Oliver Hazard Perry, a 27-year-old naval officer, arrived at Près Isle from Buffalo on March 27, 1813. His journey took place in horrible weather and was extremely dangerous and difficult.
On its journey along the shore of Lake Erie there were few or no settlements and the woods were deep and interspersed with rugged trails used by Native Americans. In the summer, ships often sailed between border towns. However, winter overland travel between Buffalo and Erie was difficult, so Perry and his younger brother ventured over the ice in a two-horse sleigh. The trip took two days, with an overnight stop ashore at a settler’s cabin after 10 hours on the ice.
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The US government had sent Perry to take charge of the fleet being built on the waterfront. Construction was well advanced, and Noah Brown and Daniel Dobbins were supervising the shipyard. Perry’s posting to Près Isle lasted only 209 days; he was transferred on October 22, 1813. During this short period, he became a hero of the War of 1812. His story is one that still delights history buffs and young naval officers today. Perry’s triumph in the Battle of Lake Erie proved to be the only event of the War of 1812 that set America firmly on the path to victory over Britain.
Perry and his brother arrived to an unprecedented welcome. It was nearly dark when he brought his horses to the outskirts of town. It wasn’t long before the people of the village realized that their young commander had arrived. At that time, Dobbins and Brown rushed to Dobbins’ property on Third Street to meet him. It wasn’t long before crowds were gathering to watch this young man who would control the fleet as it left Almost Isle to meet the British.
Perry soon encountered many citizens of Erie, as many were shipyard workers. Within two days, Perry moved into the home of Mrs. Charles H. Strong at West Sixth and Peach streets. The village had about 40 structures and a scattering of crude huts. Many residents were new to Erie because they had come to work on the fleet. The job forever changed sleeping little Erie. When Perry arrived the population was around 500; it rose to over 2,000 by the time Perry left port. Although Erie was a small town, it and its surroundings had half the population on the American side of Lake Erie.
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Due to the short time expected to build a fleet, the wood used on the ships was green and unseasoned. This worried the skilled workers on the project. As night fell, the wood that had been cut in the morning was part of a ship. Sometimes builders would lay the wood out in warm barns for a day or two to dry. Brown and Dobbins knew the problems of green wood, but they also knew that ships should only be sailed for short trips over a limited time. The purpose of this fleet was to defeat the British fleet and give the Americans control of Lake Erie.
It’s not just shipbuilding and shipbuilders that have made the region grow. After a while, at least two hundred “floaters” would turn up for a quick fix. At that time, the workers lived in tents. Dobbins hired skilled workers from distant countries like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. His only problem was getting them here. This required long journeys through forested regions that could take four to six weeks.
Gene Ware is the author of 10 books. He sits on the board of directors of the Près Isle Light Station and has served as chairman of the boards of the Tom Ridge Center Foundation and the Près Isle Partnership. Email him at [email protected].