New York and Pennsylvania have the distinction as the only two states with seaports on the Atlantic Ocean and the Great Lakes. The Keystone State’s port on Lake Erie shares the lake’s name, and that of its Native people. Although the city does not have a subway, it has a tunnel wide enough to fit a van, running for 2.3 miles beneath the city.
The Mill Creek Tube carries its namesake waterway out of view as eternal punishment for the devastating August 3, 1915 flood that the creek wreaked upon the city. Above, a photo from a June 2014 survey of the subterranean stream by Erie Times-News shows the size of the tube and the seemingly harmless stream when it is not carrying its maximum volume.
Where it Flows
Although covered for more than a century, topographical maps dutifully mark the stream as a dotted line running north on the street grid from its portal at West 30th and Erie Streets towards West 12th Street, from where it takes a diagonal jog beneath the grid towards Bayfront Parkway near the Erie Wastewater Treatment Plant. After a short stint in the daylight it empties into Presque Isle Bay, an arm of Lake Erie.
The city was surveyed in 1795, with a grid of streets laid out decades before many of them were built in a manner resembling Manhattan. On the above 1855 map, Mill Creek is the middle one of three streams flowing through the grid. At the center of the city is the two-block Perry Square, the geographic and historic center of Erie.
By 1909, when this bird’s eye view map was published, Mill Creek was an afterthought for many city residents and along its course, buildings began to straddle the stream.
Flood of 1915
On August 3, 1915, Mill Creek took the city by surprise following an unusually heavy rainfall. Along its upper reaches, trees and debris fell into the rushing stream as it descended towards Lake Erie. At 26th Street, the stream narrowed into a culvert as it entered the developed part of Erie. Here, the debris piled up into a plug which then burst and unleashed a surge upon the city. 37 people died in the city’s worst natural disaster.
At the Erie County Historical Society collection, many postcards documenting the flood and its results demonstrate the unexpected force of destruction along its course.
Into the Tube
Between 1917 and 1923, the creek was reconstructed as the Mill Creek Tube. On the above 1917 A. H. Mueller atlas, the route is clearly marked. Over the coming decades, much of the land above the tube will be developed.
From the collection of Erie County Historical Society, the above image of the tube under construction could easily be mistaken for a cut-and-cover subway tunnel in New York. Concrete for the tube was manufactured and poured on site, ensuring for the project’s speedy completion.
Some sections of the tunnel were constructed on the surface of the creek and then subsequently buried, as described in the June 1920 edition of Engineering News-Record.
Speaking from experience, municipal contractors and workers love to hold parties at otherwise restricted places where the public cannot venture.
Recall my essay on Jones Falls in Baltimore, a stream that was also channeled underground. In that city, a working dinner was held in the tunnel, with the city’s mayor, members of the Sewerage Commission and American Society of Civil Engineers.
The engineers of Mill Creek Tube did not cater a dinner, but instead drove through the tunnel to celebrate the completion of their project.
Along the Course
Mill Creek has many branches that feed into it, but every waterway has its official source. In this case, it is the conveniently named Headwaters Park, a 70-acre preserve of woodland and trails near Exit 29 (Watersburg Road) on Interstate 90. The actual source is bit outside the park at Wager Road. Leaving the park, Mill Creek collects its tributaries and descends through a ravine on its way to Glenwood Park.
Inside Glenwood Park, the drift catcher dam holds back downed trees and debris from flowing further downstream. Completed in 1923, it was designed to prevent a repeat of the 1915 flood. In 1965 a miniature railway was constructed atop the dam. On the downstream side of the dam is Erie Zoo, home to 300 species of animals within its 15 acres.
Rivers that flow through zoos provide the appearance of a natural home for some of the resident animals. Similarly, the Bronx River flows through Bronx Zoo, the Kaitzbach flows past Dresden’s zoo, and the Birsig flows through Basel’s zoo. I’ve also written about miniature railroads running through parks on my Dresden photo essay.
Leaving the zoo, Mill Creek flows through a deep ravine until it plunges into darkness at its portal, located on West 30th Street, between Erie Street and Glenwood Park Avenue. For the next two miles, the tomato-shaped tunnel collects runoff from street curbs on the surface, increasing the volume of the water that it carries.
On the city’s edge, Bayfront Parkway runs along the shore of Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay. Where the was once industry, today this road is lined with parks, marinas, and other public amenities. At the point where it runs above Mill Creek, a blue sign notes the stream’s phantom presence. It reemerges on the surface a few yards from this sign in a field bordering the water treatment plant.
A thick forest and a gravel company share the knob of land separating Presque Isle Bay from Lake Erie. Here, Mill Creek again flows undisturbed fore crossing Ore Dock Road and flowing into the bay.
Daylight for Mill Creek?
Erie is the fourth largest city in Pennsylvania, but its downtown is not as dense as that of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Along its buried course there are undeveloped and vacant lots that could be transformed into bioswales and miniature creeks that would feed into Mill Creek in a method resembling New York City’s Bluebelt program.
Mill Creek can see daylight again, in a modified form, similar to Saw Mill River in Yonkers and Cheonggyecheon in Seoul. It could contribute towards tourism, ecological awareness, and improved water management in the city.