Erie Maritime Museum
The US Brig Niagara

Erie, PA

July 20th, 2005

On September 10th, 1813, Admiral Perry, having had his own flagship, the Lawrence, shot out from under him, took a row boat and transferred to the second biggest ship in his fleet, the Niagara, and sailed into the midst of the British fleet with all guns ablaze. The British were unprepared for such tenacity, and with most of their officers either killed or injured in the first 15 minutes, the British struck their colors and surrendered thus ending the "Battle of Lake Erie" at Put in Bay.  It's just a piece of American History off the shores of Ohio, in Lake Erie.  We spent a week there at a Bed and Breakfast run by an old Pan-Am pilot.  Sooooooo,  when I heard that the recreated Niagara was birthed at the Erie Maritime Museum, and understanding my love for sailing and American history, it was a no-brainer to do a story at the museum. The first part of the museum where the Niagara is berthed explained the conditions in the country which lead up to the necessity to build this ship along with the 5 others in early 1813.  The end of the Revolutionary War was less than 50 years previous.  Toward the end of that conflict, those who backed the  British known as "Loyalists" began to feel the heat from the "Revolutionists".  Many chose to move north out of this new land and back under British rule in Canada. An underlying resentment persisted.  England, although having given up its claim to the land, considered herself  master of the sea.  With the Napoleonic wars dragging on in Europe, America found a booming economy in naval shipping, as a neutral country.  This created a need for seaman and American shipping companies began paying top dollar for able bodied seaman to man the trade ships which were being produced in abundance in New England.  Most English sailors were conscripts and were paid far less.  Many of these conscripts slipped away from their ships and joined the fast growing fleet of merchant ships sailing from America. In retaliation, the British Admiralty  believed that all those living in the Colonies, were actually British subjects and subject to British rule while at sea.  This created a general lack of respect for American seaman.  British ships began boarding American merchant ships under the argument of "searching for deserters".  Many American seaman and cargos were seized. The British knew it was illegal to search American naval vessels for British deserters.  Nevertheless, in June of 1807, the British frigate Leopard intercepted the American Chesapeake as she left Norfolk, and demanded she submit to a search for deserters.  When the captain of the Chesapeake refused, the Leopard fired, killing three sailors and wounding eighteen.  Unready for battle the Chesapeake struck her colors.  The British boarded seized four men and hanged one of them.  American sentiment was quick.  A call to take Canada as part of America resounded through the halls of Congress. Although this call went unheeded, the call for War with England remained strong.  Earlier, in an attempt to force Britain and France to change restrictive trade practices, Congress broke off all trade with the countries. The plan backfired and the restriction remained in place.  The effect was immediate and disastrous.  The New England maritime industries began to collapse. New England sailors lost their jobs.  Boat builders went out of business and southern plantation owners had no market for their cotton and tobacco. In the spring of 1812, American attitude reached a fever pitch and there was a call for War in Congress.  Britain seeing what was coming finally removed the trade restrictions which were at the base of  the call, but news of such arrived too late to prevent a vote and War was declared on June 18th. This vote set into creation the events that would see the Brig Niagara built. The Secretary of the Navy in September 1812 ordered construction of 4 gunboats in order to regain control of lake Erie from the British. After receiving advice from Daniel Dobbins, an experienced ship maker from Erie, Secretary Hamilton directed that they be built in the protected harbor of Presque Isle Bay, at Erie. Four months later the Navy ordered two larger 20 gun Brigs to be built.  By July of 1813, the little flotilla which had grown to 9 ships was afloat in Lake Erie under the command of  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, and the rest is history. 
 The rest of the museum is about the ship and life aboard, in the early 1800s. The first thing we learned about the Niagara was that it was a "Square rigger". The fact that it had two masts made it a Brig. It stretched just over 110 feet and 30 feet at the beam, with a draft of around 9 feet. This type of ship made up the bulk of large ships during the 1800s.  It gets its name from the way the sails were deployed on the mast. The sails, which were  irregular rectangular type themselves, were attached to horizontal polls, or spars, which were held perpendicular to the keel. The spars were called "yards" with the tips that extended beyond sails being called "yardarms". This design, with few exceptions, required the ship to sail down wind thus restricting its movement, especially in battle. The beauty of this recreation is that it is a working ship, which sails around the world with a volunteer crew.  We were fortunate in that the ship was docked at the time and we were allowed on board for a rare interview with some of the crew as they explained in detail, the inner workings of the ship.  I was most interested in the main reason for the ships existence.  It was first and foremost a warship , and as such served as a platform for the 20 cannons on board. At the time the ship was built, guns were rated by length and the weight of their shot.  Naval long guns fired shot ranging from 4 to 32 pounds, at a rate of about a shot a minute. The maximum effective range was about a mile: long guns were reasonably accurate at about a 1/2 mile. Point blank range, that is firing without raising the barrel was about 300 yards.  As  we wandered around topside our volunteer guides explained that the ship's movement was dependent on the sails and the sails were dependent on a combination of men aloft and the lines that kept the sails in place, so that they caught the wind at the best angle. The men of the Niagara were required to be familiar with the some 150 different lines.  All the lines in use, if laid end to end would stretch nearly six miles.  Each line has a name and function and is attached to a particular part of the ship.  When the ship is underway, each line must always be properly belayed or made fast. This required it to be coiled and hung on its assigned pin. When changing the sails' position, these lines are freed and laid out on the deck. With seamen letting out and pulling in the various lines to make changes, they had to be particularly careful not to get entwined in the lines and pulled away from their post or station. The entire ship was open to the public on the day we were there, so we ventured below deck.  The one thought that came to mind was "cramped".  The crew is large and the space limited so everything is cramped into every space available. What with clothing and food, and a galley, I can't imagine what it must have been like with an extra contingency of gun powder and shot, not to mention extra marines used for boarding. Each man, in addition to his personal gear, carried personal weapons with which to repel boarders. This could be swords, muskets, with or without bayonets along with all the necessary leather to carry it properly. Much of this, along with many other interesting things required to maintain a proper ship in good order and to keep it traveling in the direction desired, were on display inside the museum. Sextons, campuses, charts as well as those thing which a sailor might bring with him over the often extended time at sea.  I loved the old ship and the museum was great. I would put this one up near the top on the leader board of great things to see. 

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