Travel: Exploring the War of 1812 battlefields in Niagara

  1. Saturday, June 23, 2012
Bill Bean, Record staff

NIAGARA FALLS, ONT. — Two hundred years after American invaders first breached the Niagara frontier, the people there are awaiting another invasion — and hoping that you will be among the invaders.

The Bicentennial of the War of 1812 isn’t just a $28 million federal government investment in historical remembrance: it’s an investment in tourism that is expected to be repaid from now through 2014.

The war was supposed to be between the United States and Britain, but since London was too far away to attack, the Americans decided to punish Britain by conquering its North American possessions. And for many reasons, the Niagara frontier was action central for the conflict.

There were more invasions, more occupations, more homes destroyed and more blood spilled in battle at sites between Fort Erie and what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake than at any other point of contact between the two countries. It should be a surprise that the descendants of the victims on either side of the Niagara River today speak to each other.

What should not be a surprise is that the Canadian side of the river — already a tourist destination with the falls, casinos, golf courses, theatre and wineries — is rich with 1812 historic sites, museums, displays, self-guided tours, monuments and costumed tale-tellers.

And for those of us living in Waterloo Region, Guelph and Wellington County, it’s just a few hours drive away.

Planning your visit

Take a day trip or stay overnight and you can experience the highlights of a conflict that helped to forged two national identities.

The 1812 attractions of Niagara can be roughly grouped into two categories: self-guided sites where you do the thinking and guided sites and museums where someone else does the thinking.

It would be a challenge to see all of these sites in a day or two. You can use the list blow to help narrow the choices.

Guided sites and museums

Old Fort Erie

The restored stone and earthen fort where the Niagara River flows out of Lake Erie was occupied, destroyed and rebuilt by both the Americans and the British during the war. With its multi-million-dollar welcome centre and theatre, Fort Erie is the key 1812 location operated by the Niagara Parks Commission, an Ontario government agency.

The welcome centre features a theatre and artifacts. The grounds of the fort are littered with the blue paper cartridge sleeves tossed aside during the many musket demonstrations. Admission are $12.25 for adults and $7.95 for children. Or there is a $20.12 multipass that allows you admission to other sites.

The film and guided tour take about an hour, although it is easy to spend more time wandering the stone museum, kitchen and barracks, or enjoying a picnic lunch on the grassy slopes overlooking the Niagara River. Old Fort Erie is hosting North America’s largest Bicentennial parade today, with 80 units including marching bands, re-enactors and floats. The parade ends with an evening military tattoo and fireworks at the fort.

Also this year, the annual Siege of Fort Erie will be a “signature event,” with hundreds of re-enactors, musket and cannon firings and fireworks, on the weekend of Aug. 11-12.

Fort George

This national historic site in Niagara-on-the-Lake features costumed interpreters, parade ground drill and black powder demonstrations. Costumed guides are well-versed in the history of the site.

This fort, too, changed hands during the war and was damaged and rebuilt. It is a significant 1812 site in Canada and will this year host a Bicentennial concert with the New Pornographers and the Tragically Hip at Butler’s Barracks on June 30.

Also planned are a Canada Day fete (July 1), a tall ships visit with costumed sailors (July 14-15), a Bicentennial military music competition with fife and drum corps and 1812 drill teams from the United States and Canada (Aug. 18-19) and a funeral parade for Canada’s best-known 1812 hero, Major General Sir Isaac Brock (Oct. 14).

As well, a 35-minute projected sound and light show, Flames of War, will be shown Friday, Saturday and Monday evenings from July to October.

Fort admission is $11.70 for adults and $5.80 for young people. Parking is $5.90 per vehicle.

Smaller sites

The Laura Secord Homestead is in Queenston, north of Niagara Falls and just below Queenston Heights Park. The small clapboard house was the residence of the Canadian heroine from 1803 to 1835 and the starting point for her famous walk. Costumed staff will answer questions and speak about living conditions in the period. The ticket office, of course, sells Laura Secord products. Admission is $9.50 for adults and $6.50 for children — but free with the multipass that includes Old Fort Erie.

