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Friendly old foes: Niagara forts now under siege by tourists© By Hans Tammemagi
One spring afternoon I stood on the ramparts of Niagara-on-the-Lake's Fort George and, with the sun warming my back, gazed across at the stone walls of its old foe, Lewiston's Fort Niagara. The waters of the Niagara River sparkled with burnished gold as boats moved lazily toward the lake with their white sails billowing.
It was hard to imagine that two centuries ago on a fateful day in May 1813, this peaceful scene was a cauldron of fiery death. Fighting ships filled the water, cannons thundered, and red-hot grapeshot flashed across the river as fort fired on fort -- for they lie within easy cannonade of each other. The sturdy stone walls of Fort Niagara proved superior to the wooden palisades of Fort George, which were soon ablaze. When the sun set, the British were routed and Fort George was razed by the Americans.
But that was long ago. Today, the forts are still under siege, but by hordes of smiling tourists shooting cameras instead of muskets.
At first glance, the two forts appear to be mirror images of each other, defending opposite shores of the strategic Niagara River. As I was to learn on that sun-drenched afternoon, however, they have totally and delightfully different personalities.
First, there are significant physical differences. Fort George is wooden and Spartan. Roughly rectangular in shape, its walls are composed of wooden palisades supported by earthen embankments and ditches. Six bastions mounted with cannons provided the main defense.
In contrast, Fort Niagara is solid stone and has a distinct French flair. It consists of thick stone walls, a main citadel (referred to as the French Castle), two stone blockhouses or redoubts, and a formidable drawbridge. The French builders included beautiful stonework, massive wooden beams, delicate wood carvings, fireplaces and a chapel that have not lost any of their original elegance. You can imagine D'Artagnon and the three musketeers cavorting around with flashing sabres and flying capes.
The historical differences between the two forts are fascinating. Fort George, the Johnny-come-lately, has only been embroiled in one conflict, the War of 1812. It was built by the British from 1796 to 1799 to defend the Niagara area against invasion by the new, aggressive nation, the United States of America, and the fort served as the military headquarters for the region under the command of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock. Captured by the Americans in 1813, Fort George was recaptured by the British later that year. After the war, the fort fell into decay and was abandoned in the 1820s.
Fort George was reconstructed and opened as a historical tourist attraction in 1950, under the care of Parks Canada. Today it offers a wonderful insight into yesteryear with soldiers dressed in period uniforms performing drills, musket firing, and battle reenactments. You can also enjoy a fife-and-drum band, cooking demonstrations, and craftsmanship displays in the carpenter's and blacksmiths shops.
Fort Niagara is far older and, in fact, is the oldest building on the entire Great Lakes. It has played a significant role in three wars involving much of the history of eastern North America. The site was first fortified in 1679 by the French to protect the portage around Niagara Falls during the early days of exploration and fur trade. The present fort was built in 1726. Although the massive stone walls with their slits for cannons and the overhanging windows are obvious signs that this was intended as a fortress, the French pretended to the Seneca that they were merely building a trading post.
The French ownership of Fort Niagara lasted for just over three decades. In 1759 British and Iroquois forces laid siege and captured Fort Niagara, and soon after the once-dominant role of the French in North America came to an end. The British added two stone blockhouses and other fortifications.
During the American Revolution, the fort served as the military headquarters for the British. In 1796, however, the fort changed hands as it was turned over to the victorious Americans.
Fort Niagara played an important part in the War of 1812, toward the end of which it was attacked and captured by the British. Fort Niagara was returned to the Americans after hostilities ceased.
Today, Fort Niagara is operated as a historical museum on behalf of New York State by the Old Fort Niagara Association, and attracts about ten thousand people per year who enjoy the beautiful battlements, the museum, and the stories left behind by the soldiers of three nations.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.
Hans Tamemmagi: Fort Niagara, Fort George, View of Lake Ontario from Fort Niagara, French army band re-enactors, Fort Niagara
Mike Keenan: Fort George photographs
If you go
Contact the forts to find out about special events including fireworks, symphonies, murder-mystery dinners, and battle reenactments.
Fort George is open from Victoria Day until the end of October, from 9 or 10 am to 5 or 6 pm, depending on the season. 905 468-4257; link from www.niagaraonthelake.com
Fort Niagara is open all year from 9 am; closing varies from 7:30 (summer) to 4:30 pm (winter). Phone: 716 745-7611; www.oldfortniagara.org
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