Road Trip to Old Fort Niagara & Lewiston

You know I love my Niagara road trips.

This one’s a bit different from my usual ones though – I’m taking you across the border.

For awhile now, Ken and I have wanted to to a day trip on the other side of the Niagara River. During my frequent walks around Niagara-on-the-Lake, I often end up at Queen’s Royal Park. Old Fort Niagara is clearly seen from this point, and oh boy is it gorgeous. It just seemed to call to my inner history geek. Every time I would walk past it, I’d say to myself, “I’ve gotta go there soon”.

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But you know how it is.  Often those great days out that are so easy to do at any time get delayed. Things come up, you put it off until next week/when the weather’s a bit better/when you have more time. One of our other reasons for the delay, though, was the fact that we would have to cross the border. I’m not a patient person at the best of times, and the thought of waiting in a long line, trapped in my car, could kill all feelings of anticipation.

However, I know so many people here who cross the border for the day, or even just for a nice dinner out. So I decided to brave my hatred of long line-ups and just do it.

I’m so glad we did.

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The history at Old Fort Niagara is incredibly fascinating. Originally established to protect the interests of New France in North America, the first structure was built here in 1678. The main building, which is usually referred to as “The French Castle” wasn’t erected until 1726.

It is one impressive beauty.

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The British gained control of the Fort from the French in 1759, after a nineteen day siege during the French and Indian War, called the Battle of Fort Niagara. During the American Revolutionary War, the Fort served as the loyalist base in New York for John Butler and his Butler’s Rangers. As most Niagara folks know, the winter quarters for Butler’s Rangers were here, in Niagara-on-the-Lake. When the Rangers were disbanded in 1784, its veterans were given land grants in Niagara for their services to the British Crown. The Fort was ceded to the Americans after the Revolutionary War, but they did not have their forces occupy it until 1796.

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On the day we were there, they were running a school program about the Revolutionary War. We had the bonus of being able to chat with these historic interpreters too.

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When we entered the Bake House, we talked at length with one interpreter who told us a lot about the differences between the soldier’s and the officer’s diet.

Do you know what this is?

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Salt pork. Doesn’t look very appetizing to me, but that was your source of meat if you were a soldier. Along with this you would have an allotment of peas, and bread.

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Next door to the Bake House, you’ll find the French Castle. The building is magnificent.

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But gosh, was it cold! We were there on a lovely spring day, and it was freezing in the Castle. I was trying to imagine those stationed here in the 1700’s braving out a cold, long, winter.

Of course, the Officers had fires.

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Even so, this fire was in a very large room. I don’t think it would give off much heat on a cold January day.

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While we were there, I learned that for the War of 1812, the Americans have their own Laura Secord.

Have you heard of Betsy Doyle?

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Betsy’s husband was an American soldier during the War of 1812. He was captured at the Battle of Queenston Heights, and taken as prisoner to England. Betsy worked at the Fort as a laundress and nurse, and on November 12, 1812, she was seeing some action herself. While Fort Niagara traded cannon shots with Fort George, Betsy carried red hot shot to cannons on the roof of the French Castle. For her actions that day, she was compared to Joan of Arc. She was also known to don a uniform and musket and stand guard.

When the British attacked and captured Fort Niagara, Betsy barely escaped with her four children. She then began a 310 mile trek through severe winter weather to reach Greenbush Cantonment, near Albany, New York. By this time she was very ill with a fever.

I would think so.

Just imagine losing your husband, fighting in battle which you’ve never been trained for, barely escaping, and trekking 310 miles with four children in the harsh winter weather. This was one strong lady.

Sadly, Betsy was never reunited with her husband. He was released from prison in 1815, and though he did return to the United States, he never found Betsy.

She died in April 1819, in poverty.

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Stories like Betsy’s really tug at my heart. So we decided to get some fresh air, and take in the peaceful views.

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It was kind of neat to see Queen’s Royal Park from a different perspective.

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I’m so glad that I finally made the trip, and it won’t be so long before my next visit. They have lots of events and re-enactments coming up, so I’m hoping to get back for one of those.

As we left the Fort to begin our drive back towards Lewiston, I saw this display on the side of the road.

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Fort Niagara served as a Prisoner of War Camp during World War II. Inmates were put to work on farms and food processing plants to combat local labour shortages. There is a plaque commemorating the existence of the camp, along with this display board.

I learned a lot that morning, I tell you.

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As we continued our drive, we realized that we were very hungry. It was just after three o’clock and we still hadn’t had lunch, so we decided to stop at The Silo.

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The Silo is an interesting spot. The building itself played an important part in Lewiston history. In the 1930’s, people used to board steamers here that would take them to Toronto – and I wish we still had that option today. In 1938, most of the terminal for boarding these steamers was destroyed by an ice jam. The terminal was torn down after this, but the Silo remained. In 1997, Mr. Richard Hastings approached the Village of Lewiston trustees with a vision of converting the Silo into a refreshment stand. His son, Alan, is still running it today.

Their recent claim to fame is that they were featured on Man V. Food. Adam Richman of the show declared their Beef on Weck, “Beef on Wonderful”. There are lots of tasty options at the Silo, but as Ken is the King of the Burger Fans, we went with burgers, fries, and onion rings.

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It was all delicious, but I have to give them a particular shout-out for their onion rings. The batter was perfect, not greasy, and best of all as I nibbled away the onion rings stayed intact. Know what I mean? The onion didn’t pull out of the batter – it stayed perfectly encased so that I had onion and batter in every bite. Total yumminess.

Afterwards, we walked for a little bit. I had to get a shot of these adorable little bears in front of The Silo.

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Oh, I loved these swings. I bet they’re a popular place to be when it’s sunset.

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There’s nothing this history lover likes better than to stumble upon a plaque, designating a historic site. Apparently, at this exact location, the Americans left to launch the Battle of Queenston Heights.

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When I turned around, I saw this incredible work of art, The Freedom Crossing Monument

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Isn’t it beautifully done? You feel like you’re watching an actual moment in time. The expressions on their faces are so vivid, so life-like.

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Depicted here, helping the small child into the boat is Josiah Tryon – the Lewiston Station Master for the Underground Railroad. You can read a lot more about Lewiston’s role in the Underground Railroad here. I encourage you to read the story, it’s a compelling one.

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We continued walking into town, and it was a lovely stroll. Some of the older homes still had family members living in them until the late ’90’s. Many are now quaint shops, restaurants, or offices.

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Ken was enthralled with The Frontier House.

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This would be the dream project of his heart – completely restoring this old beauty. It’s currently for sale, and he was quite excited by this. Alas, I had to rein him in, as I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be in our budget.

The Frontier House has a fascinating history, though. In its heyday, it hosted Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and President William McKinley among others. It also played a role in a famous kidnapping. Rumour has it there’s a resident ghost or two as well.

Our last stop was the War of 1812 Bicentennial Peace Garden. It’s a pleasant, calm oasis right in the center of town .

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I needed peaceful before bracing the border lineup.

It wasn’t too bad, though our border guard thought we were very strange. We just crossed the border for the day and didn’t buy anything? Just went to the Fort, had lunch, walked around town?

Yep. And what a lovely day it was. One I recommend to you as well.