The town that wants to stay old-fashioned
In Niagara-on-the-Lake old ghosts still walk beneath a tree that grew before Columbus, through streets armies fought for in 1812. But they’re being routed by modern subdivisions — and we’re losing a priceless shrine
When the little Ontario town of Niagaraon-the-Lake was chosen last year as the site of the first World Jamboree of Scouts in Canada, its twenty-five hundred inhabitants broke out in proud cheers, which soon changed to a concerted moan of dismay. Lord Rowallan, the Chief Scout of the Commonwealth, would formally open the jamboree, but for the ceremonies the town’s lord mayor didn’t have a chain of office.
This was an embarrassing situation for the only town in Canada that proudly insists upon the right to call its chief executive the lord mayor—a reminder of the days when it was the first capital of Upper Canada. Hastily, enquiries were sent to Toronto: what would be the cost of a chain to decorate his worship's neck? Faces fell when it was learned the price would be a staggering five hundred dollars.
An anonymous citizen then offered to donate the money, but the town council decided it had no honorable alternative but to pay the price of its dignity. Accordingly, Lord Mayor Bill Greaves, a manufacturer of homemade jams and jellies, was suitably adorned for the occasion—to his obvious embarrassment but his constituents’ beaming delight.
Now some people might consider this incident a tempest in a teapot or a farce
worthy of comic operetta. But for this insignificant little town, which sits isolated and forgotten upon a thumbnail peninsula between the mouth of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, it may well be one of the last desperate battles in a century-and-a-half of deadly serious war for survival. For seldom has any town been founded with greater promise, and seldom has any been so cruelly disappointed.
Today its dreamlike tranquillity is broken only by the cries of sea gulls, the summery laughter of children on its sandy beaches or the lulling murmur of waves lapping against rotting piers. Its tree-lined streets ¿»re usually deserted, and railroad tracks on the main street are rusty with disuse. Only in the summer do trains arrive casually to pick up fruit, and then often the engineer has to jump out of his cab to search for the owner of a car parked on the tracks. The town's only visitors are tourists who wander along the grass-covered ramparts of old Fort George to stare curiously at antique cannon whose blocked muzzles peer peacefully across the Niagara River at Fort Niagara, now a museum, on the American side.
But just as Quebec City was the cradle of French Canada, so this little town was the birthplace of English Upper Canada, a powerful and prosperous community that introduced British law and culture into the
then-backwood hamlets of Toronto and Hamilton. Founded in 1783 by United Empire Loyalists, and the first capital of Upper Canada, from 1792 to 1796, its citizens played a prominent role in laying the foundation stones of our country.
For more than fifty years Niagara (it was not called Niagara-on-the-Lake until about 1906) was the busiest port west of Montreal, its docks heavy with cargoes for portaging around Niagara Falls. For this reason it was also the most important Canadian military post on the U.S.-Canadian frontier, garrisoned by red-coated British regiments guarding the lifeline to the upper Great Lakes' forts and settlements.
Socially and culturally it was the heart of the province. The British officers, the liant monde of the day, held an unending succession of balls, assemblies, routs and levees. Its merchant princes built aristocratic homes, beautiful churches, hospitable hotels and taverns and the province’s first library. The town also boasted the province's first newspaper, the Upper Canada Gazette, one issue of which, in 1796, advertised the whole town plot of Hamilton for sale: “975 acres well timbered with 150 acres cleared, a wharf and storehouse.”
But its proudest hour came in the War of 18 12. For three long, turbulent years the streets of Niagara resounded to the tramp of marching men, the fierce war whoops of Indians and the crashing thunder of cannon. British regulars, Canadian militia and Indians hurled back the American armies at the war’s worst battles — at Queenston Heights, Stoney Creek, Fort Erie, Chippa wa, Niagara, Beaver Dams and Lundy’s Lane—and so saved the infant province from becoming another state in the American union.
“One after another its glories departed. Now it fights to save the memory of its historic past”
In the Gay Nineties it was a Victorian Florida, a resting place for international society making the Grand Tour of North America. For one hundred and fifty years its streets have echoed each summer to the off-duty laughter of thousands of Canadian soldiers who trained outside the town on a five-hundred-acre military reserve.
