Lake Erie, the most southern of the five great lakes of the northern United States and of Canada, and the lowest of the chain, except Lake Ontario, which lies below it to the northeast. It is bounded N. by the province of Ontario, Canada, S. E. and S. by New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and W. by Michigan, and lies between lat. 41° 25' and 42° 55' N., and Ion. 78° 55' and 83° 34' W. Both the lakes named lie nearly in the extension of the line of the river St. Lawrence, the outlet of all these bodies of fresh water. The mean length of Lake Erie is about 240 m.; mean breadth, 40 m.; circumference, 660 m.; elevation above the level of the sea, 565 ft.; area, 9,600 sq. m. Its surface is 333 ft. above that of Lake Ontario, this great descent being made in the Niagara river, which connects the two lakes. The form of the lake is elliptical, its maximum length exceeding the mean by only about 15 m., and the breadth varying from 30 to 60 m. Its western extremity receives from the north the waters of the upper lakes, discharged by the Detroit river. At this extremity are many islands clustered together, the largest one about 14 m. in circumference.
They are well wooded, with a fertile soil derived from the limestone rocks of which they are composed, and to some extent they are under cultivation. The peculiar features of Lake Erie are its shallowness and the clayey nature of its shores, the depth, except near its lower end, rarely exceeding 120 ft. The United States engineers found three divisions in the floor of the lake, of increasing depth toward the outlet. The upper portion, above Point Pelee island, has a level bottom with an average depth of 30 ft. The middle portion takes in the principal part of the lake, extending to Long Point. The bottom is here level also, and from 60 to 70 ft. below the surface. Below Long Point the depth varies from 60 to 240 ft. Its bottom is a light clayey sediment, which rapidly accumulates from the wearing away of the strata that compose its shores. Along the coast the loosely aggregated products of the disintegrated strata are frequently seen forming high cliffs, which extend back into elevated plateaus. The rivers cut deep channels through these, discharging the excavated matters into the lake. The underground watercourses penetrate through the base of the cliffs and undermine them, and the waves aid to break them down. Slides are of frequent occurrence.
The water takes up the earthy materials, and is rendered turbid by them a long way out from the land. This may be seen on both sides of the lake; and about Cleveland in Ohio the wearing back of the coast line has been particularly remarked. For 40 m., extending E. to Fairport, the shores are of this character, the stratified clays and sand forming a terrace, the height of which at Cleveland is 103 ft. above the water. Owing to the shallowness of the lake, it is readily disturbed by the wind; and for this reason, and for its paucity of good harbors, it has the reputation of being the most dangerous to navigate of any of the great lakes. Long continued storms, with the wind setting from one extremity of the lake toward the other, produce disastrous effects upon the land to leeward by the piling up of the waters. From this cause the city of Buffalo at the foot of the lake has suffered serious damage in its lower portions. The return of the waters after the storm is in some instan-ces so rapid, when driven along by a wind setting in the same direction, that powerful currents are produced. In October, 1833, a current thus caused burst a passage through the peninsula on the N. coast called Long Point, and excavated a channel more than 9 ft. deep and 900 ft. wide.
The natural harbors around the lake are few, and these have required artificial improvement. They are generally at the mouths of the small rivers which flow into the lake, the channels of which are carried far out by piers, constructed on one or both sides. Erie in Pennsylvania has a large natural harbor, formerly known as that of Presque Isle, which has been improved. The best harbor between it and Buffalo is Dunkirk. The other principal harbors on the S. side are those of Cleveland, Sandusky, and Toledo. On the N. shore there is a harbor called Port Maitland, at the entrance of Grand river near the E. end of the lake, and this river is navigable by small vessels for some distance. Other harbors on the same side are Ports Dover, Burwell, and Stanley. Lake Erie drains but a narrow margin of country around it, and receives no rivers of importance. The Maumee is the largest on the American side, entering the lake at its S. W. extremity, its course being nearly on the extended line of the river St. Lawrence and the two lakes Ontario and Erie. Sandusky river, further E. in Ohio, rises about 60 m.
S. of the lake; but more to the east the rise of the surface to the north reaches nearly to the lake shore, determining the drainage in the opposite direction, which is that of the general slope of the strata. The lake was early navigated by sailing vessels built upon its shores, and as many as seven steamers were running upon it in 1830. It is usually closed by ice in the early part of December, and continues more or less frozen over till March or April. In the season of navigation an immense amount of transportation is done upon it, and its commerce is of great value. The communication with Lake Ontario is through the Welland canal, constructed across the Canadian peninsula. On the American side are six customs districts, viz.: Buffalo Creek and Dunkirk, N. Y.; Erie, Pa.; and Cuyahoga, Sandusky, and Miami, Ohio. The value of the imports from Canada for the year ending June 30, 1872, was $3,429,722; exports to Canada, $3,945,588; entered from Canadian ports, 1,284 American vessels of 579,-352 tons, and 986 Canadian vessels of 157,889 tons; cleared for Canadian ports, 1,168 American vessels of 533,845 tons, and 1,010 Canadian vessels of 162,509 tons; entered in the coastwise trade, 3,340 steamers of 2,132,391 tons, and 8,229 sailing vessels of 1,934,972 tons; cleared, 3,377 steamers of 2,147,819 tons, and 8,397 sailing vessels of 1,976,408 tons.
There were registered, enrolled, and licensed in these districts 1,576 vessels of 257,377 tons, viz.: 241 steamers of 79,054 tons, 429 sailing vessels of 98,295 tons, 886 canal boats of 75,971 tons, and 20 barges of 4,057 tons; built during the year, 88 vessels of 18,445 tons, viz.: 29 steamers of 8,914 tons, 15 sailing vessels of 4,256 tons, 38 canal boats of 3,829 tons, and 6 barges of 1,446 tons. The fisheries of Lake Erie are of little importance compared with those of the upper lakes, where the same kinds of fish are more abundant and of better quality. The chief varieties taken are lake trout and white-fish; other varieties are sturgeon, sisquit, muskelonge, black bass, white bass, Oswego bass, and several species of pike.