Visiting Fort George in Niagara with a Dog – Canada
I know I am always going on about the lack of pet friendliness in North America, but every now and then, something remarkable happens: we discover that what we assumed would not be pet friendly, in fact, is. Visiting Fort George in Niagara with a dog is possible!!
It was with great delight that we discovered that Fort George near Niagara-on-the-Lake allows dogs to visit the grounds—for free even! Small dogs may enter the buildings if they remain in the owner’s arms. Larger dogs must remain outdoors, so plan for a “hand-off” to check out the buildings. Needless to say, when we found out, we had to go and investigate so we could report back to you, Dear Reader! Well done, Parks Canada! Well done!
What is Fort George? I hear you asking. It’s a National Historic Site, and as the name indicates, it’s a military fort. Perfectly restored in 1950, Fort George commemorates the war of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain and, therefore, Canada. For my American fans, you may be amused to know that the blue coats so many of your movies hold up as heroes fought against the red coats. Those red coats? Yep. That was Canada’s thin red line.
Fort George is a great opportunity to see another side of the story. You discover great characters such as Chief John Norton, who was part Scottish and part Cherokee, was adopted by a Mohawk Chief, rose to the principal war chief of the Six Nations of Iroquois, and ended up a great hero and ally in the war. You also learn about Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, known to Canadians as “the saviour of Upper Canada.” You discover that the newly freed black slaves who arrived in Canada by way of the famous Underground Railway, created their own battalion to fight the United States as a way to fight slavery. So many incredible characters and stories.
The nice thing about Fort George is that you will also find regular mention that the end of the war of 1812 marked the beginning of over two centuries of peace and friendship between Canada and the United States.
A Little History
Before you go visiting Fort George in Niagara with a dog you need a little background information. In the late 18th century, there was a great deal of suspense and anxiety over the future of what would become Canada. The threat of American invasion was omnipresent, the region was isolated, and the settlements were scattered and vulnerable. A complex of military buildings, known as Navy Hall, had been built on the banks of the Niagara River. The buildings had been around since 1765, but they acted mostly as a link in the supply route to the Great Lakes. But the importance of the area grew and, in 1799, Fort George was completed, although it continued to expand for years.
So you would think that all was good, right? All that military presence, well-trained and well-armed soldiers about, great access to supplies and more. Well, it wasn’t quite so rosy. There were a large number of American-born settlers in the area and, well, their loyalty to the British crown was still questionable. The allegiance with the First Nations was also strained. And so, sadly, with all this tinder, the war of 1812’s flame was struck. It was an ugly war. As all wars are. And I will not go into details because it’s just too sad, but in the end, the red coats, although out numbered and out gunned, won, and the border between the two nations was settled.
But enough about all that! How about you follow me on a walk through Fort George? Would you like that? All right then, but first a map so you can visualize.
Let’s start at the beginning.
#1 – Front Gates and Sentry Box
It doesn’t look like much but the front gate is actually a really smart design. Left open during the day and under guard, it was locked at night when a solitary sentry would stand watch. The sentry box was there to provide a little shelter.
An enemy trying to storm the gates would find himself helping to close the gate rather than keeping it open. Cleverly, the gates open outward, so a crush of enemy troops forcing their way in would actually help to quickly close the gates. In addition, a V-shaped ravelin would break up that enemy force and place them in the perfect spot for the aim of the canons on their raised platforms.
#2 – Brock’s Bastion
The bastion is the most strategic spot of the Fort—facing the mouth of the Niagara River and in position to fire on enemy ships attempting to gain access. British gunners could also fire heavy artillery directly at the American Fort Niagara.
The bastion is named after Major-General Sir Isaac Brock who, for a time, was buried here. He was later re-interred in a vault in the newly constructed memorial on Queenston Heights. (I mentioned that monument in my previous blog post.)
#3 – The Cottage
This typical little Georgian-style cottage is a great example of what a settler or officer might have built for himself and his family near the Fort. It’s a simple, well-proportioned, little home with a symmetrical façade and, very importantly, the ultimate luxury: small paned windows.
