Erie County, Pennsylvania

History of Erie County, Pennsylvania 1884

by Samuel P. Bates, 

Submitted by Gaylene Kerr Banister

Chapter II- Physical Geography


The surface of Erie County is divided into five distinct sections, viz.: The Lake Shore plain, the series of dividing ridges, the valleys between the ridges, the valleys of French Creek and its tributaries and the high lands south of the last-named stream.


Four separate ranges of hills extend across the county from east to west, known respectively as the First, Second, Third and Fourth Ridges. The First Ridge rises to a height of 100 to 150 feet above Lake Erie, the Second to about 400, and the height of the Third and Fourth Ridges varies from 600 to 1,200 feet, their most elevated summits being in the eastern portion of McKean, the western portion of Waterford, the northern portion of Venango and the southern part of Greenfield. The separation of the ridges becomes more clearly defined along a line drawn through Harbor Creek, Mill Creek, Summit Waterford and McKean Townships than further east, but from there westward each ridge is as distinct as though it belonged to a system of its own. As the Third and Fourth Ridges extend westward they receded from the lake, until they run into Crawford County.


Three continuous valleys cross the county between the ridges, from the line above mentioned, broken in places by slight elevations, and known in succession as the Mill Creek, the Walnut Creek and the Elk Creek Valleys. These streams rise on the high ground of the Third and Fourth Ridges, and, after flowing westward for some distance down their respective valleys, suddenly turn to the north and break through the First and Second Ridges by a series of deep "gulfs" or gullies, which are a striking feature of the region. North of the First Ridge and between it and Lake Erie is a broad alluvial tract, from two to three miles in width, which extends along the whole water front of the county. Its general height above the lake is from fifty to sixty feet, but in the eastern part of Harbor Creek Township its elevation suddenly rises to nearly 100 feet and so continues almost to the New York line.


South of the dividing ridges are the valleys of French Creek and of the streams which empty into it, and still beyond are the hills which form the water-shed between that stream and Brokenstraw, Spring and Oil Creeks. The water on the north side of the main ridge flows into Lake Erie and on the south side to the Allegheny River. The dividing line between the waters is some eight miles south of Lake Erie in Greenfield and Greene Townships, twelve mile, in Summit, fourteen in Waterford, McKean and Washington, and sixteen in Franklin and Elk Creek. Along French, Walnut, Elk, Conneaut, Mill, Big Conneauttee, Little Conneauttee and Le Boeuf Creeks, Hatch Hollow Alder Run, Beaver Dam Run and the outlet of Lake Pleasant are very handsome valleys, from a quarter of a mile to more than a mile in width. The elevation between the Walnut Creek Valley and that of the West Branch of Le Boeuf Creek, both rising in Summit Township, is quite low; so moderate, indeed, that it is barely noticeable. The sides and summits of the ridges are much cut up with ravines, though considerable stretches of country are as level as the valleys.


The Pennsylvania State Geological Report gives the following as the elevations above tide-water of the points named: Surface of Lake Erie, 573-7/10 feet, Philadelphia & Erie Railroad summit between Walnut and Le Boeuf Creeks, 1,229; hill-tops on each side of the same summit, 1,355; hill-tops in western Waterford and eastern McKean, 1,470; Philadelphia & Erie Railroad station at Union City, 1,270; hill-tops southwest of Union City, 1,301; railroad station at Corry, 1,431; hill-tops east of Corry, 1,500; hill-tops south of Corry, 1,725; hill-tops along the Little Conneauttee, 1,196; hill-tops southwest of Edinboro, 1,400.


Jutting out from the mainland, in Mill Creek Township, is the peninsula of Presque Isle, which forms the bay of Presque Isle, the harbor of the city of Erie. It is a low sand bank, washed up by the action of the waves, some seven miles in length, and varying in width from a few rods to a mile and a half. Except at its head and foot, it is covered with trees and shrubs of almost every variety that grows in this latitude. The peninsula is indented with several shallow ponds, one or two of which run half way across Long Point. A peninsula of similar character, but much longer and wider, just out from the Canada Shore opposite, making the space between the narrowest portion of Lake Erie.


The Land -- Its Characteristics and Value
The Lake Shore Plain has in general a sandy soil, while immediately south of it, along the First Ridge, is a wide and continuous strip of gravel. The valleys between the ridge are a mixture of clay and sand, making a mellow soil that is easy to work. On the high lands and slopes of the ridges, the soil is mostly of a clayey nature, somewhat damp and cold. That of the valleys of the French Creek system is a rich alluvial deposit corresponding in character to bottom lands the country over.


The lands which are generally regarded as the best in the county for farming purposes are those bordering upon Lake Erie. This favored section produces every kind of grain, fruit, vegetable, etc., common to the temperate regions. The lake tempers the climate so that it is less troubled by frosts than regions many miles south, and as fine melons, grapes, peaches, strawberries, etc., are raised as in any part of the State. A belt of swamp land about half a mile wide originally extended along the Lake Shore Plain, in an east and west direction, from Twelve Mile Creek to the Ohio boundary. Most of this has been drained, and is now fertile land. East of Mill Creek, on the line of the swamp, the rock comes nearer to the surface than west, and the results have been less gratifying.


The valleys of the French Creek system are equally fertile, perhaps, but are subject to frosts, which prevent the successful culture of the ore delicate fruits. On the high lands the frosts are less troublesome, but the nature of the soil adapts them best for grazing. Fruits of most kinds do better than in the valleys, but wheat, except in detached spots, does not succeed as well, and some of the more elevated townships do not raise enough of that grain to supply them with bread. Off of the lake shore the attention of the farmers is mainly given to dairying, which may be said to be the leading industry of the county. Aside from wheat, every other kind of grain does well in all sections. That grain has of late years, however, been grown with considerable success in various portions of the county south of the lake shore, and it is possible that in time it will be generally cultivated. The apple crop is everywhere sure and prolific. Large quantities of this fruit and of potatoes are annually shipped to the Southern and Eastern markets. A good deal of hay is baled in the southern townships and shipped by rail. Hundreds of tons of butter are sent from the county to the large cities, where the Erie County make ranks with the best. Within the last ten years, cheese factories have been started in almost every township, which manufacture immense quantities of that product.


