A One Tank Trip to Barcelona Harbor

By Larry Beahan, August 2010

Brilliant sunsets across shimmering waters, vineyards spilling from rolling green heights down to the water’s edge, a swimming beach, a tall, stone lighthouse perched atop bluffs, a snug little harbor sheltering fishing boats and sailing yachts, and you need board no crowded jet nor submit your shoes for inspection. This gorgeous land lays barely an hour southwest of Buffalo, our own Barcelona. Oh, to be there on a bright October Day, Lake Erie’s expanse before you, above, a green massif tinged red by maples. Hawks ride thermals there, vines bend with purple fruit and the air reels about you with delicious scent of grape.

When years ago I read that Napoleon offered to calm the Parisian mobs with “A whiff of grape,” I had no idea how mean-spirited a pun was his reference to the grapeshot of cannon, until I whiffed Concord grapes ripe for harvest in Westfield. A more cruel contrast is hard to imagine.

The wine tasting festival at the Johnson Estate on Route 20 a mile or so north of Barcelona was memorable. We stomped grapes, my son won a barrel-rolling contest and our grandchildren performed superbly in the grape seed spitting. My wife, Lyn, and I skipped the grape pie eating contest but gorged on samples of wine-cooked filet mignon and a variety of chocolate and wine combinations.

Barcelona, once known as Portland, is on the Lake Erie Shore where Route 5 crosses Route 394, the Portage Road south to Lake Chautauqua. When we are in a leisurely mood we take “The Seaway Trail” down Lake Erie’s shore on Route 5 through Angola, Silver Creek, the Seneca Reservation at Irving, and the harbor at Dunkirk. When we are in a hurry we zoom down the New York State Thruway and take Exit 60 onto 394. A left turn, the usual tourist way, takes you south through historic Westfield and Mayville to Chautauqua Lake and the world-famous Chautauqua Institution. Turn right, the less traveled way, and you are immediately in our enchanted Barcelona.

In fact, the Chautauqua Institution was the destination toward which Lyn and I were headed when we discovered Barcelona. We were planning to see a late-evening play at Chautauqua and we wanted a place to spend the night. Room and real-estate prices at Chautauqua are in the New York City and California range. So we looked for and found a little place at a reasonable rate just outside the hamlet of Barcelona. Eventually we bought the place.

Long before we or any Europeans got there, the Erie Indians appreciated the fish, the berries and the gentle climate of the Lake Erie shore enough to perch a summer village on the bluffs. The New York State Museum has excavated that site about halfway between Barcelona and Ripley to the west. There is nothing to see there but a modern cornfield and the vista enjoyed by the ancients.

Barcelona was a prime station on the Native American trade route along the Great Lakes and via portage to Chautauqua Lake, the Allegany, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

In 1679 the French were the first Europeans to explore Barcelona Harbor and its neighboring Chautauqua Creek. In 1753 their troops built a wagon road on the portage. It opened the whole middle of the North American continent to French conquest. In 1802 the first settlers moved in and in 1804 John McMahan built a grist mill on Chautauqua Creek. The first steamboat arrived in 1818. Two boats, the “Fashion” and the “Diamond,” established regular steamboat service to the developing port. The Barcelona Lighthouse was built in 1829, the first of the gas-powered lighthouses. It is 40 feet tall. The walls at its base are 3.5 feet thick, tapering to 2 at the top. Construction cost was $2,600 dollars. Now the tower and its quaint cottage are for sale at around three-quarters of a million.

Button’s Inn was established in 1823 to service the Portage Route. But the great brick Barcelona Inn was built in 1836 and lasted till a fire burned it down in 1961. The opening of the Erie Canal made Barcelona an important link in the nation’s westward surge. Even a trolley service was developed to meet the steamboats and carry passengers south.

Warehouses, stores and fishing camps grew up along the shore as Barcelona became a thriving commercial fishing port. Sailing vessels caught whitefish, herring, bass, and 50 pound sturgeon. Today’s recreational fishermen go after perch, pike, bass, and steelhead trout. A weathered old building labeled “Westfield Fisheries” is still there dispensing its famous whitefish cured, in smoke, on the premises.

In 1846 the federal government began but never completed a breakwall. The Army Corps of Engineers built a first class pier and harbor of refuge in time for modern recreational boaters. Monroe Marina provides dockage and all the rest of a mariner’s needs except for food and drink. Those needs are serviced by Zebro’s Harbor House with its beachfront view and bar hung with nets and decorated with boats. It serves full course meals with a specialty of fish. Jack’s across the way is the place for shorter orders. Try their fried perch sandwiches or all you can eat spaghetti.

Dramatic forty to fifty-foot-high bluffs of gray rock make up most of this part of the shore but at Barcelona the land dips down to the water and provides a long curving sand beach. It is fine for swimming, canoeing and kayaking. Paddling beneath the bluffs gives a strange other-worldly sensation as if you are following a castle wall. In an off-shore wind you may be sheltered in calm while a short way out the water is very choppy. When the wind is heavy and on shore, beware. Surf breaking against the bluffs makes for fearsome explosions. Then it is no place to be in a boat.

Barcelona and its surrounds open a rent into a time warp with all their history, archeology and the 19th–century-living Amish. But I nearly forgot to tell you about the ancient “Sea Lion.” It is a three masted sailing vessel built of local white oak to a 16th century British design. We had the opportunity to board her on shore, under construction. When she was afloat, under sail but becalmed in Chautauqua Lake we circled her in our canoe. We visited her docked in Buffalo before she sank and had to be rescued. Now the Sea Lion stands proudly above Barcelona harbor, wearing a new coat of paint and awaiting refitting before going back to sea once more.

Go visit the Sea Lion, picnic in her shade. Try for a whiff of grape. Enjoy a day in the sun at our very own Barcelona.

Larry Beahan, a physician, lives near Buffalo, New York, with his wife, Lyn. He is a freelance writer, published in Adirondac, the Allegany Historian, and the Buffalo News, and has authored four books, all available online at Amazon.com and at local stores including the Chautauqua Bookstore.