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Erie's Reopened Presque Isle Lighthouse Drawing Big Crowds

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Calm waters lap along the shore at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pa., on Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017.

A $300,000 investment in 2017 in a 145-year-old Erie asset appears to be paying off.

Attendance is up markedly at Presque Isle Lighthouse, said Michael Sullivan, executive director of the lighthouse located near Beach 9.

"I would say it's up all of 20 percent," he said.

Credit Keith Srakocic
Keith Srakocic
A man fishes from the pier by the lighthouse at Presque Isle State Park in Erie, Pa., on Thursday, May 15, 2008.

  Sullivan credits off-season improvements to the facility as perhaps the biggest reason for the larger crowds.

A two-car garage on the grounds was converted to house a gift shop, orientation room, restroom and space for lighthouse staff and volunteers.

The lighthouse's ability to draw a crowd was in evidence over the past weekend.

"We had basically a record-breaking weekend," said Gene Ware, a member of the lighthouse's board of directors. "At times we have had to put signs out at 1 or 2 in the afternoon that tours are all sold out for the day, which is a nice problem to have."

Other changes have made the lighthouse more user-friendly. Ware said rerouting traffic means that visitors can stay longer and can come and go without running into people at the beginning of the tour.

"It's not so crowded going back and forth," he said.

The weather also has been a factor. Sullivan said less rain so far this summer has meant more days to visit Presque Isle State Park and the lighthouse.

Finally, he said, there's a growing sense that the lighthouse has turned into a destination in its own right, a place that people plan on going independent of anywhere else.

Gene and Colleen Zimmerman and daughter Alyssa, of West Newton, near Pittsburgh, toured the lighthouse Saturday and climbed the 78 steps to the top of the tower.

"We've been here before but weren't able to go up in the tower. They must just have been getting it ready," Gene Zimmerman said.

The family was in Erie for a mini-vacation at Presque Isle, Alyssa Zimmerman said.

"We love the water, swimming and going out to eat. And the lighthouse. The guide really knows its history. I learned a lot," Gene Zimmerman said.

Visitors signing the logbook in the lighthouse gift shop during the holiday week came from as far away as Texas, California and even Switzerland and Norway. People from all 50 states and 36 countries visited the lighthouse in 2017.

"Most of the people from other states are traveling on I-90 and looking for a place to get out and stretch their legs," said Mary Ambrose, the lighthouse's coordinator of volunteers. More than 100 volunteers lead tours, staff the gift shop and otherwise help open the lighthouse daily.

"They come to the park and come to the lighthouse while they're here," she said. "Others specifically come to the lighthouse."

The building, completed in July 1873, attracts many more people than those who tour it each year, Ambrose said.

"You see people park way down there, down the road," she said, pointing, "and lugging their coolers and blankets and everything else up here to the lighthouse and then onto the path to the beach — when they could have cut through to the beach (more easily). There's something about the lighthouse. It's like a magnet. People are drawn to it."

The lighthouse was closed to public access for the decades it was used as housing for Presque Isle State Park managers. It was opened to the public on weekends in the summer of 2015, and daily summer access was added in 2017.

From the big projects — including the gift shop, to the $11,000 spent to clean, sand and repaint the tower — Sullivan said the board is happy to be putting a fresh shine on an old landmark.

"I think the word is out," he said. "We got the lighthouse at the right time. I think it needed a little TLC."