persuaded Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton to develop a fleet on the Great Lakes. Erie, he said, was the best place because of the oaks on Presque Isle. That led to the appointment of Perry (1785-1819), a Rhode Island native.


Presque Isle provided protection. The ships were built by Noah Brown in Erie at the mouth of Cascade Creek. ?They included Perry’s two largest ships: the Niagara and the Lawrence, both 110-foot-long brigs. Four schooners — the Ariel, Porcupine, Scorpion and Tigress — were also constructed in Erie.


Five smaller gunboats captured after the British abandoned Fort Erie near Buffalo, N.Y., were added to Perry’s fleet. More than 500 sailors were recruited from settlements along the frontier to operate those vessels.


Perry’s lucky streak showed when getting the two brigs out of Presque Isle Bay. The water atop the sandbar was only 4 feet deep, but the two ships drew 9 feet of water.


Brown added water barges or camels to the two ships to raise them up and get them into Lake Erie. They were 50 feet long, 10 feet wide and 8 feet deep. It was a three-day project to get the boats over the sandbar.


The British fleet appeared while that operation was under way and Perry’s new fleet was especially vulnerable. Perry bluffed and sent out two small gunboats and the overly cautious British fleet withdrew.


In the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence, was badly damaged. He had his men row him a half-mile through heavy gunfire to reach the Niagara. Some say that was just another example of Perry’s luck.


The British under Commander Robert Barclay had 41 men killed, 93 wounded and 306 captured. Perry had 27 killed and 96 wounded.


His message to American Gen. William Henry Harrison was: “We have met the enemy and they are ours: two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”


Only nine of his 11 ships were involved in the battle. It was a key battle in the War of 1812 and gave the Americans control of the Great Lakes and enabled Harrison to capture Detroit, defeat the British at the Battle of Thames and end Tecumseh’s Indian Confederation.


After the battle, Perry’s men camped that winter on Presque Isle’s Little Bay. They walked across the frozen bay to Erie, then a hamlet with 100 cabins and about 400 settlers, to get food.


A number of Perry’s men died that winter from smallpox, with some buried next to Presque Isle’s Graveyard Pond. Little Bay had a new name: Misery Bay.


The hulls of the Lawrence and later the Niagara were sunk in Misery Bay to preserve them and protect them from the weather. The damaged British ships, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte, were also sunk.


The Lawrence was raised in 1875 but was destroyed in 1876 by fire in Philadelphia, where it was on display. The Niagara was raised in 1912 and rebuilt for the centennial of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1913.


Today a replica of the Niagara sails from the Erie Maritime Museum. The two-masted, 198-foot-long brig is docked at the foot of Holland Street at 150 E. Front St. in downtown Erie. It is the flagship of the state of Pennsylvania.


Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday from April to October.


From Nov. 1 through Dec. 25, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. You can also sign up for a five-hour sail on the Niagara. For information, call 814-452-2744 or check out www.eriemaritimemuseum.org or www.brigniagara.org.


The U.S. Navy plans to have three warships travel the Great Lakes in 2012 to mark the bicentennial of Perry’s victory.


Other attractions


There are a lot of attractions at Presque Isle, a park that gets 4 million visitors a year, more than any other Pennsylvania state park.


The park features 13 beaches that together cover seven miles. Some are wide. Some are small. Some have volleyball courts, and others provide picnic tables, restrooms and concessions.


Beach 11 on the leeward side is the most sheltered with shallow water and wide sand. Sunset Point near Beach 10 is popular with windsurfers and kite flyers.


Most of the beaches are on the north side, facing windy Lake Erie. There are 58 small breakwaters to limit the waves. The beaches can get crowded during the summer.


The beaches have been tabbed as the second-best on the Great Lakes by Stephen Leatherman, nicknamed Dr. Beach, of Florida International University. The life-guarded beaches are open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day.


Presque Isle — its name comes from the French for “almost an island” — features 16 trails that cover 21 miles. Long pants are advised for hikers because of deer ticks. There is no overnight camping in the park.


The Tom Ridge Environmental Center at the park entrance opened in 2006. The $25 million, 65,000-square-foot facility offers visitors a look at the peninsula’s seven ecological zones, plus the park’s cultural history.


It opens at 10 a.m. daily. Admission is free. Call 814-833-7424 or check out www.trecpi.org for information.


The park has been named a National Natural Landmark and one of the best birding spots in the United States. It gets 320 species during spring and fall migrations. It includes the Gull Point State Park Natural Area where shorebirds nest.


The park even has its own active lighthouse that dates to 1873. It is 74 feet tall with a red brick house at its base. It sits on the peninsula’s north shore.


It was the second American lighthouse built on Lake Erie and its light was visible from 13 miles away. The light still operates, although the building at its base is a private home and off-limits.


The lighthouse, built of five layers of bricks, is on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places. It gives off an automated white warning light.


There are two smaller old lighthouses within the park and a marina. The park is popular with boaters, anglers, water skiers and scuba divers. You can rent bikes and boats (motorized and not). Boat cruises of 14 miles and 90 minutes are also available aboard the 65-foot Lady Kate. For information, call 814-836-0201 or check out www.tinytimsfishing.com.


Presque Isle became a state park in 1921. For park information, call 814-833-7424 or go to http://visitpaparks.com.


Presque Isle is only two hours from Akron. To get there, take Interstate 271 to Interstate 90. Exit at state Route 832 and head north. It will take you right into the park.


For tourist information, contact Visit Erie, 814-454-1000, www.visiteriepa.com.


Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.