Monday, March 22, 2021

Fort to Fort Trail : Niagara Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake

Having ventured along the Fort to Fort and Niagara Freedom Trail from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls on our first day along the Niagara Parkway Trail we were ready to continue on to Niagara-on-the-Lake today. 

At the outset of our second day on the Niagara section of The Great Trail we picked up our hike at the northern end of town trekking from the KOA campground, down through Clifton Hill back to the water’s edge overlooking the iconic Niagara Falls.  Clifton Hill is a developed tourist district in the town of Niagara Falls dedicated to youthful play and entertainment composed of the Niagara Skywheel, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, mystery mazes, and brightly lit arcades.

Back on the banks of the Niagara River we rejoined the Niagara Parkway Recreation Trail.  Heading northward our route followed the sidewalk taking us under the Rainbow International Bridge, past the Canadian border services buildings, and into the quiet (or quieter) residential section of town.

As we continued on the trail wove between being on the sidewalk and following along a shaded pathway alongside the banks of the gorge overlooking the Niagara River – marking a difference from yesterday’s trek from Fort Erie to Niagara Falls.  

Throughout much of the early morning our route followed the Niagara Parkway weaving along the edge of the local residential neighbourhoods and lodging possibilities which dot the shoreline.  The path continued under the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge which serves as the international connection for passenger trains crossing between Ontario and New York.

In this stretch we located two commemorative information panels to Harriet Tubman, which detail her life from her time as a slave in Maryland to her crossing into Canada to her role helping other former slaves escape into British Canada.   This plaque was installed in 2017 by the Niagara Parks Commission who sought to commemorate Harriet Tubman’s first crossing into Canada in 1856. 

Tubman, is an icon of the Underground Railway, who began helping escaped slaves to Canada after the passage of the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which led to the hunting, arrest, and kidnapping of former slaves, and free Black persons in both northern American states and neighbouring British territories.  The commemoration  of Tubman’s crossing is the result of an enthusiastic petition from students of the Harriet Tubman and Lockview Public schools in St. Catharines. 

While the actions of Harriet Tubman are of incalculable historical and cultural importance as the most recognizable conductor of the Underground Railway.  A recent article from Audubon by Allison Keyes entitled "Harriet Tubman, an Unsung Naturalist, Used Owl Calls as a Signal on the Underground Railroad exploring how Harriet Tubman was also an unsung naturalist who utilized not only her knowledge of the region’s environment and wildlife to survive, but who used owl calls as a as a signal on the Underground Railroad to aid in the freeing of slaves. Throughout the author details that, while many people know of Harriet Tubman’s work as a “scout, spy, and ….nurse” few know about her talents as a naturalist and birder who used local owl calls to alert slaves seeking freedom on their way north to Canada as to whether it was safe or not to continue.  In particular the author details how Tubman’s  talents as a naturalist and use of regional owls would have been essential given the amount of covert and night travel that she would have undertaken. Very cool, to think that at the heart of Black Canadian History is a birder!

Also north of the Whirlpool Bridge is the Buddhist Temple known as the Ten Thousand Buddhas Sarira Stupa.  This site, with its unique building shape stands well in relation to the natural beauty of the region and in contrast to the busy traffic of the roadways and rail lines nearby.   While both of us have always wanted to visit a Buddhist Temple we have never had the courage to walk up and ask.  Unfortunately today was no different, and rather than expanding our understanding of this amazing culture we continued on. 

As we ventured on we both noticed that the water of the Niagara River, how well below us in the gorge carved by millennia of erosion, no longer appeared as the calm river we had followed yesterday.  Instead throughout this stretch it was a frothing and turbulent scene of whirlpools and rapids that spread through the narrows. 


Still traversing along the local sidewalk we continued past the seemingly never ending stretch of hotels and motels along the Niagara Parkway road we soon came to the Whirlpool Rapids Gorge and the location of the iconic Whirlpool Aero Car across from the imposing structure of the popular Great Wolf Lodge.


The iconic cable car, originally known as the Niagara Spanish Aero Car, and later renamed as the Whirlpool Aero Car, was designed by Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres Quevedo and opened in 1916.  It is the only such vehicle in existence and for a small fee anyone can ride in the small red ‘car’ suspended by wires over the Niagara Gorge.

From here the trail followed alongside a wonderfully shaded stretch through Whirlpool River Park, in which we took refuge from the sun.  Amid the green space we trekked along the edge of we could see the Whirlpool Trail which meandered down the side of the gorge below us to the water’s edge.  While it was tempting to go below and visit Whirlpool beach, with so much hiking to do today day and so much still to see we continued on.

Emerging out of the shaded forest, we were back along the Niagara Parkway where we would trek alongside another sprawling golf course before intersecting with the other end of the Whirlpool Aero Car at Thompson’s Point.  Here the trail crossed the Parkway road and took us past the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, which is also the home to Canada’s only school of Horticulture (est. 1936).  Deviating from our path we wandered through the well manicured gardens and enjoyed the work undertaken by the student residents.


