Monument Marks Proud but Tragic Day in Erie's History
A little-known chapter of Erie's history occurred on this day 172 years ago when the city hosted both the president and vice president. However, the pomp and circumstance of that occasion turned into a tragedy.
A monument at Erie Cemetery commemorates that tragedy. The memorial honors two sailors who lost their lives on August 27, 1849. It was a day that was supposed to be a proud day for the city. President Zachary Taylor was receiving medical care in Erie at the home of his friend, Surgeon William Maxwell Wood. A temporary White House was set up at Wood's home at 8th and Peach Streets where the Masonic Temple now sits.
Vice President Millard Fillmore came to Erie to visit Taylor. As Fillmore left the city by boat, he was to be sent on his way by a cannon salute from the USS Michigan. Something went terribly wrong.
"After the 10th round, one of the boatswain mates on the barrel put the powder charge in. As they began to ram it down, it went off. A stray spark inside ignited the powder bag and it blew,” says Jeff Sherry, Museum Educator at the Hagen History Center.
Boatswain Mates John Robertson and Peter Gilbert were killed.
"They were blown up and fell off the boat and their bodies were recovered. They were later interred on the bluff overlooking the bay,” says Betsy McKrell, Database Director at Erie Cemetery.
Fellow crew members of the fallen sailors chipped in for a memorial that was placed on the bluffs. The bodies, and the monument, were soon removed when the railroad came through that section of town. They now are located inside the Erie Cemetery just above West 26th Street. A new monument honoring Robertson and Gilbert was erected in 2013 and was placed beside the original stone.
The little-known monument tells a remarkable story. Erie hosting the temporary White House for President Taylor. Erie serving as the home port for the USS Michigan, the only military ship on the Great Lakes at that time. And…the story of two sailors who lost their lives on Presque Isle Bay.
McKrell invites the people of Erie to visit the cemetery on this memorable day, August 27.
"I would definitely say it's a wonderful day to salute their service because they came out and they were doing their job that day.”