On-Erie Beach

On-Erie Beach played a significant role in the African American community in Northeast Ohio from the 1920s to the 1940s. Located in western Lorain, the beach may have been the only African American owned and operated beach in the area. On-Erie Beach lay along State Route 2, near present-day West 21st and Martin Drive. The beach was also near Stop 110 on the Lakeshore Electric Railway, now Franke Drive. A round trip there by interurban cost of 60 cents in 1934, worth roughly $12 in 2021. 

Early on, On-Erie Beach was sometimes referred to as “Erie-on-the-Beach,” one of a string of various names it acquired over the years. The beach was intended as a “summer colony,” an exclusively African American summer resort, with various privately owned cabins on site. The site was 33 acres in size, and a 3½ acre plot for a summer home was sold early on to the Phillis Wheatley Society, which helped young African American women find jobs.

The beach was founded in 1922 by Margaret Barnes, a native of Kentucky who had moved to Oberlin after marriage, as a “utopia” exclusively for African Americans. Margaret Barnes was a trustee of Wilberforce College, and also founded a Welfare Club which bore her name in Elyria, which provided college scholarships to African American graduates of Elyria High School. The club was still active in the 1990s.

Nationwide in the 1920s, African Americans created private beach resorts that offered safe places of recreation to their communities. Many of these resorts were located in coastal regions in the South. Such resorts were racially separate facilities, which offered African Americans safe havens from discrimination where they could reclaim their sense of self and community. Real estate was one of the few industries in which African American business people could easily participate at this time, and as a result creating resorts, amusement parks, and other such attractions also became common business venture. However, the very instability of the recreation industry which allowed African Americans entrance also doomed many such undertakings.

The Lorain Tornado of 1924 caused severe damage to the beach’s cabins, but luckily none of the visitors were injured in the storm. The storm did tremendous damage to Lorain, and left 7,500 residents homeless in the aftermath.

Lakeshore Electric Railway Map, Showing Stop 110 | Richard A. Eagen Papers, Cleveland State University Special Collections

The beach was a popular spot for recreation in the 1930s. It hosted an annual picnic spot for local Republicans of the 17th Ward, including the Lady Republicans and the Boosters Club. Recreation at the beach included not only swimming, but baseball and dancing as well. African American employees of the May Company in Cleveland also picnicked at the beach, on a trip which included free transportation, probably via chartered interurban, and free food. Even organizations from as far away as Ravenna made the trip to the beach.

In 1937, On-Erie Beach changed ownership, a sign that the venerable company was having problems amid the Great Depression, and at this point it became known simply as Erie Beach. These problems were no doubt made worse a year later, On-Erie Beach lost its interurban connection as the Lakeshore Electric Railway service ended and the line was torn up. However, the interurban era lived on in an interesting way at the beach: it purchased the bodies of three interurban cars, built by Niles Car Company between 1906 and 1907, which were converted into cabins for the beach’s patrons. 

The loss of public transport, along with gasoline rationing and travel restrictions during World War II, contributed to On-Erie Beach’s decline. Without easy access for either the Oberlin or Cleveland communities that supported the beach, it could not continue as a privately owned beach.

Interurban car body used as cabin at On-Erie Beach | Dennis Lamont

In 1943, the Phillis Wheatley Society at On-Erie Beach campaigned to have its land purchased by the state as a public park, but this effort but failed. A lack of further mentions of the beach seem to suggest it was abandoned sometime around the end of World War II. Certainly, with increased mobility thanks to automobiles changing the recreation patterns of vacationers after the war, and the beginning of Civil Rights movements pushing for desegregation of larger, white-dominated beaches, On-Erie Beach would have a loss of patrons postwar as well.

The beach’s structures were still extant in 1952, but by the 1960s had been largely demolished. Evidence suggests that they were demolished as the result of work to reconstruct Lake Road in the 1950s, to eliminate a dangerous S curve under a bridge. This curve had been causing accidents since the 1920s at the “Undergrade”: the Lakeshore Electric had run alongside the road and suffered many derailments there. In the 1950s, Lake Road was widened to four lanes, and given wider curves approaching the bridge, which likely overlapped the former site of On-Erie Beach.

Approximate site of On-Erie Beach, ca. 2017 | Google Maps

Green Book Details

Smith’s Manor appears in the Green Book between 1939 and 1946 at On-Erie Beach under the category Tourist Homes.

Resources

  • Bush, Gregory W. White Sand Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami’s Virginia Key. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016.
  • “This Daring Colored Girl.” Call & Post. September 1, 1934.
  • “17th Precinct M Gives Outing.” Call & Post. September 8, 1934. 
  • “May Co. Employees Frolic at On-Erie Beach.” Call & Post. July 18, 1935.
  • “17th Ward Picnic at Erie Beach on Sunday.” Call & Post. July 23, 1936.
  • “Grand Opening July 4th & 5th Erie Beach.” Call & Post. July 1, 1937.
  • “Annual Meeting of On-the-Erie Beach Stockholders.” Cleveland Gazette. January 14, 1922.
  • “Mr & Mrs’ Frank Scott’s Cottage at On-the-Erie Beach injured by recent Lorain Cyclone.” Cleveland Gazette. August 2, 1924.
  • Daniels, Carmen. “Ravenna News.” Call & Post. August 12, 1937. 
  • “Summer Park for Colored People.” Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. March 27, 1925.
  • Ervin, Kevin. “75 Dead, 1500 Injured; The Lorain Tornado: 45 Years Ago Today.” Lorain Journal. June 28, 1969.
  • Kahrl, Andrew W. The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016. 
  • “Anti-Gambling ‘Bite’ Asked by 3 Pastors.” Mansfield News Journal. March 24, 1943.
  • “New Negro Utopia Now Under Way in Ohio.” Mattoon Journal Gazette [Mattoon, IL]. April 20, 1925.
  • “Barnes, Margaret Elizabeth Sallee”, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/682.
  • Penfield, Drew. “Lorain Page 3.” Lakeshore Rail Maps. https://www.lakeshorerailmaps.com/lorain_page_three.htm
  • “Franke Drive, Lorain, OH.” Historic Aerials. https://www.historicaerials.com/viewer.
  • Stanonis, Anthony J. Faith in Bikinis: Politics and Leisure in the Coastal South since the Civil War. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2014. 
Martin Dr, Lorain, OH (location is approximate)