U.S. Brig Niagara’s historical significance to be shared at Northern Tier Library

Monday, September 9, 2019 | 12:01 AM


Edd Hale was a longtime U.S. history teacher whose courses covered the time period around the War of 1812, but he’s learned more about that era during his retirement as a volunteer crew member of the U.S. Brig Niagara than he thought possible.

His passion now is sharing that knowledge of the time period, and the tall ship that calls Erie home, and educating others about a critical piece not just of Pennsylvania’s history but the nation’s as well. Hale will present a free talk on the U.S. Brig Niagara at Northern Tier Library on Sept. 19.

“Honestly, you can approach probably 90 percent of Pennsylvanians and ask them what they know about Brig Niagara and they won’t be able to tell you anything about it,” said Hale, who taught middle school history at Keystone Oaks for 35 years. “That’s why I’ve kind of made it one of my jobs as a crew member to take the story and — as a teacher I have an idea how to present this stuff — spark some interest in it.”

The ship that has its home port in Erie, where visitors can tour the ship and the Erie Maritime Museum, is a replica of one that served a crucial role in the Battle of Lake Erie. At that time the battle was on between the United States and the British to control the Great Lakes, and therefore the ability to move troops and supplies into the surrounding areas. The Niagara didn’t start out as the flagship of the U.S. squadron but would end up that way after a fierce battle near Put-In-Bay, Ohio.

“The flagship U.S. Brig Lawrence was so badly damaged that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry moved his flag to the Niagara and the Niagara came in and finished the battle and defeated the British almost singlehandedly at that point,” Hale said. “That’s why the ship was so significant in our history.”

The original ship was sunk for preservation purposes in 1820 — for reasons Hale will explain during his talk — then raised in 1913 and rebuilt to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the battle. The current ship was constructed in 1988 based on the design of the original ship, which still existed at that point but was in such a state of disrepair that it could not be salvaged.

Hale knew the history of the battle, of course, but didn’t know he could actually sail on the ship until he and his wife made a trip to Erie and visited the museum. He went out on a day sail, inquired about becoming a volunteer, and now both he and his wife serve as crew members on the ship and have been on multi-week voyages as the Brig Niagara travels from port to port throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Much of Hale’s talk will center around what the ship was like in its original construction and how it exists today with the modern navigational and safety equipment, plus what it takes to sail the ship as a crew member, how they live on board and what it takes to keep the Niagara going.

The state provides funding of about $300,000, but the total cost to run the ship each year is around $1.5 million, Hale said, and the Flagship Niagara League raises the rest through donations.

“It’s preserving our state history and the history of tall ship sailing that was a major part of our history until 100 years ago,” he said. “It’s something that we really believe needs to be preserved.”