Get to know a Great Lake: Erie

By Jamie Bradburn - Published on October 4, 2016
An archived painting of Buffalo as seen from Lake Erie
Lake Erie's name is derived from Erieehronons, or 'people of the cougar,' an Indigenous group who lived on its south shore. (Buffalo, from Lake Erie/Library of Congress)

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As the Great Lakes Public Forum takes place in Toronto this week, TVO.org profiles each of the Great Lakes. Today: Lake Erie.

“Erie is a hard-working lake. Like a plodding drudge it tends to business, while its more glamorous sisters go gadding about. Its most characteristic ship is the giant freighter rather than the dancing sailboat. Its cities are shirtsleeve towns, while factories and coal docks cluster about its shores.”

— George Cantor, The Great Lakes Handbook, 1978

One is tempted to call Erie the blue-collar Great Lake. As the heart of the rust belt, its basin was the manufacturing heart of North America. And, like many things blue-collar, the lake hasn’t always gotten a lot of respect. Economic and environmental decline, highlighted when Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River caught fire in 1969, made Erie the butt of jokes. But that perception is as shallow as the lake’s water.

The southernmost of the Great Lakes, Erie is bordered by Ontario to the north, Michigan to the west, Ohio and Pennsylvania to the south and New York to the east. At 25,655 square kilometres, it is the fourth-largest in size, while its 484 cubic kilometres give it the lowest volume of water.

The lake derived its name from Erieehronons, or “people of the cougar,” an Indigenous group who lived on its south shore. Carbon-dating of charcoal found in fire pits near Akron, Ohio, indicate a human presence around Lake Erie over 12,000 years ago. Based on evidence from archeological sites in Ohio and Ontario, the early Indigenous peoples hunted animals such as mastodons and woolly mammoths. Later populations discovered the rich soils surrounding the lake were ideal for agriculture, which European colonizers carried on. Remnants of Indigenous settlements can be found at sites such as the Southwold Earthworks in Elgin County.

Much of the area surrounding Erie falls into the Carolinian zone, resulting in a diversity of species typically associated with the southern United States. Biodiversity is especially evident in the three major peninsulas stretching from the Canadian side: Long Point, Rondeau and Point Pelee. Beyond attracting birders and monarch butterfly watchers, the latter is home to over 70 species of trees, 50 types of insects and spiders, and a diverse range of amphibians and reptiles.

The shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie is 19 metres deep on average, though some sections at its western end are only nine metres. Add in fierce storms and Erie became the graveyard of the Great Lakes, especially a 6,500-square-kilometre section between Long Point and Erie, Pa., known as the Lake Erie Quadrangle, which has had nearly four times as many shipwrecks as the Bermuda Triangle. Shipping through Lake Erie was opened up through the construction of the Erie and Welland canals during the 1820s. Major international ports developed at Cleveland, Hamilton and Toledo.

The Lake Erie basin is the most heavily populated of the Great Lakes. The American side is home to 10.5 million people, with Cleveland (388,072), Toledo (279,789) and Buffalo (258,071), as the largest cities located on the lake. Reflecting its more rural nature, the Canadian side boasts 1.9 million residents, with Fort Erie (29, 960), Leamington (28,403), and Port Colborne (18,424) as the largest lakeside communities. Close to the western end of the lake are the border cities of Detroit (677,176) and Windsor (210,890).

This large human presence surrounding has created numerous environmental problems. Manufacturers and residents long regarded Erie as a safe place to dump waste — with a surface area of 25,700 square kilometres, it was assumed the water would filter out pollution. Mayflies served as the canary in the coalmine. Once so prevalent that snowplows had to shovel them away, the insects — a key food source for walleye and other fish — had nearly vanished by the mid-1950s. Researchers found that the lake bottom, where mayfly nymphs burrow for a year or two before emerging as adults, lacked oxygen. By the mid-1960s Newsweek magazine declared Erie “the Dead Sea.”

But the opposite was true. The discharge of phosphate-laden detergents and fertilizers sparked an explosion of blue-green algae growth; this cut the oxygen level of the water, turning into a murky mess that led to endless jokes and kids complaining about the icky stuff clinging to them while at the beach. William Ashworth, author of The Late, Great Lakes, called Erie “a monster that stinks and exudes thick mats of green, decomposing slime.” The algae, combined with the effects of pollutants and invasive species, caused havoc to commercial fisheries.

Agencies such as the International Joint Commission worked to revive Erie’s health. Legislated reductions in phosphorous discharges slowed the growth of the algae, to the point that by the late 1980s the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters called for limited amounts of the nutrient to be dumped back in to increase fish production. The unwelcome arrival of zebra mussels in the early 1990s clogged intakes and cleaned the water, sending aquatic vegetation growth into overdrive once again. Algae growth remains an issue today.

While work continues to fix the lake’s ecology, its cities are also attempting a comeback. As manufacturing vanishes, municipalities are using all the weapons in their arsenal (such as tax breaks, diversifying the local economy, reinvestment in infrastructure, and rehabilitating decaying structures) to attract young, creative entrepreneurs to revive decaying neighbourhoods and faded industrial sites. With any luck, the cruel jokes about Erie may disappear.  

Tomorrow: Lake Huron

Read more: 

Get to Know a Great Lake: Superior

The Great Lakes: An ecosystem in peril

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