The story of the Widow Campbell is recreated inside. It’s such a sad story really. Mrs. Campbell was the widow of Fort Major Donald Campbell, who died in 1812. When the town was sacked by rebels in 1813, Mrs. Campbell and her children were driven from her home without clothes or provisions. Her valuables were stolen and her house reduced to ashes. This followed after she had already suffered a tragic loss of her infant child. Mrs. Campbell carried the infant, born after the Major died, four miles to be baptized only to have to dig a grave and bury the infant once there.
The Widow’s story shows just how uncertain life could be. One moment, you are the wife of Major with three healthy kids, and the next moment, you’re a widow with an infant, the barn, house, fenced land, goods, animals, and belongings … all gone.
#4 – Blockhouse 1
I liked this exhibit best. It is a new take on looking at historic events. The displays are split into three, allowing you to see the war from four points of view: American, First Nation’s, British/Canadian, and that of the local citizens.
The exhibit makes use of first-hand accounts, historic artwork, one of a kind artefacts, and some multimedia.
#5 – Blockhouse 2
This stop really shows you how the soldiers lived! Blockhouses were kind of forts within the Fort. The blockhouses served as the last line of defense for the garrison.
The blockhouses were the living quarters for the soldiers and their families. Yes, soldiers could be married and have their wives with them, housed and fed at the army’s expense. But there wasn’t a lot of privacy. The “married quarters” was basically a blanket hung around the bottom bunk. And the kids? They slept on the floor or, if they were lucky, in a spare bunk.
As soldiers climbed the ranks, they would get bunks closer and closer to the fireplace. And although soldiers got a daily ration of flour, meat, and cheese, a soldier made very little money. In fact, a soldier’s wife could make a lot more than her husband by doing laundry, mending, and other domestic shores for all the unmarried soldiers.
#6 – Flag Bastion
The flag bastion is the Fort’s largest bastion and the most heavily armed. The “Big Boy” canons here were aimed right at the American batteries on the opposite side of the river. Storehouses were underneath the bastion.
#7 – Gun shed
The name explains it. Other than the powder, all light artillery was lined up in the shed for the ready. Other things that might have been stored there were the portable blacksmith forge and the carts to carry ammunitions.
#8 – Officers’ Quarters
In very British fashion, officers were expected to live and act as gentleman even on the frontier. Most officers derived comfort and pleasure at finding the some of the luxuries they had been accustomed to when in Britain.
To emulate high society in the old country, elaborate mess rules were established. Dinners were sophisticated affairs. They had silverware, china, serving dishes, crystal, and even decanters for imported wine. Port and sherry and social events always followed after the meal. The men would often go to the smoking room and enjoy a pipe. The ladies would join the men later, and there would be card or board games to the sound of a piano, if they were lucky.
As for the bedrooms, it was all about rank and personal interests. Some of the furniture would have been brought over from Britain; some would be locally made.
The size of the bed, the location of the fireplace, and just about everything else hinged on status. Being an officer meant you were granted the luxury of privacy.
#9 – Officers’ Kitchen
This kitchen provided the food for the officers’ mess. But not just anyone could work here! Oh no! The cooks had to be able to prepare complicated and elaborate dinners.
The cooks had to know how to stuff a pheasant, make roast beef, mix the perfect wine sauces or jellies, and even bake tarts and ginger snaps! As a result, the army cooks were rarely employed at the officers’ kitchen. Rather, a civilian, sometimes a soldier’s wife, would have the honour. And it was an honour.
Although not well paid, the cooks were able to eat the leftovers (often copious amounts were left on serving trays) and bring them back to their families. The cooks also had shelter (some sleeping in the winter by the big fire) and safety, for nothing was better guarded than the kitchen and it’s supplies.
#10 – Artificers’ Building
With miles of ocean between the soldiers and the mother country—not to mention forests, rivers, and a host of obstacles—the soldiers had to be self-sufficient. The best-paid jobs at the Fort were those of the craftsmen, known then as artificers. The carpenter and blacksmith were the most important of all the artificers.
They would fix everything. It could be a broken leg on a table, a carriage needing to be fixed, repairs on a building, or fixing weapons. As I looked around, I thought to myself that it might just be here that the expression “necessity is the mother of all invention” was first uttered.