The McFarland House is along the Niagara River, south of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The house, built in 1800, was occupied by both the British and Americans during the war and used as a hospital and headquarters. Costumed staff conduct tours, but a key attraction is the tea room, with its VQA wine list. Admission is $5 for adults or $3.75 for children — also free with the multipass that includes Old Fort Erie.

The Niagara Falls History Museum is located in central Niagara Falls. The former Lundy’s Lane Historical Museum, now closed for renovations, will reopen on July 21, renamed the Niagara Falls History Museum. Its 1812 collection occupies part of the main floor. More artifacts can be found at the 1830s tavern now known as the Battle Ground Hotel Museum, which is just up the street, Lundy’s Lane, and across from a cemetery that was once the Lundy’s Lane battlefield. The Battle Ground museum is also currently closed, due to road work. Joint admission to both museums is $5 for adult and $4 for youth.

Self-guided sites

Queenston Heights Park

This sprawling park is situated on the Niagara Parkway, a few kilometres north of the falls and roughly midway between Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s the site of Brock’s Monument, the Battle of Queenston Heights national historic site and the ramparts of Fort Drummond. It also has playgrounds, tennis courts, walking trails, a bandshell and a restaurant.

The park is known for its stunning views of the lower Niagara River (take your camera). A 14-page booklet (available from the shop at the base of Brock’s Monument) guides you through a walking tour of the Battle of Queenston Heights, in which Sir Isaac Brock was killed.

You can also walk down steps (45 minutes) to the Niagara River and look back up at Queenston Heights, wondering how the heavily laden American troops were able to scramble up there in 1812. Or you can wait for the Oct. 13 recreation of the battle, which is expected to attract hundreds of musket-toting re-enactors from around North America, and end with fireworks. Admission to the park is free (parking as well), but there is a charge to climb the 56-metre Brock’s monument ($4.50 adult; $3.50 youth).

Chippewa Battlefield Park

This 121-hectare (300-acre) field is located near the former village of Chippewa, a few kilometres south of Niagara Falls on the Niagara Parkway. The site is framed by trees and features a monument and colourful plaques that help one to understand the troop movements on July 5, 1814 when 2,000 British, Canadian and Native men faced 3,500 American troops and volunteers.

One can imagine the shouts coming from the trees and the men falling into the field. Some 200 of the dead on both sides are buried here under the waving grasses. A memorial service with trooping of the colours and a musket drill is held here every July 5, this year at 7 p.m. Free admission and free parking.

Drummond Hill Cemetery

Located in central Niagara Falls, this national historic site was the setting for the conflict’s bloodiest battle, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, and is the burial place of several 1812 figures, including Laura Secord. There are plaques aplenty, but a visitor should come prepared with an imagination or a reference book. Walking to the base of the “hill,” it is hard today to imagine that 6,000 men once toiled to possess the top of this trifling mound, leaving 1,600 dead, wounded or missing. Admission is free. Parking sites are very limited.

Fort Mississauga

This boxy military tower at Niagara-on-the-Lake was built from the rubble after Americans burned the town to the ground. It is a national historic site and situated on the grounds of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Course, accessible to visitors by a signed trail. The trail continues to the Lake Ontario shoreline site of the American amphibious landings and attack on Fort George on May 27, 1813. It’s a 90-minute (return) walk to the point where ship-board cannons and musketry from the Americans left British troops and Canadian militia lying on the turf above the Lake Ontario shore. Even on a hazy day, the Toronto skyline is visible, as are the numerous signs advising visitors to “watch for golfers.” Admission free and free parking available on nearby streets.

Bill Bean is the Record’s assistant editor. He grew up outside of Niagara Falls and remains keenly interested in military history along the Niagara River.

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