History and Memorabilia | Erie Pennsylvania

The History of the City and County of Erie, Pennsylvania.

The Survival of Andrew Blila

The steamship Erie was one of the fastest and most elegant ships sailing between Buffalo and Chicago. It was a large ship — over 176 feet long and about 27 feet wide. A paddle wheel steamer of 497 Tons, it was built in 1837 at the foot of French Street, in Erie, by the Erie Steamboat Company.
On August 9, 1841, the Erie departed Buffalo carrying 343 passengers. It was a windy day and many of the passengers were in their berths with seasickness. In the early evening, there was “a slight explosion, a hissing sound and a cry of ‘Fire!'”  Within minutes 254 lives were lost.

A survivor of the ill-fated steamship, Andrew Blila came with his family to America in 1833, he was a child of three years at the time, one the first of the German settlers to arrive in Erie. When the Erie went into commission as part of the Reed fleet of streams on that August day in 1841, Blila shipped as a boy to attend upon the wheelmen. He was then 13 years of age, but a sturdy boy and not unfamiliar with the duties of the position he was filling. The crew of the boat were accommodated on the main deck, the engineers having their quarters on the starboard side, abaft the paddle wheels, and the wheelmen on the port side, directly opposite the engineers.

That night Mr. Blila was in the wheelmens stateroom, preparing for his nights rest, and along with him was Jerome McBride, a wheelman, brother of Dennis McBride, a mate of the Erie. The first intimation Mr. Blila and his mate had of trouble on the ship was an unusual sound, not to be described, so unusual that Mr. Blila remarked it, and asked what it could be. “Oh, its nothing,” said McBride. “Perhaps they have blown out a boiler head or something of that sort has occurred.”

But the noise continued. It was something like a mixture of roaring and crackling with trampling of feet mingled, and again Blila spoke of it; but the sailor tried to quiet the boy, and by assuring him that there could be nothing the matter, urged him to lie down. It was impossible, without investigating, so young Blila went to the door and opening it was confronted with a solid wall of fire. Slamming the door to, he told McBride what he had seen; that the ship was in flames. Then he proposed to break the window and escape through that into the water, but McBride said no.
“We will try another plan,” said he. Then seizing a blanket, he held it spread out in front of him and as high up as possible, and telling the boy to follow close upon his heels, he opened the door and rushed through the flames. There was not a moment to spare, and it seemed as though McBride had, in the second of thought he had given it, completely planned out the escape. But a few feet away the gang plank lay upon the deck. This he seized and threw overboard, telling the boy to jump out and get aboard of it. McBride himself followed but he was fearfully burned and was in excruciating agony. With their hands they paddled away from the vicinity of the burning ship. They were among the very last to be picked up by the boats of the Clinton, which had come to the rescue.

Mr. Blila spoked of the circumstance with reluctance, partly for the reason that, notwithstanding the startling character of that tragic event, so little of the details of the scene can be recalled. As a matter of fact he saw but very little of it. Possibly not more than five seconds of time elapsed between the discovery of the fire and the plunge into the waves. There was not time even for thought and the whole occurrence is scarcely more in the retina of his memory than a trouble dream. So when he was asked about the burning of the Erie, he said that he had remembered so little about it that it is not worth while to repeat it. And yet it is one of the most marvelous of experiences and most miraculous of escapes.

He came through is terrible ordeal unscathed. Far different was it with poor Jerome McBride, who had been the means of saving the call-boy's life. His burns were so severe that he died of them after reaching his home in Erie.

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Abraham Lincoln's Funeral Train

President Abraham Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, several hours after he was fatally shot by John Wilkes Booth. A train bearing the president's remains toured the country on its way from Washington, D.C. to Springfield, Illinois. The Lincoln Funeral Train stopped in Erie on Friday, April 28, 1865.

City Officials knew the train was going to travel through Erie on its way from Buffalo, New York to Cleveland, Ohio, early in the morning of April 28th, but a superintendent of the Cleveland and Erie Railroad had contacted city officials and ask them not to have any ceremonies because the people on the funeral train were exhausted.

Along the way that morning, the train passed through towns bordering Lake Erie. The town of Erie had been reached at 2:50 a.m. where city leaders had been mislead by the train officials into believing that no stops would be made between Buffalo and Cleveland. Erie officials hurriedly arranged a few dignitaries and a small torchlight gathering was held in honor of Lincoln, but it was far less special than they would have preferred.

The local newspaper coverage of the ceremony was mostly apologetic:

Erie Mayor Fernando F. Farrar wrote a letter which was published in the Erie Weekly Observer: "While acknowledging with profound humiliation the absence of a proper demonstration of respect on the part of this city to greet the remains of President Lincoln on their arrival here last Friday morning, justice to our citizens who have ever delighted to honor the lamented patriot while living, and who have second to none in heartfelt devotion to the memory of the distinguished dead, requires publicity of the fact that in the midst of preparations for the mournful occasion they were informed by a Superintendent of the Cleveland & Erie railroad that the funeral escort had made a special request that no public demonstration be made at his place, in order that their committee might have rest and repose. Acquiescing with this unauthorized request is therefore the true cause of the apparent national discredit attributed to this city. (Signed) F. F. Farrar, Mayor."

Telegraphed reports in the Erie Daily Dispatch accounted for every stop made along the route of the Lincoln Funeral Train. When the train reached the New York/Pennsylvania border at 1:32 a.m. on April 28, 1865, a contingency from Erie, Pa boarded the train to escort President Lincoln's remains to the station at Erie. The escorts included: Erie Mayor F. F. Farrar; George W. Starr, the president and one of the founders of the Erie Forge Company; Bethuel B. Vincent (father of Col. Strong Vincent); businessman E. P. Bennett and Jacob F. Walther; and Lt. Commander Francis A. Roe from the U.S.S. Michigan.

The Erie Weekly Gazette later reported: "Under the auspices of Major Scott, a demonstration was made at the Lake Shore Depot in Erie, on the arrival of the funeral cortage of President Lincoln about 2 o'clock on Friday morning. The city bells were tolled, minute guns were fired, etc. A much larger number of persons would have been present but for a misunderstanding with prevented timely notice."

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