Located just above the northwestern tip of Pennsylvania, Lake Erie is one of America’s five Great Lakes. But you may be wondering whether Lake Erie connects to the ocean.
Lake Erie connects to the Atlantic Ocean through two waterways: the St. Lawrence Seaway via the Welland Canal and the Erie Canal. The ability to get freight from Lake Erie to the ocean in a matter of days helped Pennsylvania and the rest of the Great Lakes region flourish.
So why do so many ships sink in Lake Erie? What states does Lake Erie touch? What kind of boats can you put into Lake Erie? Read on to learn these answers and more.
Located along the US-Canada border, Lake Erie is a 9,940-square-mile lake that is part of the Great Lakes system along with Lake Ontario, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, and Lake Superior.
Besides Pennsylvania, Lake Erie borders three other US states: New York to the east, Ohio to the west, and Michigan to the northwest. In addition, the northern shore of Lake Erie borders the Canadian province of Ontario. In fact, Canada owns about half of Lake Erie, meaning that mariners could accidentally sail into Canadian territory if they’re not careful.
Pennsylvania’s border with Lake Erie runs for approximately 45 miles, spanning the distance between Ohio and New York State. The city of Erie, Pennsylvania, named after the Native American people who lived in the area, is adjacent to the lake.
There are two paths from Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean: the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Erie Canal.
The St. Lawrence Seaway
The St. Lawrence Seaway is a massive trade route that allows large vessels to sail from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to Duluth, Minnesota. The Seaway passes through Lake Erie and is the most popular route for commercial vessels to get from the Great Lakes to the ocean.
If you take the St. Lawrence Seaway from Pennsylvania, you’ll first navigate across Lake Erie toward Port Colborne, Ontario. Here, you’ll enter the 27-mile-long Welland Canal, which traverses the Niagara Peninsula and crosses through beautiful St. Catharines before opening back into Lake Ontario. Eight locks on the Welland Canal raise or lower ships a total of 326 feet between the Great Lakes.
From Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence Seaway connects with the St. Lawrence River. This section of the Seaway consists of navigable stretches of the river that are connected by canals, locks, and channels. The St. Lawrence River eventually becomes the Gulf of St. Lawrence before connecting to the Atlantic Ocean.
It takes most ships about a week to make the voyage from Lake Erie to the Atlantic on this route, and about nine days to sail from Duluth (the western terminus of the Seaway) to the Atlantic. More than 200 million tons of cargo are shipped via the Seaway every year.
Those 200 million tons of cargo have an enormous economic impact on the Great Lakes Region. It’s estimated that the Seaway brings more than $18 billion in wages and $46 billion in economic activity to the region annually, in addition to supporting more than 329,000 jobs.
The Erie Canal
The other path from Lake Erie to the Atlantic is the Erie Canal. The Erie Canal was famously the first canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes, a feat of engineering that literally changed the history of the entire United States by opening trade to interior Appalachian America.
From Lake Erie, the Erie Canal flows east toward Rochester and then proceeds past Syracuse to Albany, where it joins the Hudson River and eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean near New York City. The total length of the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo is about 339 miles.
The completion of the Erie Canal changed the course of history. Connecting the Great Lakes states to the Atlantic Ocean made importing and exporting goods to and from the region far easier, which in turn spurred economic growth and development in towns all along the canal’s course.
Today, the Erie Canal is mainly used by recreational vessels, although some cargo still passes through the canal. Rising prices of marine fuel have actually helped the Erie Canal regain some prominence, as it’s often cheaper to ship freight through the Erie Canal by barge than to ship it through the St. Lawrence Seaway by ship.
Additionally, the tourism opportunities offered by this historic canal have been a boon to cities along its course. Between tourism, recreation, and commercial shipping, it’s estimated that the canal brings about $6.2 billion to economies along its path every year.
Keystone Answers Fun Fact: Lake Erie has its very own sea monster! The Lake Erie Chomper, sometimes called Bessie, has been spotted on and off in the lake since 1793.
Lake Erie and Pennsylvania
While neither the Erie Canal nor the Welland Canal directly touches Pennsylvania, the seaport at Lake Erie services vessels that depend on the canals and has a significant impact on Pennsylvania’s economy. The aptly named Port Erie brings $63.6 million to the economy every year, with a further $12.7 million in wages for local workers.
In addition to the economic importance of the lake, Lake Erie is a popular place for recreation. People love to go boating, fishing, and swimming in the lake, and like the other Great Lakes, it is a fantastic place to get a sense of how big the world is while snapping some great photos to post on your favorite site.
How Do Ships Get Around Niagara Falls?
Ships sailing from Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway must pass over the Niagara Peninsula, home to the world-famous Niagara Falls. While the Niagara River does connect Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the presence of the massive waterfall makes the Niagara River impassable.
To allow ships to sail between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the Welland Canal was dug. The first version of the canal, completed in 1829, was 8 feet deep and about 24 feet wide. In 1845, the canal’s second iteration was completed, allowing ships up to 150 feet long to pass through it. The canal was widened twice more over the years to its current dimensions of 350 feet in width by 30 feet in depth.
This massive canal allows large vessels to sail inland from the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, the current Welland Canal can accommodate vessels that are up to 740 feet long! About 3,000 ships carrying more than 40 million tons of cargo in total pass through the canal every year.
Why Do So Many Ships Sink in Lake Erie?
Lake Erie has claimed hundreds and hundreds of ships over the years. While many people might assume that the Great Lakes are tranquil and calm, they are, in fact, massive bodies of water that are subject to abrupt changes in the weather.
Lake Erie is so hazardous that nobody even really knows how many ships have sunk there. Part of the reason that Lake Erie is so volatile is that it is relatively shallow. The deepest point in Lake Erie is only about 210 feet deep. The other great lakes are far deeper: for example, Lake Superior is 1,332 feet deep, and Lake Michigan is 922 feet deep.
The relative shallowness of Lake Erie tends to generate big waves that are more than capable of swamping a vessel. Lake Erie is also subject to storm surges, heavy winds, and pouring rain.
That, plus the fact that Lake Erie is heavily traveled by vessels of all kinds, creates a situation ripe for shipwrecks. The NASA Earth Observatory says that there are anywhere from 500 to 2,000 individual shipwrecks in the lake.
An exact accounting of lives lost in the lake is impossible due to inconsistent recordkeeping, but thousands of people have perished in the lake. Some incidents are relatively small wrecks involving a few unfortunate sailors or passengers. One such wreck was the towing barge Admiral, which foundered and sank during a heavy storm on December 2, 1942, killing all 14 of her crew.
Others are more catastrophic. The wreck of the SS G.P. Griffith was especially tragic. The G.P. Griffith was a passenger ship that caught fire and subsequently sank in Lake Erie on June 17, 1850, killing approximately 250 people.
Another famous disaster was the sinking of the Atlantic. On August 20, 1952, the Atlantic – overcrowded and run by an overwhelmed crew – collided with a cargo vessel and sank. An exact death toll was impossible as the crew of the Atlantic had allowed many passengers aboard without doing the requisite paperwork. However, it is believed that as many as 300 people perished in that wreck.
Lake Erie and the Atlantic Ocean
The introduction of the Welland Canal and the Erie Canal connected Lake Erie to the Atlantic Ocean by two viable trade routes. For merchants in northwest Pennsylvania and all along Lake Erie, a connection to the ocean opened up trade in ways that would otherwise have been impossible, which subsequently helped the region grow and mature.
Today, Lake Erie remains a vital link in the economy of Pennsylvania and the rest of the Great Lakes region, as well as being a very popular destination for Pennsylvanians and tourists alike.