By Randy Boswell, June 8, 2012
Recreated battle scene from the History Television documentary Explosion 1812, to be aired Sunday, June 17, 2012.
Photograph by: Handout , 2011 Yap 1812 Productions Inc.
This month’s 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812 will be marked with a colossal bang: the television premiere of Explosion 1812, a new documentary that argues the intentional detonation of Upper Canada’s main ammunition supply at present-day Toronto in April 1813 — described as “one of the biggest explosions that had ever been witnessed in North America” — is a greatly underappreciated moment in history that was key to thwarting the U.S. conquest of Canada.
The two-hour, Canadian-made film — to be aired by History Television on June 17, the eve of the bicentennial of the formal U.S. declaration of war on June 18, 1812 — recounts how retreating British-Canadian troops at Fort York blew up the colony’s “grand magazine” along the Lake Ontario shore as American forces closed in on Upper Canada’s capital on April 27, 1813.
The storytelling is framed by an archeological search for traces of the explosion, including the enormous crater known to have been left when the military storehouse was blown up, along with its considerable contents: an estimated 14,000 kilograms of black powder, 10,000 cannon balls and 30,000 cartridges.
The field investigation near today’s Fort York heritage site, led by Toronto archaeologist Ron Williamson, ultimately yielded several discoveries that shed new light on the events that took place 199 years ago — about a century before the Halifax Explosion of 1917 set a new global standard for catastrophic munition blasts.
Though U.S. forces temporarily seized York, the well-timed destruction of the ammunition depot just west of the pioneer settlement killed or maimed more than 250 American soldiers, deprived the attacking troops of a vital weapons cache that could have ensured the U.S. invasion’s long-term success, and covered the eastward escape of a major contingent of Upper Canada’s military to Kingston, Ont.
The story of the giant explosion is told partly through the eyes of a young boy, Patrick Finan, whose account of the fighting and the mammoth blast at York was also captured by the late Canadian writer Pierre Berton in his popular two-volume history of the war.
“The ground shakes and the world turns dazzling white,” Berton wrote of the magazine explosion in Flames Across the Border, published in 1981. “A prodigious roar splits the ears of the attackers as a gigantic cloud spurts from the blazing magazine to blossom in the sky. From this vast canopy there bursts in all directions an eruption of debris — great chunks of masonry, broken beams, gigantic boulders, rocks and stones of every size.”
This “little known and poorly understood” event, as it’s described in Explosion 1812, was in fact “the pivotal moment of the entire war,” according to the documentary’s executive producer, Elliott Halpern of Toronto-based Yap Films.
Mick Grogan, the Stratford, Ont.-based filmmaker who wrote and directed Explosion 1812, told Postmedia News on Friday that he was searching for “new and interesting insights and angles” in crafting his bicentennial take on the War of 1812. But the focus on the York explosion, noted the Oxford University history graduate, “was not just for novelty — it’s a genuinely under-reported aspect of the war.”
U.S. soldiers outraged at what they considered an act of extreme treachery — even a war crime because of their comrades’ fatal proximity to the explosion — went on a vengeful rampage in the captured capital, terrorizing the civilian population and pillaging residents’ property.Ê
Those actions, in turn, prompted a similar assault on Washington, D.C., in 1814, when the U.S. capital was stormed by British and Canadian troops who set fire to the White House.
Among the U.S. casualties at York was the famed commander of the invasion force, Gen. Zebulon Pike, an early explorer of the American West whose death — his chest crushed by falling rock from the blasted armoury — would be exploited to rally patriotic sentiment in the U.S. for the duration of the war.
As recently as 2009, Pike’s remains — transported across Lake Ontario after the battle and buried at Sackets Harbor, New York — were the subject of a controversial excavation proposal to confirm their exact location and identity.
But the greatest legacy of the destruction of York’s grand magazine was its profound impact on Canadian history, the filmmakers argue.
The undisciplined actions by vengeful American troops turned many Canadian colonists in York — a majority of them born in the U.S. and initially ambivalent about the outcome of the war — into ardent supporters of the British cause, according to historians interviewed for the documentary.
“There’s that moment in life when the place you were born is no longer your home — the place you’ve chosen to live as an adult becomes your home,” Williamson states in the film. “And it was that little muddy York and the events of 1813 that helped to solidify the identity of Canada.”