FLUCTUATIONS IN THE LEVEL OF LAKE ERIE.
When the early emigrants arrived at Buffalo creek they were at the end of roads. From Canadaigua to lake Erie, there was only a summer trail for horses, along which sleighs and sleds could be moved, on the snow in winter. West of Buffalo there was nothing resembling a road, except an ancient trail of the savages, not much used by them, except in their warlike expeditions. Fortunately at the beginning of this century, the lake was low, causing a beach of clean sand at the margin of the water. Some of the streams were difficult to ford, but many of them were so much choked with sand, at their mouths, that teams could cross. Not far outside of the shore line there is deposited a changeable sand bar, which forms at the debouche of all streams, where the force of the current is lost in the still water.
In the transparent waters of our northern lakes this bank is easily found. The emigrants thus made a passage of the streams by leaving the land, and
driving their teams, apparently into the lake. If the water was rough, the waves breaking over the beach, they made a comfortable camp, above the bluffs in the woods near the shore, and waited patiently for better weather.
A few years afterwards, they were surprised to see this natural road submerged, by the waters of the lake. This alternate appearance and disappearance, of the lake beach, has been a standing mystery to the pioneers and their descendants. It is a change due to the most simple and natural causes. The lakes are large ponds or reservoirs, through which the waters of many united rivers flow to the ocean. All rivers are affected by the seasons, but it is more noticeable in large ones like the Mississippi, the Ganges and the Amazon. A year or two of drought in the country about their main branches, always produced low water.
When other meteorological conditions occur, and one or more rainy seasons follow each other, the rivers are high. The Straits connecting our northern lakes, are short rivers, not having capacity enough to discharge the surplus waters at once. This chain of lakes and their connecting outlets may be regarded as one great river, from tide water at Quebec, to the sources of the St. Louis river, in Minnesota. Like all large rivers, there is a spring rise and a winterfall; except in lake Superior, where the rise occurs in August or September.
This annual rise, occurs in June or July, about the time of the annual flood of the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers. It is much less in quantity, being only from twelve to sixteen inches; owing to the expansions, which act as reservoirs that must be filled; and which when full, require some months for their discharge. In the fall the surfaces of the lakes decline, simultaneously, as they rose. A smaller supply of rain, and increased evaporation, together with a continual discharge towards the ocean, disposes of the surplus water of the spring rains. When winter sets in, the supply from the streams is diminished by frost, and the lowest stage is reached in February or March.
These results have been obtained by long continued measurements, of the changes of level on all the lakes, during the past fifty years.
The annual rise and fall, is only one of the fluctuations, to which the lakes are subject. There is a sudden flux and reflux, which is completed in a few seconds, or few minutes; sometimes due to distant storms, but more often cannot be traced to a visible cause. Those oscillations are not yet explained. They occur on all the lakes, and upon other bodies of water; causing a rush into the mouths of the rivers, generally of a few inches in height, but sometimes of several feet. They have the form a low undulation coming in from the offing, parallel with the shore. I have known them to continue many hours,
and even days, with unbroken regularity, the interval from flood to flood, varying from five to eight minutes. Besides the annual and the sudden fluctuations, there is another which is more important, and which is called, the "Secular fluctuation." It occupies a cycle of years, which is not equal in duration. For a series of years the water is observed to settle way at the end of the annual decline, lower than it was the previous year at the same time.
Then it is seen to be higher and higher every year, till it reaches the maximum height. Reckoning from the highest annual rise, to the lowest, as at present known; the difference is six feet nine inches; a change which has an important influence, upon all harbors and docks. The lowest known stage of water occurred in February, 1819. From that date, there was a regular rise until June, 1838, when it flooded warehouses in the city, to the depth of one foot. At the mouth of Conneaut creek, the people were obliged to use boats, in order to pass along the streets, from house to house.
The remarkable rise of June, 1838, attracted the attention of every resident, on the shores of lake Erie. In the other lakes there was a conspicuous elevation about the same time. The members of the geological surveys of Ohio and Michigan, made observations upon this flood in the lakes, and procured what information it was possible to find, in reference to previous years.