But one after another its glories departed. In 1793 the capital moved across Lake Ontario to York (now Toronto). In the War of 1812 Niagara was burned by the Americans. In 1829 its commercial importance as a portage port around Niagara Falls was extinguished by the completion of the Welland Canal across the Niagara Peninsula, thirteen miles to its west. In I860 the British garrison was recalled. Forty-six years later the town even lost its historic name of Niagara, for the post office, to prevent confusion with the neighboring city of Niagara Falls, labeled it Niagara-on-theLake. By 1920 the automobile had killed it as a resort: motoring became the style and people took adventurously to the road, disdaining the quiet pleasures of the town.
Today it’s a curiosity stop for tourists and a retired people’s town, and Niagaraon-the-Lake’s citizens are fighting to save their last possession—the memory of the historic past. Lord Mayor Greaves says with resignation, "The only thing this town can get excited about is its past.” The president of the local Chamber of Commerce, Don Harrison, a hardware merchant, says the same thing with a different emphasis: “The only thing this town can get excited about is its past.” For, with a burning resolution not to lose one proof of the proud past, citizens have jealously treasured gracious old homes, picturesque forts, storied trees, priceless hooks, beautiful churches, mossy graveyards, shy ghosts and ancient stores— with the result that the town is a quaint museum piece of early Canada.
This attitude is so predominant that in 1945 a local minister, the Rev. Lloyd Hughes of St. Andrew’s Church, suggested that with the expenditure of a few million dollars the town could be restored exactly as it was around 1800. The town was enthusiastic. A brochure was written by Gerald Noxon. secretary of the Historical Section of the Niagara Post War Planning Commission, stating how this could be done. It was sent to government leaders and philanthropists, together with a request for funds. The town raised several thousand dollars, but on the whole the response was dishearteningly meager.
The town and Hughes were bitter. “The government could spend billions
to fight a war, but could not afford a few million for a project that would give Canadians a sense of patriotic pride in their country’s past,” Hughes said recently.
But today Niagara-on-the-Lake is being destroyed by its old enemy, progress. Its age-old isolation is ending as the promise of the St. Lawrence seaway brings an influx of industries and people into the nearby city of St. Catharines. Many families are moving into Niagaraon-the-Lake in search of country living.
It is this influx of new residents that threatens to destroy the town’s quaint atmosphere. Once the old homes are gone, Hughes has warned, the retired people with a passionate love for the past, who have been the generals and privates in the battle to preserve the historic atmosphere, will no longer feel attracted to the town. Their feelings were expressed by Thomas Moore, the famous Irish poet, who visited Niagara in 1804 and wrote:
I knew by the smoke that so gracefully curled
Above the green elms that a cottage was near,
And I said if there’s peace to be found in the world,
A heart that is humble might hope for it here.
Today the dominant quality of the town is still this drowsy aura of peace and tranquillity. Much of it comes from the brooding grandeurs of nature that surround the town. On its left lies the blue oceanlike expanse of Lake Ontario, while at its front and right flow the milewide, green and serene waters of the Niagara River. At its back lies the lushly treed farmland of the Niagara fruit belt, bounded in the hazy distance by the rocky wooded slopes of the Niagara Escarpment which rises sharply from the flat plain bordering Lake Ontario.
Who is it?
Some of Canada’s most important people think he’s excessively critical and hard to get along with. Turn to page 32 to see who this troublesome boy grew up to be.
Part of its still-remaining tranquillity comes from the relative isolation of the town from populous industrial centres. The nearest cities are St. Catharines, thirteen miles to the west on the busy Welland Ship Canal, and Niagara Falls, fifteen miles to the south. Its nearest neighbors are fruit-farming hamlets— St. David’s, snuggling under the brow of the escarpment, and Queenston, lying on the Niagara River in the shadow of the escarpment. Across the river from Niagara-on-the-Lake is Youngstown, N.Y., a commuting town for Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Even the visitor most ignorant of Canadian history has the feeling on entering Niagara-on-the-Lake that here is a town that must have had a colorful past. At the mouth of the Niagara River stands the stone keep of Fort Mississauga, built in 1814 out of the rubble of the town when it was burned in the War of 1812. On the other side of the town, on a low knoll overlooking the river, rise the earthen walls of Fort George, built in 1796 when British troops relinquished to the Americans the stone fortress of Fort Niagara on the U. S. shore, a strong point deeded to the Americans in 1783 at the close of the American Revolutionary War.
