Before he led the U.S. victory on Lake Erie in 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry crossed it by ice

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Oliver Hazard Perry, a 27-year-old naval officer, arrived at Presque Isle from Buffalo on March 27, 1813. His trip came during horrible weather and was extremely dangerous and rough.

On his trip along the Lake Erie shoreline, there were few or no settlements and the woodlands were deep and interwoven with rough paths used by Native Americans. In summer, vessels would often sail between the frontier towns. However, winter travel by land between Buffalo and Erie was difficult, so Perry and his younger brother ventured out on the ice in a sleigh drawn by two horses. The trip took two days, with a stop onshore overnight at a settler's cabin after 10 hours on the ice.

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The U.S. government had sent Perry to take charge of the fleet being built on the bayfront. Construction was well underway, and Noah Brown and Daniel Dobbins oversaw the shipyard. Perry's assignment at Presque Isle lasted just 209 days; he was reassigned on Oct. 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 today's young naval officers. Perry's triumph in the Battle of Lake Erie turned out to be the one event of the War of 1812 that placed America firmly on the path to victory over Great Britain.

Perry and his brother arrived to an unheralded welcome. It was near dark when he brought his horses to the edge of town. It took little time before the population of the village realized their young commander had arrived. At that point, Dobbins and Brown rushed to Dobbins' homestead on Third Street to meet him. It was not long before crowds gathered to look at this young man who would control the fleet when it sailed out of Presque Isle to meet the British.

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Perry quickly met with many of Erie's citizens because many were shipyard workers. Within two days, Perry established himself in the home of Mrs. Charles H. Strong at West Sixth and Peach streets. The village had about 40 structures and a scattering of rough cabins. Many residents were new to Erie because they had come to work on the fleet. The work changed sleepy little Erie forever. When Perry arrived, the population was about 500; it grew to more than 2,000 by the time Perry sailed out of the harbor. Even though Erie was a small village, it and the surrounding area had half the dwellers on the American side of Lake Erie.

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Because of the planned brief time to build a fleet, the wood used on the ships was green and unseasoned. This worried the skilled workers on the project. By nightfall, the wood that had been cut in the morning had become part of a ship. Sometimes, the builders were able to lay out the lumber in hot barns for a day or two to dry it. Brown and Dobbins knew the problems of green wood, yet they also knew the ships were only to 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 was not just shipbuilding and the shipwrights that made the area grow. After a time, at least two hundred "floaters" would show up for a quick payday. Back in those days, the workers lived in tents. Dobbins hired skilled workers from faraway places like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. His only problem was getting them here. This called for long trips through backwood areas that could take four to six weeks.

Gene Ware is the author of 10 books. He serves on the board of the Presque Isle Light Station and is past chairman of the boards of the Tom Ridge Center Foundation and the Presque Isle Partnership. Email him at

Gene Ware
Gene Ware

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Before battling on Lake Erie, Oliver Hazard Perry crossed its ice