The price of land differs very much, according to its location. Along the lake shore, speaking only of farms that are outside the influence of the towns, very little land can be purchased for less than $75 an acre, and its value runs from that to $200. On the bottoms of French creek and its tributaries, the price is from $50 to $100. The high lands are estimated to be worth as low as $25 and as high as $75. In a few choice spots, the value of the latter is little less than that of the valley lands, but, as a rule, they bring a lower price. The highest priced farming lands are in the vicinity of Erie, Girard, North East, Fairview and Waterford, and the lowest priced are in Greenfield, Elk Creek, Franklin and Wayne.


Climate, Geology and Timber
The climate is more moderate than would be thought from the high northern latitude. The county lies within the same isothermal lines as Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania generally, but, while the average temperature corresponds with that section, there is less sultry weather in summer and more piercing wind in winter and spring. This is due to the proximity of Lake Erie, which has a wonderful effect upon the atmosphere. To the same influence is due the fact that the seasons are from one to two weeks earlier on the lake shore than they are in the southern part of the county, and that peaches, melons and grapes grow successfully in the first section, while they are almost a total failure in the other. It sometimes happens that good sleighing prevails in the southern townships when the ground is bare along the lake. In the spring, especially if ice is on Lake Erie, the winds are somewhat trying to those who are not acclimated, but this brief period of unpleasant weather is more than recompensed by the delightful summers, the freedom from fogs and miasmas, and the purity of the water. On the south side of the dividing ridge frosts are frequent in the late spring and early fall, but nothing of the kind is known along Lake Erie, except at the seasonable period of the year. The winters and summers are about of equal length, but it is seldom that either are extreme or unendurable. For at least six months in the year, the county is as delightful a place of residence as the most fastidious could desire.


A peculiarity of the county is the scarcity of stone, of which barely enough is found for ordinary home use. The entire lake front is underlaid to a height of four to seven feet above the water's edge with a body of soft slate, which is practically valueless for building purposes. The only quarries of much account are in Franklin, Le Boeuf, Summit and Waterford Townships, and these do not consist of vast masses of rock, but are merely thin layers, one above the other, ranging from five to twenty feet in total thickness. The stone is hard, of good quality and easily worked, but is saturated with oil, which causes it to blemish after exposure. Small quarries are found in Fairview, Washington, Amity, Venango, McKean and Union, but are rarely worked to advantage. There is little surface stone, and the most that is found consists of boulders that have been thrown up by some convulsion of nature.


When the county was first opened to settlement it was covered with a dense forest, consisting mainly of pine, hemlock, chestnut, walnut, cucumber, beech and maple. Perhaps two-thirds of the land has been cleared, and but little good timber is left. The pine and hemlock of the French Creek Valley were largely rafted to Pittsburgh. That of the lake shore was shipped to Cleveland, Buffalo and the New York markets. The county does not furnish building material enough now for home use, and at the rate the forests are disappearing it will not be long until there will be barely sufficient for ordinary farm purposes.


Minerals, Oil Wells, Etc.
No minerals of any kind have ever been found in the county, except small deposits of iron, of the grade known as bog ore, in Mill Creek and Elk Creek Townships, and a few unimportant beds of marl in Waterford, Wayne and Le Boeuf. None of these are extensive enough to be considered worth working at present, though the iron ore was used to a slight extent during the early history of the stove manufacture.


Mineral springs, the waters of which are of a medicinal character, have been discovered in different localities. One in Elk Creek Township has considerable reputation and is much visited. Another in Erie, near the corner of Eighth and Chestnut streets, was once quite widely known.


Before the days of canals and railroads, a number of salt wells were put down at various points, and the manufacture of salt was carried on to a considerable extent. The most valuable of these were along the East Branch of Conneaut Creek, near Wellsburg. A salt spring still flows in Springfield, and salt licks prevailed in almost every township.


A great many test wells for oil have been bored, nearly every section having had from three to half a dozen experiments of that character. With scarcely an exception, a small yield of oil has resulted, but not enough to encourage the belief that it will be found in paying quantities. The most promising territory is in Union, Franklin and along Mill Creek, in Erie City. The Althof well in Erie produced oil enough for many years to warrant the expense of pumping. The oil that has been got in the county is of the heavy kind used for lubricating purposes. Natural gas is found almost everywhere by boring. The wells put down for oil have invariably yielded gas in a heavy volume, and in Erie it has been used in a number of instances for light and fuel. In the course of time, the gas diminishes and the wells lose their value.


Several extensive sink holes have been encountered, the best known of which is on the line of the Philadelphia & Erie Railroad, near Waterford. They undoubtedly mark the beds of small lakes.


The most interesting natural curiosities are the "gulfs," or gullies, of the lake shore creeks, and the "Devil's Backbone" in Girard Township. Wintergreen Gulf, in Harbor Creek Township, five miles southeast of Erie, and the gulf of Six Mile Creek, near the Clark settlement, in Harbor Creek Township, are the most interesting of the gullies. The first of these has become a popular picnic resort. The views from the ridges overlooking Lake Erie are very fine at some points, especially about sunset.



Bibliography: Samuel P. Bates, History of Erie County, Pennsylvania, (Warner, Beers & Co.: Chicago, 1884), Chapter II, pp. 145-150.


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