We soon found ourselves at the entrance to the Butterfly Conservatory beside which there was a sign indicating that there was a nearby refreshment stand which promised cold drinks.



Enticed we paid for admission and entered taking the time to explore and tour a facility which is one of the largest glass enclosed butterfly conservatories in North America.  Here we toured amid the paved indoor pathway around the luscious green interior seeing dozens of different types of butterflies! Having spent over an hour enjoying the various butterflies in the conservatory we headed back onto the trail, after having our second cold drink.

Back alongside the busy roadway the trail took us over the impressive Sir Adam Beck Generating Station, which is both an operating power station and a National Historic Site.  Built in the 1920s and completed in 1930, it was (for a time) the world’s largest hydroelectric generating station and was the first large hydro-electric project in the world spanning between the Niagara River, manufactured Hydro Canal and the Station Reservoir.  This station was created in response to increasing urban and industrial demands for more electrical power in Toronto and southwestern Ontario.

Having crossed over both stations we came to the beautiful Niagara Floral Clock display.  Here, a large clock face made of arrangements of flowerbeds which are changed twice a season with violas planted in the spring and traditional landscaping and perennials being placed in early summer season.  This site was initially built in 1950 by Ontario Hydro and is annually maintained by the Niagara Parks Commission.  The clock garden spans 12.2 meters in diameter and is considered one of the largest in the world.

After admiring the gardens here we ventured back across the Parkway to follow along the shaded edge of the trail which took us under the Lewiston-Queenston bridge, around the Locust Grove Picnic area, and briefly into Queenston Heights Park.

While we would be returning to Queenston Heights tomorrow to continue westward we nonetheless took the occasion to explore the park for a few minutes.  This region is the site of the Battle of Queenston Heights which was an important confrontation during the War of 1812 during which American soldiers invaded British Canada.  Our meanderings here took us around perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the region - Brock’s Monument which is structure that is 56 meters or 184 feet tall, and which has dominated the region since its completion in 1856. 

We also took a moment to acquaint ourselves with the Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque near to the Brock Monument detailing the role of a Black militia during the War of 1812.  Deemed “The Colored Corps”, the Heritage plaque notes that when conflict broke out between Britain and the United States in 1812, those of African descent in the Niagara region feared for their safety and being forced into slavery.  In order to preserve their freedom, and to prove their loyalty to the crown many Black citizens joined local militias while others raised their own company.  

“The Colored Corps” was composed of approximately 30 men and was commanded by white officers.  This unit fought throughout the War of 1812 and in the Battle of Queenston heights as well as at the Siege of Fort George. Their bravery set a precedent leading to Black units being a part of the British Canadian Military until the First World War. Once again we were fascinated by this piece of Canadian history that neither of us had heard before. 

Knowing that we would pass through this iconic site again we soon ventured on down a staircase through a forested space into the historic Town of Queenston.  This community is believed to have been named after Lt Gov. John Graves Simcoe’s regiment the Queen’s Rangers which at one time were stationed nearby in 1792.  The town is composed of quaint historic houses, as well as the Mackenzie Printery, Newspaper Museum and Laura Secord Homestead, and also originally included West or Lower Landing where wharves and storehouses served as the centre of a shipping and hauling business.


Near to the bottom of the staircase and beginning of town we came to the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum for The Colonial Advocate.  While not open to explore, this site was familiar to us as Sean’s academic background was once in Canadian Print Culture with a focus on many of the first and most influential colonial newspapers.  The building at this location served as the home of William Lyon Mackenzie, Scotsman, immigrant, general store owner and newspaper publisher.  The publication is important for advocating reform and promoting the establishment of responsible government a position which served to influence the politics and public opinion of the day. 

Continuing through town we next came to the Laura Secord Homestead which is (unsurprisingly) the historical estate of Laura and James Secord, both United Empire Loyalists.  Laura Secord, whose route we will follow from Queenston Heights to St. Catharines was the one she trod while, risking her own life on June 22, 1813 when she covered 19 miles to convey information on American military activities to the British Commander, Captain Fitzgibbon at DeCew farmhouse.  Her actions and the information she carried was essential to the British victory at Beaver Dams.  Laura Secord is held as one of Canada’s heroines and exemplar women who contributed to the history of the nation.  Her house and this site was restored in 1971 as serves as an educational centre and tourist point. 

From here our route wove through town past Willowbank Estate, the RiverBrink Art Museum and the veterans memorial and were soon back alongside the Niagara Parkway.  Once beyond the Town of Queenston we found the National Historic Site of Vrooman’s Battery, a strategic position and important location during the Battle of Queenston Heights as it was a location from which British cannon harassed American troops crossing from Lewiston NY.  