The town itself has the air of a bygone era. On the main street McClelland’s Grocery bears the ancient sign of its business — a flowery red "T marker, which signified that tea, as well as groceries, was sold there when it was founded in 1815. Its shelves are still stocked with such specialty items as imported English teas, curry powder and barleysugar sticks—tastes developed in the days when the town was a British garrison post. Field's Drug Store, which proudly claims to be the oldest continuously operated pharmacy in Canada — it was founded in 1820 — preserves its ancient dignity with solid-black-walnut counters fitted with drawers bearing the Latin names of such half-forgotten remedies as cascarilla bark, gamboge gum and sassafras powder.
On the side streets are rows of stately white New England Colonial and softly weathered red-brick Georgian homes built early in the last century and shaded by ancient elms and oaks. Typical of people who love these old homes is Mrs. Cecilia Roberts, a tall gracious woman in her thirties who lives in a Georgian house built in 1796. In 1947 her husband George retired from the army and took a position in St. Catharines. Rather than buy a home there, Mrs. Roberts decided to try Niagara-on-the-Lake. They visited the town and Mrs. Roberts discovered to her delight that an old house she had admired as a young girl on summer vacations was for sale. So they bought it.
Mrs. Roberts feels a strong personal attachment to the town, for here the originator of her family in Canada lived and died. He was Patrick Cullen, an Irish cavalryman in a British regiment who met an inglorious end in 1828 by falling off a horse and breaking his neck. To Mrs. Roberts her home defines her importance as a member of an old family and its traditional quiet beauty proves her culture and love of gracious living. To some people her home wouldn’t appeal at all. Its eight rooms have eleven gaping fireplaces, three of which are in the basement, and her garden patch is inhabited by the bodies of thirty-two Negro slaves whose ghosts it might be that cause the wide oak floor boards in the hall to give three mysterious creaks each midnight.
An exception to the general rule of old Colonial and Georgian homes is The Wilderness, a low stone cottage built around 1816 as a duplicate of Longwood, Napoleon’s home in exile on St. Helena, by William Claus, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Canada. Its present owner, Mrs. Mary Parker, is not a descendant of an old family at Niagara, but she has a great love of history. For her The Wilderness has tender personal memories. Her father lived here from 1919 to 1925, and she was married in the old house. When her husband died in Ottawa in 1947 she returned and bought The Wilderness—and with it a ghost known as the Headless Horseman, a name that may have been inspired by a Frenchman of Fort Niagara, who was killed around 1740 by a jealous rival for an Indian girl’s favors. His body was thrown into Lake Ontario but his head was tossed into a deep well. His ghost is said to come out of the lake nightly to search the corridors for his lost head.
The Wilderness was given its name by early settlers because the grounds are covered with giant trees, the last survivors of the primeval forest. Mrs. Parker and other owners have carefully guarded these relics. One ancient oak, over twenty feet in girth at the butt, was a healthy sapling when Columbus discovered America. It is known as the Treaty Oak, for under its branches the Iroquois who made Niagara their chief town came from their Grand River reservation in Upper Canada to receive treaty money from William Claus, the government’s Indian affairs official.
Reverence for old trees is a ruling passion among the people of Niagara-onthe-Lake. When Lord Mayor Greaves was on the council as Chairman of Park and Shade he once had a visit from an angry citizen named Joe Mussen, who complained that a tree on town property was threatening to fall down on his garage. Greaves and Mussen went to look at it. They studied it in silence, lost in admiration. Finally, Mussen sighed resignedly and said, “Well, I guess it would be a shame to cut it down.” It was left standing.
One of the town’s most famous trees was the Parliament Oak, under whose boughs in 1792 Governor John Graves Simcoe convened one of the first parliaments in Upper Canada. It stood for many years until a storm brought it low. The stump was treasured until it rotted away. A bronze plaque was erected to its memory, and today a modern public school nearby proudly bears its name.
In 1937 when the Niagara Parks Commission renovated Fort George, axemen were preparing to cut down a sycamore tree on the ramparts when a group of angry citizens from the town appeared on the scene. They demanded that the tree be spared. The parks commission finally relented and spent several hundred dollars to move it tenderly to a new location.