#11 – Powder Magazine
Oddly, this tiny little stone house—the only fort building to survive the war, making it the oldest surviving military building in Ontario—was the most interesting building to visit. First of all, it is stone rather than wood. Why?
Simply put, the building stored several hundred barrels of gunpowder within its thick walls. An accidental explosion would not only destroy the army’s ability to fight, but the explosion would also destroy much, if not all, of the fort.
Only spark proof materials were allowed inside. The floorboards were secured with wooden pegs rather than iron nails to avoid sparks from stepping on the nail heads. The doors were covered in copper, and any soldier working in the powder magazine would wear special outfits and shoes with no metal details.
The magazine was also placed in a trench, dug down below the surrounding ground level. This helped achieve two things: first, it meant damage would be contained should there be an accidental explosion and, second, it protected the structure from enemy canon fire. But even with all that, the magazine still once received a direct hit from American gunners. On October 13, 1812, a cannon ball ripped through the roof and set fire to the wooden support beams. At the time, 800 barrels of gunpowder were stored inside.
With the flames making things exceedingly dangerous and the magazine poised to explode (and end the battle for good), a local captain of the Royal Engineers named Vigoreux (ironically means “vigorous”) climbed with his men onto the roof, tore off the metal, and extinguished the fire before it could ignite the gunpowder.
Bravery or insanity? I leave it up to you to decide, Dear Reader.
#12 – Octagonal Blockhouse
I loved getting to this lookout! I had NO idea when I looked at the map (Go ahead and look for #12 on the map above. I will wait. Got it? Ok.) that there was a tunnel below ground that led to this blockhouse.
And it makes sense now. They wouldn’t want their sentries to be targets as they went to their duties, right? It was hot and sunny when we visited, and I have to admit that the cool tunnel was a welcome reprieve.
The tunnel also served as a storehouse for the liquor! The temperatures were perfect for a wine cellar. Soldiers going back and forth to sentry along a tunnel lined with alcohol—do we dare imagine the self-control required by some not to steal a bottle or two from the officers?
#13 – Guardhouse
The guardhouse is an interesting building that served many functions. Its primary role was as a centre for daily operations. Any contractor, visitor, merchant, or suppler had to report to the guardhouse first before they could go anywhere else. Sometimes, they would be assigned an escort.
Interestingly, the guardhouse was also where the sentry at the entrance could take a quick nap between four-hour shifts. They did not return to the barracks but rather went to the guardhouse to nap on a wooden shelf while wearing full uniform including boots and all equipment.
Lastly, the guardhouse was also the prison. Deserters, drunks, or those with too much debt were locked up here between floggings.
It was standard procedure then to whip soldiers for their offenses. And not with some simple whip. Oh no, no, no. The soldier would be attached to the punishment triangle outside, shirt off and wrists tied to a cross-piece, then whipped a cat-o’-tails whip. And should the soldier have more lashes due to him then could be manage in one setting (without killing him), he would be locked up between instalments.
Some soldiers got out of the lashings by paying a fine instead.
#14 – Transport of Artillery
This is where you can see examples of equipment used in the critical role of transporting the big iron guns from bastion to bastion, or even shipping them to another fort! It is impressive to see how the soldiers managed to move things that often weighed several tonnes.
WOW. I know it is a lot to take in, so I will stop there. Suffice it to say that Fort George National Historic Site offers a glimpse of the rich history of the region. Explore the Fort as it appeared in 1812, attend the living history demonstrations, and chat with the staff. (They loved me and I loved their costumes, although I can’t imagine how hot and stinky the place must have been way back then before washing machines and dry cleaning existed. Those wool coats must have been od-or-ous!) The costumed guides throughout the fort are incredibly knowledgeable and happy to share what they know and answer any questions. Having recently watched season one of “Turn” I had a really interesting conversation with one of the staff who put it thus: “We have an uneasy relationship with that show”.
In review: Visiting Fort George in Niagara with a dog was a wonderful surprise! An amazing historical site you can visit with your dog. Give yourself at least two hours and take in life for a solider, his family, the officers, and how a war drew a line in the sand between two countries. Make sure to bring water for yourself and your canine, especially on a really hot day. For more pictures of our time at Fort George head out to my FB page!