Erie at Large: An Island Unto Itself

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Wednesday, November 11th, 2015 at 1:45 PM
Erie at Large: An Island Unto Itself by Jim Wertz
library of congress

When the Puritans arrived at the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630, their future governor, John Winthrop, declared the fledgling port “a city on a hill.” Winthrop believed that the eyes of the world would be upon the colonists, who gained strength and confidence for their work from an other-worldly belief in predestination ordained by an omnipotent God. That Puritan spirit became the founding ethos of most cities that followed.

Erie’s establishment on the shores of Lake Erie was likely no different. What would come of this great shipbuilding port, set upon a pedestal, if not atop a hill? Would it become the great turnstile to the Midwest: a position of prosperity made possible by virtue of its compact land mass connecting the industrial behemoths, New York and Ohio? Or was it destined to bask in the isolation that attracted the French to our peninsula in the first place?

When Gov. Wolf visited Erie for the Jefferson Educational Society’s Global Summit VII on Nov. 1, it was evident that Erie had become the latter, by the Governor’s own admission. To be clear, he didn’t intend his comments to be derogatory in any way. Indeed, he came to Erie to offer hope for the budget and its impact on education, and a glimpse of his vision for the political near future. But the major takeaway from his talk and subsequent Q&A with C-SPAN’s Steve Scully was that Erie is an island unto itself, disconnected from the machinations of state government in Harrisburg, our sister cities within the Commonwealth, and our big brothers to the south and southeast. It’s at the heart of our revitalization struggles as well as the battle for educational funding in which we are now embroiled.

“You’re disconnected,” Wolf told the audience at Collegiate Academy.

It was the first time in a long time that a politician spoke honestly about our region, as it sits beyond the Pennsylvania Wilds and above the great valleys that hover between I-80 and the Great Lake.

Asked if high-speed rail was the answer to what ails us, Wolf deemed the evidence inconclusive. “But something must be done to connect Erie to the rest of the state,” he said.

It’s not that our local representatives have done a terrible job of culling whatever resources they can. Even during the Corbett administration, Erie received millions of dollars for Bayfront development, and rumor has it there may be a CRIZ (City Revitalization and Improvement Zone) around the corner. But if the budget impasse has taught us anything, it’s that the legislature doesn’t necessarily make decisions based on the waxing and waning of societal best interests.

As VP of the Brookings Institution Bruce Katz said of the federal government, “no one is coming to save you.” So it’s time we make some decisions for ourselves with particular interest toward our connectivity to the rest of Pennsylvania. By air, land, or Port of Erie, the region must connect to the outside world. It’s the capital investment that yields the greatest return. Ask any local company trading in a global market.

But then again, maybe we’ve been jinxed.

No one talks much about the Erie Railroad War that put Erie back on the national map after the War of 1812. It was the early 1850s and Erie was abuzz with forced traffic from rail passengers who had to switch trains here because the nation, and particularly the City of Erie, had no standardized width between the rails. New York had one standard; Ohio another. The two lines met in Erie, and the conflict created opportunity for people here who tended to the needs of offloading passengers. When the rail lines were standardized, Erie City Council passed ordinances to block development, and the police were instructed to pull up railroad ties that were placed along city streets. Riots erupted as locals dismantled the rails and disrupted train traffic across the county. Outsiders soon resented Erie for how its people behaved in the face of such change. Famed newspaper editor Horace Greeley wrote in his New York Tribune, “Let Erie be avoided by all travelers until grass shall grow in her streets, and till her pie-men in despair shall move away to some other city.”

The city, once abuzz with activity and viewed upon the hill, was relegated to recognition only for its Presque Isle. Nevertheless, it persisted. Its industrial future was on the horizon.

By the early 20th century, Erie was embedded in the nation’s most prolific supply chains and about to become the center of manufacturing for, ironically, America’s locomotive exchange.

The pie-men have long since departed, and the Governor has come. He recognizes the plight and, we hope, the promise of the region. Our future may not be predestined by the grace of God, but it’s in our humble, human hands. Perhaps it’s time we lay new track.

Jim Wertz can be reached at, and you can follow him on Twitter @jim_wertz.

Erie Reader: Vol. 7, No. 21
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