The Bay-Rat Beat Walk
Many thanks to Dr. David Frew, a Jefferson Educational Society Scholar in Residence, who researched and mapped out this week’s West BayWalk.
The Bay-Rat Beat
The Our West Bayfront kicks off its West BayWalks by learning about Bay-Rat kids and Erie neighborhoods during the 1950s. Bay-Rats were kids who prowled Northwest Erie. Their “territory” included the Bluffs overlooking today’s Bayfront Parkway, the Cascade Docks, and the adjacent neighborhoods. Their era was the 1950s, a simpler time, when parents allowed children to wander unsupervised. Put on your walking shoes and “return to those magical years.”
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1.The Bluffs on Front Street: The three modern commercial docks below were built in the late 1800s and shifted Erie’s maritime economy west from downtown. As amazing as it may seem these days, people regularly drove to the bluffs and tossed trash over the edge.
- 2. West Front Street and Liberty Street: Liberty Street, one of a few primary, north-south arteries, was included in the plan by Andrew Ellicott, a surveyor who was commissioned to create the original plan for the City of Erie in 1794.
- 3. Borderland: Neighborhoods west of Liberty Street contained Portuguese, Italian (one of four Erie Little Italy neighborhoods), Finnish and Hungarian (Eastern European) communities, but to the east they were primarily Swedish. Erie’s specialty Swedish grocer, Westerdahls’, was at West 4th and Poplar Street.
- Note the astonishing number of bars and clubs, beginning with the Three B Saloon, which used to be the Boulevard Tavern. Most are out of business, but building shapes and square facades give the old locations away.
4. The 900 Block of West 4th Street: This block was the neighborhood epicenter. Notable addresses include:
- 932 W. 4th St: James Modica’s Basement Speakeasy
- 935 W. 4th St: Modica Home (James was a Semple security man and his son Jimmy played sax with the Tune-Toppers)
- 936 W. 4th St: Nathal Home (Detroit Tigers and opera fans)
- 940 W. 4th St: Penn Club (now a church)
- 955 W. 4th St: Bierig Home (Dave Bierig became a world-renowned tall ship sailmaker)
5. West 4th and Cascade Street: The corner of West 4th and Cascade Street was the last stop for one of Erie’s busiest trolley routes. After the streetcar stopped here, the conductor moved to the other end of the car and headed back to State Street. The 4th Street line ran continuously back and forth to State Street. After the Cascade Docks opened, Cascade Street became one of Erie’s most important thoroughfares, and the corner at 4th Street became a busy commercial intersection.
- Beckman’s: The Beckmans moved here from State Street after the Cascade Docks opened. Their business on the southeast corner provided ship provisioning (north door) and ship engineering (west door). The building behind the store was a horse barn for ship deliveries to the docks.
- Felizardo’s Store: The building on the southwest corner was a specialty Portuguese grocer.
- Sailor’s Inn, Orphanage, and Bello’s Café: The building on the northeast corner has had a storied history. It was a tavern and lodge for sailors, a home for children orphaned by the Spanish Flu Pandemic, and Bello’s Café, a specialized Portuguese tavern.
- Finnish Steam Bath: The building east of the playground was a Finnish Steam Bath and gathering place for the Finnish men of the neighborhood.
- Bello Brothers Groceries: In 1924, Portuguese immigrants Manuel and Joseph Bello opened a grocery store and meat market on the southwest corner. Joseph’s sons eventually created Bello’s Surefine in the Colony Plaza.
- 7. West 3rd and Raspberry Street: The Cascade Park Club is one of Erie’s oldest social clubs. Established in 1874 it has served the neighborhood, providing food, beverages and entertainment, including bowling. The club was used as a spillover clinic during the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.
Adjoining Semple Houses: After establishing a bootlegging business during Prohibition, two Semple boys commissioned adjoining homes in the brand new, mid 1920s (nine-home) development on the south side of Lookout Drive (3rd Street). Their basements were connected by an underground tunnel, which contained a bank vault and storage room.
United Oil: Erie’s earl fuel oil delivery company had a depot and storage yard with huge tanks in the area that now contains “The Bluffs Condos.”
Playground: Bay-Rat Stadium, the neighborhood softball field, was located on the north side of 3rd Street with home plate at the southeast corner. Several legendary local athletes played here.
Semple Family Homestead: The original Semple family home was just two houses east on West 3rd, on the south side of the street.
Second Field: Before it became the Laura Wallenstein Home this was a wooded, vacant field and adventure emporium for neighborhood kids. From the northern end a kid could see the entire bay and peer over Presque Isle to Lake Erie.
Cascade Promenade: The original Cascade Street continued down the hill to the docks from 2nd Street. Dock access was moved to Cranberry Street in the late 1950s. In recent years the old graded right-of-way was reengineered to a walking path. The eastward bend at the bottom of the bluffs was a railroad spur leading to a water tank for early railroad steam engines.
Note the War of 1812 tribute marker on the south side of the street.
8. Strong Electric Station: From this corner, the Strong coal-fired electric generating plant, with its distinctive smokestacks, would have dominated the western horizon. The facility was located between West 4th and 5Th on Cranberry Street, and it was demolished in 1967.
Enjoy views of the lake, as you continue the walk along the Bayfront Connector.
- 9. Finnish Lutheran Church: The Finnish Community established its own Lutheran Church at 935 West 2nd Street. Eventually the Finns gave up their church and joined St. Matthews at West 7th and Cascade Street.
- 10. Revitalization: Note the beautiful modern home on the corner at Front Street, signs of ongoing investments in the Bayfront community.
- Want to learn more?
Check out these related articles that have more history on this area.
2. The Bello Family, Sailor’s Inn, and Erie’s Spanish Flu: Neighborhood History
9. Jimmy Modica’s Place: Pool, Booze and Cards
14. Read the series “On the Waterfront”
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