Since the settlement of Detroit, in 1701, it is probable there had been no water as high as that of 1838. Timber which had grown to maturity on low lands, having an age of from one to two hundred, years, was killed by this flood. From 1788 to 1790, lake Erie is reported to have been very high. The old French inhabitants affirm, that a road which had long before been in use on the Detroit river, was rendered useless by high water in 1802, which agrees with the statements of early settlers in Ohio. In 1814, and from thence to 1820, Col. Henry Whiting, of the U.S. army, made measurements, upon the surface fluctuations in Detroit river, which disclosed the lowest known state of water to be in February, 1819. In more recent times some of the United States officers, connected with the construction of harbors on the lakes, kept water registers, some of them daily or three times a day. Of these were Capt. Macomb, (now Colonel,) Lieut. Judson, Col. J.B. Stockton, and Lieut. Col. Kearny. The head of the Topographical Bureau at Washington, Col. Abert, refused all aid and countenance, to these observations, although they showed a change of level, which rendered their reported soundings to be erroneous by several feet; for want of a fixed or mean plane of reference. It was not until Capt. (now General) Meade took charge of the lake survey, that regular daily water registers, were officially kept on the lakes. Prior to this time, many persons at different places
on the lake Michigan, lake Erie, and lake Ontario, had established points of reference, made frequent measurements, and kept a register of the same. Among these are John Lothrop, civil engineer, Buffalo, N.Y., I.A. Lapham, Milwaukee, George C. Davies, George Tiebout, and I.N. Pillsbury, at Cleveland, Dr. Douglass Houghton, A.E. Hathan,
and Jacob Houghton, Detroit, Edward Giddings, Niagara, T. P. Spencer, Rochester, and M.P. Hatch, Oswego.
From these sources and from my own observations, in all numbering some thousands, I have constructed a table of elevations, going back as far as there is any reliable information. The diagram which is here presented, expresses for Lake Erie, in a condensed form, addressed to the eye, such of these recorded measurements, as were made once a day or oftener, and were continued long enough to cover three or more consecutive months. They are all referred to a common zero, which is the Mitre sill, or bottom, of the enlarged Erie canal.
The curves and determined by an average of the observations for each month, expressed in feet and decimals; thus fixing a point in the middle of the column of months. Through each of these points a curve is drawn, representing a year or part of a year. Where there are blanks in the readings, the curves are continued by dotted line which are conjectural. This diagram is on a vertical scale of four feet to
the inch, a quarter of an inch representing one foot, which is divided by finer lines, into fifths or two-tenths of a foot. Each place where registers were kept, had a zero, or point of reference of its own, but these are reduced by means of consecutive readings to the one at Buffalo, as the most permanent. At Cleveland, we used the high water line of June, 1838, counting downwards. Several marks were made on the piers and warehouses at that time, all of which have disappeared, except one, on the wing wall of the canal lock, at the river. The plane of reference however, has been preserved by adopting it as the city zero, for engineering work, and multiplying bench marks in different parts of the town. Capt. B. Stannard has kept the registers here, for the lake survey since 1854.
A similar diagram might now be made for the years; taking the mean height of each period of twelve months as the ordinate, instead of one month, and thus show at a glance, the secular fluctuations. For the three best determined years, in my tables, the difference is as follows, counting downwards; the lake being on a declining stage of the water.
An examination of the curves at once demonstrates what I have already stated; that there is an annual spring rise and a winter fall in the surface of the lakes, like that of our large rivers. This annual difference between the highest and lowest months, is not precisely the same at all places.
These observations dispel the popular belief, derived from the Indians; that the lakes rise seven years and decline seven yeas. This could not be the case, unless the seasons should repeat themselves in every particular, in that period. In these tables there is not case of a change at seven, or at fourteen years.
From 1819 to 1838, there was a continual rise; a period of nineteen years. From 1838 to 1841, a decline; in 1841 a slight rise, and from 1842 to 1851, eight years, a regular decline. In 1853-54 there was a high stage; in the latter year for a short period fully up to the line of 1838. Since 1853, we can rely upon the water registers of the lake survey, for which an effort is now being made before Congress to have them published. By these it was discovered, after many thousands of observations on lake Michigan, by Lieut. Col. Graham and Prof. Lapham,
that there is a slight lunar tide on the lakes. It is too small for direct cognizance, being for ordinary tide at Chicago, only 153/1000 of a foot or 1 inch 84/100, for the spring tides 254/1000 or 3 inches 48/100.
For further reading: Encyclopedia of Cleveland History