ERIE, Pa. (AP) - On Horseshoe Pond, Mike Hirsch’s doorbell is a car horn and his second bathroom is in a lighthouse, or at least a replica of one.
Sunfish get caught through a hatch in the kitchen floor, and a beaver tried to establish a pantry beneath it. Turtles swim by, and eagles fly overhead. Hirsch has invited friends out to play ice hockey and watched meteor showers.
He and his wife, Carol, own one of 24 houseboats anchored in the pond near the east end of Presque Isle State Park. Like boaters at a marina, houseboat owners lease their spots. But unlike other boats, the floating houses stay put and offer owners a scenic place to get away to.
“I love the mornings out here when you wake up and nobody’s on the park and you know you have the park to yourself and the wildlife’s coming out,” Hirsch, 53, of Erie, said.
A few houseboats over, Tom and Nancy Bloom, both 74 and of Greene Township, enjoy relaxing or entertaining children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“We look at this as our little paradise,” Nancy Bloom said. “It’s just a nice place to be.”
She likes to cook a big breakfast in the kitchen before the grandchildren head out for morning rides on the family Jet Skis or go off to nearby Beach 11.
On her own, Nancy Bloom likes reading in a chair on the deck that surrounds all four sides of the small house. To the north is park land, to the east is a park road that runs along the pond, to the south is the U.S. Coast Guard station, and to the west is an opening to Misery Bay and Presque Isle Bay.
Houseboats, which have a long history in the Erie area, weren’t originally on Horseshoe Pond.
“They were scattered all over Presque Isle Bay,” said Harry Leslie, the park’s operations manager.
“They were really the poor man’s vacation home,” Leslie said.
He said there was a plan to get rid of them, especially those in Misery Bay, during the middle of the 20th century. Instead, they were moved to Horseshoe Pond in the 1960s.
“They represent a time and piece of history of Erie’s maritime community,” Leslie said.
He said no residents now reside on them full-time. But owners can come, go and stay when the park is closed to the public.
The houseboats have numbers from 1 to 29, but five numbers are missing because they weren’t all relocated, said Tom Bloom, who has been Houseboat Owners Association president for 18 years. Numbers were drawn from a hat to determine location, he said, which explains why his No. 28 is next to No. 4.
His original houseboat was 100 years old when he bought it in 1981. He built a new one in 2006 at a cost of $80,000. It has a cathedral ceiling in the living area along with a couch, TV and boat-shaped coffee table. There’s a kitchen, a bathroom, a workroom and a dining area where the hanging light sways above the table when the houseboat shifts in a breeze.
“You got to get used to things moving a little bit,” Tom Bloom said.
The movement is more side to side and less up and down.
Things are often smaller on a houseboat, Nancy Bloom said, as she pointed to mini blades on the ceiling fan in the master bedroom, known as the “captain’s quarters.” The “crew’s quarters” room has two sets of bunk beds.
Beds, refrigerator and stove were put on board in winter. Appliances were loaded onto a small boat that was slid across the ice. Supplies like food also have to be transported over water, and garbage has to be removed.
“There’s a lot of myths of what goes on out here,” Hirsch said.
One is that waste from houseboats goes into Horseshoe Pond. Another is that houseboats are passed down through families and can’t be sold.
The men said it doesn’t happen often, but houseboats are sold. Their availability is usually shared by word of mouth.
While the price to buy one varies, yearly rent paid to the state by all of the owners is between $900 and $1,000, the men said.
Hirsch purchased his in 2000 for $50,000 and said he’s put an unknown amount of money into improving it, including adding an enclosed addition with a futon for sleeping.
His house is 3 feet shy of the 1,000-square-foot limit, he said. Owners are allowed another 1,000 square feet of deck.
Houses are also limited to a single story, although one owner did somehow manage to work in a second floor, the men said.
Anchors screwed into the pond’s bottom and cables prevent Tom Bloom’s houseboat from floating away. It stays up using a system of steel pipes and plastic barrels he designed himself. He said plastic barrels last longer than steel ones. Another houseboat sits on empty fuel tanks.
“Everybody’s got their own system for flotation, anchoring, waste,” Hirsch said.
He has two ways of dealing with human waste. One bathroom, with a Coast Guard-approved electric toilet, is inside. Hirsch said users insert a special paper liner, “take care of business,” and then the waste drops into a combustion chamber where it incinerates, leaving ash that goes out with the trash.
He said emptying it is “less disgusting than a cigarette ashtray.”
For his second bathroom, he had a replica of the North Pier Light built around the guts of a portable toilet. Painted black and white like the little lighthouse on the nearby North Pier, the toilet sits on a barge. Hirsch can unhook it from the houseboat deck and, using his boat, tow the toilet to shore on a calm day to have it pumped empty.
Houseboat owners are careful about keeping any kind of waste out of the water, he said.
“Everybody is protective of the pond,” Hirsch said.
He can shower on his houseboat, where water is available between spring and fall, but he doesn’t use soap. If he wants to shampoo his hair, he heads to park showers at Beach 11.
Leslie said the houseboat owners are “model citizens” and take good care of the area. “They don’t want the Horseshoe Pond polluted because that’s where their grandchildren swim,” he said.
The water is also where the wires run that carry electricity to the houseboats.
Hirsch’s has electric baseboard heating, but the floor isn’t insulated and the building gets cold in winter. He and his wife still use it then. It can serve as their base when they cross-country ski to Gull Point, and last winter Mike Hirsch gathered friends for a couple weekends of hockey on the ice next to his houseboat.
Ironically, the milder the winter, the less opportunity people might have for using their houseboats.
When the pond ice is thick enough, people just walk across it. But sometimes the ice isn’t sturdy enough to walk on but is too thick to get a rowboat through, Hirsch said.
Joining the Hirsches on their houseboat are cat Tillie, who spends time on the deck watching seagulls, and dog Yahtzee, who has her own ramp for getting in and out of the pond. Common map turtles also make use of the ramp, with up to 30 basking in the sun on it.
“We’ve got a community of sunfish that live under here,” Hirsch said.
They can be caught through the 2-foot-square hatch in the floor.
He also sees beaver and once, while inspecting the underside of the floating structure, found where one of the creatures had started storing its sticks. (backslash)u00d
Hirsch said he and his wife usually spend two to four summer nights a week on the houseboat. Visitors signal their arrival with the honk of a car horn so Hirsch knows to go get them in one of his boats.
The houseboats aren’t all fun, however. Owners are responsible for maintenance and upkeep. It’s not uncommon during the day to hear the hum of a compressor running as someone uses it to blow air into and water out of barrels or tanks.
Tom Bloom usually puts on a wet suit in August to dive under his houseboat and check the approximately 60 barrels.
Owners have a saying that each hour of pleasure costs an hour of work.
Leslie said the houseboats are another unique feature of the state park.
While he doesn’t anticipate the number increasing above 24, Leslie said houses will continue to float on Horseshoe Pond.
“I think they’ll be here a long time,” he said.
Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com
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