Lake Erie
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61 Lake Erie May 29, 2012 It was sunny, humid, and very warm as I started my trip around Lake Erie. My departure point was Westfield, New York. I grew up south of there in Jamestown and spent time during my youth shambling around with friends through the nearby Chautauqua Gorge, drinking beer or getting high, or hiking and swimming. The area was crucial to colonization of North America. What is now Westfield was first visited by French explorers in the early seventeenth century as they were seeking a water route from the Great Lakes into what they knew was a vast river system to the south that could take them into the central part of the continent and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. No water link existed, but the distance between the lakes that were eventually named Erie and Chautauqua was relatively short, though traveling between them involved hiking over a fairly long and very steep hill. Given its strategic location between northern and southern waterways, the Portage Trail is no doubt one of the most important ten-­ mile stretches in North America. The path had long been used by North America’s Native inhabitants . In 1615, Frenchman Étienne Brûlé purportedly became the first European to travel it. An expedition by Baron De Longueuil mapped and measured the trail in 1739. In 1749 Captain Celeron de Bienville, with a group of more than seven hundred men, cleared trees along the trail and continued southward to the Ohio River, burying lead markers claiming the entire route and all of the Ohio valley for the French king Louis XV.1 The town of Celeron on Chautauqua Lake is named after the captain. Hikers can Lake Erie 62 still follow the original trail, as I have done on foot. It’s about five miles up, then five back down into the county seat, Mayville, which features a courthouse, a jail, a raft of restaurants and shops, and an expansive view of Chautauqua Lake for travelers looking southward. Westfield was the home of Grace Bedell, the young woman who after attending a campaign event in the town, wrote to Abraham Lincoln with advice to grow a beard. She suggested that his face was too thin and that women would appreciate whiskers and thus would encourage their husbands to vote for him. Lincoln responded with a noncommittal letter of his own. After being elected president and on a return trip to Illinois, he stopped again in the town and asked to meet the young woman who had written the letter. In a brief meeting at the train stop, he asked her if she liked his beard and kissed her on the cheek. A statue depicting their meeting (but not the kiss) is in the town park. As I cycled toward Route 5 into the even smaller town of Barcelona , Lake Erie was in sight. It was getting hotter and windier, and I knew a cold front was heading in from the west. I figured it was only a matter of time before I encountered a serious rainstorm. Other than the wind and the threat of rain, the scene was bucolic. There wasn’t much traffic on the road, which cut a swath through miles of grape vineyards. This area is known as the “grape juice capital of the world.” Welch’s, the largest distributor of grape juice globally, uses most of these Concord grapes to make its products. Wine making has made some inroads, but this is still primarily a juice region. Welch’s was started by Thomas Bramwell Welch, who perfected the process of pasteurizing grape juice. A Methodist with strong views against alcohol and slavery, he was active in both the Underground Railroad and the temperance movement. He practiced dentistry with his son Charles, and together they started the Welch’s Grape Juice Company in 1893. The company received a huge public relations boost when fire-­ and-­ brimstone orator William Jennings Bryan, as secretary of state, substituted it for wine at state functions. An even bigger boost came with the passage of Lake Erie 63 Prohibition. I grew up drinking the stuff, and I have to admit that I still like it. It’s an old-­ school fruit juice in the age of pomegranates , kiwis, and mangoes, but that’s OK with me. As I began to approach Erie, Pennsylvania, I stopped briefly to take a few gulps from my water bottle. I was standing there on the side of...


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