Unless they are fans of history, it is unlikely that students outside of Erie know about the rich naval history attached to the city.
They may have heard about the Battle of Lake Erie from a high school history class, or vaguely remember the name of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, but these are just things from a book. Down on the lake, at the Erie Maritime Museum, there is a much better example of history, which can be seen, touched and sailed upon – the US Brig Niagara.
The seaworthy re-creation of the Niagara is the heart of “Sail Trainee Program,” which was founded six years ago and brings together about 45 people, consisting of 15 to 20 professional crew members and 20 to 25 volunteers and trainees. Each year, this make-shift crew operates the Niagara and sails it across the Great Lakes.
“What we do is operate the Niagara, a 19th-century sailing vessel, and that’s the educational experience,” said Joseph Lengieza, Director of Marine Operations, US Brig Niagara.
The trainees will come on to the vessel for 2 to 4 weeks at a time to sail with the crew all throughout the Great Lakes.
The point is to educate the students about what life onboard a 19th century naval vessel was like.
There are other programs the Niagara has done over the years.
“One of the programs that we’ve had a lot of traction with for the last four years is our college science consortium,” Lengieza said. “That’s a group of regional schools that are mostly biology majors…They’ve just published a paper about microplastic pollution within the Great Lakes and much of that sampling was done onboard the Niagara.”
Other programs allow for volunteers to work throughout the year at the museum, and then sail aboard the Brig Niagara in the summer free of charge.
History professor Alan Belovarac, Ph. D., has been a member of the crew. Intelligence studies instructor Bill Welch was on the crew in the 1990s.
Mercyhurst senior Alethea Gaarden sailed aboard the Niagara for three weeks last summer and plans to sail again this summer.
“It was great,” said Gaarden. “My experience was absolutely incredible.”
This is despite some of the long hours she worked as part of the crew.
When Gaarden was asked if she would recommend it to anyone, she said, “Absolutely.”
Experiences of Mercyhurst students, and the many others who have sailed aboard the Niagara, give testimony to the fact that if one is interested in 19th century naval life, or even just interested in an adventure, the chance to be part of the Niagara crew is not one to be wasted.