Throughout much of this stretch we walked along the Niagara Parkway between houses which dotted both sides of the roadway.  Beyond these it was clear that the landscape had again changed as we were now amid the expansive vineyards and wineries of the region.  As we trekked each field and building was signed with recognizable names such as Inniskillin, Reif Estate, and Jackson-Triggs.  Each of these estates seemed to come with the obligatory large mansion, sprawling wine making complexes and an attempt to make each appear to have a long standing historical connection to the region. 



As we proceeded our path, from time to time, veered into the woods and green spaces along the river banks providing us with welcome shade and relief from the day’s sun.


At one point we took a break at Walker’s Country Market, a cozy stopping point for fruits, vegetables and cold drinks.  Here we enjoyed a moment in the shade of the Living Water Wayside Chapel.  This small church can fit about 6 individuals inside and lays claim to being the Guinness World Record holder for being the world’s smallest chapel. 


Refreshed and cooler for out time off the pathway and out of the sun we resumed trekking along the Niagara Parkway and soon found ourselves at the McFarland House historical site and Tea Room.  This   Georgian Style residence was built in 1800 by John McFarland and his family and is one of the oldest surviving structures in the Niagara region.  During the War of 1812 it was used as a hospital site by both the British and American forces and is now used by the Niagara Parks commission to teach visitors about the history of the period. 


Our route next took us through McFarland Park and through the blissfully shaded treed stretch of the Niagara Parkway Recreational Trail to Fort George and the edge of the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

Arriving to the Fort George National Historic Site the trail took us around the fortifications to the main entrance giving us a sense of the scope of the garrison.

Fort George was originally established between 1796 and 1799 at the order of Lieutenant Governor John Simcoe to replace Fort Niagara across the waterway which had been abdicated to the newly formed United States government.  In the years that followed it was developed from being a supply depot towards protecting the region.  In 1812 with the outbreak of hostilities, Fort George initially served as the headquarters for Major-General Brock and was used as a military outpost that defended Upper Canada against American attacks.

In 1813 it was captured by the Americas but was later retaken by the British in December of the same year.  Though recaptured, with the cessation of hostilities between Britain and America the damaged fort was not maintained.  Instead it was abandoned in 1814.  The property was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1921 and during the 1930s a reconstruction of the original fort was built.  Interestingly this Fort serves not only as a means to explore colonial British and War of 1812 history but also as a way to see how early historical recreations where undertaken in the 1930s - making it a 2 tier historical site. 



Here we took several hours and explored the defensive earthworks, palisades, battlements, and canon positions which are unnervingly pointed at America.  We also ventured through the large blockhouses, gunpowder magazine (the only existing part of the original Fort George), officer’s quarters and dining hall.  

Outside we were fortunate to enjoy the day’s re-enactment of a military engagement culminating in the firing of period guns by Parks Canada staff dressed as British Red Coat Soldiers. 




Our tour of Fort George also took us back to the waterfront were we located Navy Hall, the site of a number of historical plaques and memorials. Navy hall was a shipyard, storehouse and dock which was a depot for local supplies prior to serving as the residence for the Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe from 1792 to 1796 and which were later destroyed by the American military in 1812. 

A short walk further on we entered into the community of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which is a beautiful Victorian and Loyalist town site, most frequently associated with its immaculate downtown, the iconic Prince of Wales Hotel, and the Shaw Festival Theatre. 

In town we took the opportunity to stray from the pathway and visit the Parliament Oak School, which was once the site of the colony’s first parliament.   It was in this location that on May 21st, 1793 that Upper Canada’s first Governor General, John Graves Simcoe, issued the Act to Limit Slavery (1793).   Historical accounts suggest that Simcoe was inspired upon hearing of a British Canadian slave owner selling a Black woman to an American.  It is believed that while Simcoe had hoped to eliminate slavery, the reality was that many of his colleagues were Loyalists who had moved from America during the revolution and so also owned and had brought their slaves with them.  As a result he compromised and proposed banning the expansion of slavery and preventing the introduction of new slaves while allowing those that were already in slavery to remain so.   The Act to Limit Slavery was the first such piece of legislation in British Canada. 


Continuing on through town we had trekked to the boundary of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club where we soon located the trail which would take us back to the shoreline.  Here after some careful navigation around golfers, golf carts and a couple of poorly hit drives we arrived at the earthwork fortifications and brick tower of Fort Mississauga.

This site, situated on the water’s edge was constructed from 1814-1816 as a defensive structure protecting the mouth of the Niagara River.  Its construction mirrored the nearby American fortifications of Old Fort Niagara Light in Youngstown New York – which are easily visible from the Canadian shoreline. 


After exploring we wandered the boulder beaches and shore of Mississauga Beach watching the terns in the surf play while the sun slowly set.  


With another day coming to a close and yet another section of trail completed we arranged for transportation back to Niagara Falls KOA and our campsite.  Here we showered, rested and prepared for our next day’s venture from Queenston Heights to the city of St. Catharines along the Laura Secord Legacy Trail – itself also a section of both the Bruce Trail and the Great Trail. 

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