Historical Markers
Erie Historical Marker
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Lake Erie Region


Marker Location:
U.S. 20, W of Erie; U.S. 20, E of Erie; U.S. 19, S of Erie

Behind the Marker

Bird's eye view of the city of Erie, Erie County, Pennsylvania 1870.
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Bird's eye view of the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, 1870.
Nestled around Presque Isle Bay, Erie in the 1800s became an important port and manufacturing center, known as "the Boiler and Engine Capital of the World." World War II brought lucrative defense contracts to Hammermill, General Electric (GE), and Lord Corporation. The end of the war, however, brought first labor conflict and then new economic challenges.

In 1946, workers struck at both Hammermill and GE. In a backlash, Erie in the early 1950s passed an anti-subversive ordinance, and GE fired a number of suspected communists, including the Erie United Electrical Workers president, markerJohn Nelson. In addition to the divisive strikes and red-scare crusades, Erie suffered from the loss of manufacturing, especially in metalworking, as GE and other major employers moved their operations to southern states with lower wages.

Harbor area at Erie, Pennsylvania
Harbor area, Erie, Pennsylvania.
Erie's port, once a major trans-shipment point for coal, iron, and grain, also suffered. By the 1950s, port traffic was half what it had been at its peak in 1942. Minnesota iron ore bound for markerPittsburgh increasingly passed through better-equipped Ohio ports, while Bethlehem came to rely on Labrador ore shipped down the Atlantic coast. To capture shipping after the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, Erie improved its harbor to include a deep draft berth.

The Seaway, however, hurt the port, allowing Canadian wheat that once passed through the city to be shipped directly to Montreal and Quebec. Erie's Pennsylvania Railroad ore docks closed in 1960, followed by its coal docks in 1964. Hoping to revive Erie's shipbuilding industry, Litton Industries opened Erie Marine in the 1960s but built only two ships before closing. Commercial fishing also declined after sturgeon and blue pike disappeared in the 1950s.

City of Erie - aerial from Presque Isle Bay looking south, Erie, Pennsylvania
Erie, PA, circa 2005.
As in Allentown and Reading, rampart suburbanization added to the city's woes, straining Erie's resources and changing its population mix. The opening of Interstate 90 in 1960 and Interstate 79 in 1970 encouraged sprawl. In the process, African Americans in the city grew from only 1 percent in 1940 to 10 percent in 1980 and 14 percent in 2000.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Erie's NAACP pushed for desegregation, fair housing, voting rights, and jobs, and both the Booker T. Washington Center (founded in 1923), and the Erie marker Opportunities Industrialization Center helped with job location and training, housing, day care, services for seniors, and healthcare. These demands had to compete with the needs of other growing groups, included Hungarian refugees who settled in Erie following the 1956 uprising, and families from Kosovo and Bosnia fleeing from the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s.

By the 1950s, suburbanization and economic losses had devastated downtown Erie. Elected on a reform slate in 1954, Mayor Arthur Gardner championed urban renewal. Consulting with Pittsburgh Mayor markerDavid Lawrence, Erie's Redevelopment Authority oversaw sixteen projects. In 1962, the city adopted a plan that called for a revitalization of the business district, improved port facilities, industrial development, and an improved highway system.

The eight-block Peachfront-Sassafras project replaced a "slum" area with the Central Mall, but the suburban Millcreek Mall, opened in 1974, soon limited its success. The Liberty-Sassafras project attempted to stabilize a twelve-block industrial area, and the Downtown Erie and State Street projects removed nineteenth-century commercial buildings to make way for a Hilton Hotel and the pedestrian Transitway Mall, removed in 1993 to widen State Street.

Despite manufacturing and shipping losses, Erie maintained a stronger manufacturing base than most other Pennsylvanian cities. Large employers such as Hammermill, the American Sterilizer Company, and GE, which specialized in the manufacture of locomotives, rapid transit, and commuter cars in the 1970s and 1980s, dominated employment, but other firms also contributed. In 1942, the new Eriez Magnetics began building magnetic iron separators. Zurn Industries, founded in 1900, made pollution-control and energy systems and took over a number of local firms in the 1970s. Also important, the plastics industry expanded in the 1980s to more than forty companies.

In 2000, despite an almost 21 percent loss of manufacturing jobs since 1970, manufacturing still accounted for a larger proportion of the region's workers than other metropolitan areas in the state, except for York. That employment, however, continued to decline. In 2001, International Paper closed the former Hammermill plant, and a year later, GE Transportation Systems eliminated more than 900 jobs.

Aerial view of Presque Isle State Park on Lake Erie near Erie, Pennsylvania, USA. View is to the east-northeast.
Aerial view of Presque Isle State Park, Erie, PA, circa 2007.
As manufacturing jobs left, the city became increasingly dependent on insurance, healthcare, education, and tourism. By 2005, service jobs exceeded 30 percent of employment, compared to 20 percent for manufacturing. Erie Insurance, founded in 1925, became one of the largest employers. It modeled its 1956 head office on East 6th after Independence Hall, built a new building on Perry Square in 1983 using an Urban Development Action Grant, and added a building on 6th and Holland in 1993. Gannon University, located downtown, also expanded, and as did other local colleges, including Mercyhurst College and Penn State's Behrend campus, which became a four-year college in 1973. Both Hamot Hospital and St. Vincent's also became major employers.

The focal point for local tourism, Presque Isle has long been Pennsylvania's most popular state park. (In 1970 it attracted some four million visitors, twice the number visiting Yellowstone that year.) In the 1970s, however, water pollution hindered the promotion of Erie as "the Friendly Vacation City on Lake Erie's Presque Isle Bay."

By 1977, tourism rebounded as anti-pollution measures took effect. Overlooking Presque Isle, the Waldameer amusement park began modernizing in the late 1960s, and added its popular Water World in 1986. Once littered with trash, Erie's reviving bay front symbolizes its hopes for the future. It now hosts the Blasco Library and the Maritime Museum which maintains the Niagara, the famous American warship from the War of 1812.
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