Rust Belt revival in Erie

The Roman Catholic St. Peter Cathedral is a major landmark in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania.
The Roman Catholic St. Peter Cathedral is a major landmark in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania. | Dennis Lennox

Who knew?

That’s what I asked myself after visiting Erie, Pennsylvania. The continued uncertainty of traveling internationally this summer gave me the excuse I needed to visit a place that sits on the same Rust Belt arc as Detroit in my home state of Michigan.

Sandwiched along Lake Erie between Ohio and New York, the city offers a surprising number of things to do and see. One such thing is its pristine shoreline, almost certainly the best-kept secret anywhere in Pennsylvania.

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This is especially true in recent years with the redevelopment of former waterfront industrial areas. One such redevelopment is the Sheraton, where I stayed. Rooms come with views of either the bay leading to Lake Erie or the marina. On a nearby wharf stands the 186-foot-tall Bicentennial Tower.

While many putz around the water on boats big and small or plop themselves on the beach at the 3,200-acre Presque Isle State Park (pronounced presk-ile), I spent my two days getting a lay of the land.

Downtown Erie, anchored by two historically Roman Catholic colleges, Gannon University and Mercyhurst University, looks and feels like other Rust Belt cities. Beyond some derelict buildings and hideous postwar parking garages, the mix of architecture gives the cityscape a patina that planned suburbs can never imitate.

One of the major landmarks is St. Peter Cathedral on West 10th Street.

Covered in scaffolding as part of an extensive restoration, this is the seat of the Roman Catholic bishop of Erie. The interior, partially reordered following the controversial liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council, includes the carved marble reredos (or screen) that formed part of the original high altar.

Three blocks away stands the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul, which pales in comparison to First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant just down the street. The Presbyterian edifice, having been built in the interwar period, is a rather late example of Gothic revival architecture. No penny was spared, at least judging from the elaborate west front.

Unable to gain access to the reconstructed Gen. Anthony Wayne blockhouse — the original was erected after earlier French and British fortifications were abandoned and destroyed — I stopped by two local museums to learn more about Erie’s extensive history.

Normally, the big draw at the Erie Maritime Museum is the U.S. Brig Niagara. Unfortunately, the ship, which dates to the War of 1812, is closed for a second consecutive summer due to the pandemic. However, the museum has plenty of exhibits, including on Erie’s pivotal role in that all but forgotten war.

Back downtown is the recently reopened Hagen History Center. Among the museum’s four separate buildings is the Watson-Curtze Mansion, a National Register of Historic Places-listed brownstone. The collection includes, of all things, the rebuilt office of acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

The only time I really needed my car was for the approximately 30-minute drive to Waterford in outlying Erie County.

The quaint small town (population 1,517) sits on the location of Fort Le Boeuf, a French fort that played a small role in the prelude to the French & Indian War. This explains the small park with its statue of 21-year-old George Washington in a British uniform. Then a major in Virginia’s militia, he arrived in 1753 with orders commanding the French to leave. Within a year Washington would return to Pennsylvania and start the first world war. Nothing remains of that fort, though the Fort LeBoeuf Museum is well worth the visit even if the collection is somewhat disheveled.

If you go

Erie is a perfect road trip destination, thanks to its location about halfway between Cleveland and Buffalo. For those arriving by plane, American and United commuter flights service the airport.

Stay at either the Sheraton Erie Bayfront Hotel or Hampton Inn & Suites, which must be one of the only Hampton Inn properties with a rooftop restaurant.

Eat at Cork 1794, Oliver’s at the Hampton Inn or Pier 6, another rooftop restaurant. For lunch, try Federal Hill Smokehouse or Molly Brannigan’s Irish Pub.

Consider a sightseeing tour or sunset cruise with Presque Isle Boat Tours.

Follow @dennislennox on Instagram and Twitter.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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