There was nothing extraordinary about this tree, except that a local historian, high-school teacher and sometime-poet had once written an ode to it entitled Fort George's Lonely Sycamore. She was Janet Camochan, founder of the Niagara Flistorical Society, who tenderly eulogized it:
O lone tree on the rampart's height!
What hast thou seen, what canst thou tell.
Of peaceful watch or desperate fight,
O lonely, lonely sentinel?
Although the sycamore was too young to have seen any “peaceful watch or desperate fight.” Fort George played an important role in the War of 1812. It was the military headquarters of Gen. Sir Isaac Brock from 1803 until his
death in October 1812 from American sharpshooters’ bullets at the storming of Queenston Heights, six miles upriver. In 1813 it was bitterly defended when the Americans sent eight thousand men in one hundred ships to Niagara. After a brisk battle the town was captured and three thousand Americans pursued the retreating British thirty-five miles up the shores of Lake Ontario to Stoney Creek, where British bayonets chased them back again. It was a favorite joke of the day to say that it took the Americans four days to reach Stoney Creek, but only one day to return to Niagara.
In December the Americans, in frustration, burned and abandoned Niagara. The angry British, crossing the river at night, captured Fort Niagara and bayonetted every man they could find. Then they turned the Indians loose. For fifty miles back from the frontier frightened farmers bundled their wives and children into wagons and fled. For generations Americans bitterly remembered this as the Big Scare.
In 1814 the Americans invaded Canada with ten thousand seasoned troops. At Fort Erie and Chippawa they pushed back the British, but the cannon of Fort George and Fort Mississauga stopped them. They retreated, the British followed, and one evening the two armies met at Lundy’s Lane near Niagara Falls. The battle raged throughout the night. In the morning the Americans retreated, leaving more than fifteen hundred dead and wounded. At the end of the year not an American soldier stood on Canadian soil.
Until 1824 Gen. Brock’s body lay in a battery of Fort George. Then Canada elevated him to the rank of a national hero and built a crypt surmounted by a classical column two hundred and ten feet high at the summit of Queenston Heights. Probably to console the town for the removal of his body, the
government so placed Brock’s statue on top of the monument that his outstretched hand pointed to Niagara.
There is no doubt that his heart lay there, for he was engaged to a lady in the town named Sophia Shaw. Legend says that on the morning of October 13, 1812, when the sound of cannon from upriver awakened Brock in Fort George, he had his charger Alfred saddled and rode to bid his sweetheart good-by. She was waiting for him at her doorstep with a stirrup cup and promised tearfully to wait his return. Brock was killed in the battle that followed, but Sophia never broke her vow. Sixty years later she died, a spinster still.
Niagara-on-the-Lake’s most impressive building is St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, so striking that students from Toronto University’s School of Architecture pay it an annual visit to study its pure, classical New England Colonial lines, fluted columns, graceful pointed steeple and white chaste interior. It stands on the site of the first Presbyte* rian church in Upper Canada, built in 1791 and burned in 1813. In 1831 it was rebuilt and has been jealously preserved, even to the old family box stalls with stiff backs and hard seats on which parishioners squirmed as Scottish ministers preached two-hour fire-and-brimstone sermons.
A church with a different type of beauty is St. Mark’s Anglican. With its grey-stone walls festooned with clinging ivy, its squat crenelated tower projecting through venerable trees, it seems so much an authentic part of England that in 1890 a visiting English dean remarked delightedly, “This is a piece of old England: do not allow it to be altered.”
St. Mark’s is unique in many regards, but none more so than the fact that it has a priceless library, brought from England by the first minister, the Rev. Robert Addison, in 1792, and on his death bequeathed to the church. It consists of twelve hundred volumes, ranging from a 1577 Geneva Bible to Samuel Johnson’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays with commentaries, printed in 1790.
The register is carefully preserved and tells the story of those early days. One of the first entries, dated August 24, 1792, before St. Mark’s was built, records the marriage of Capt. James Hamilton to Louiza Mitchell. An entry dated 1805 records the execution of a sergeant, found guilty of desertion. “He behaved well,” wrote Dr. Addison.
The old graveyard of St. Mark’s is probably the most visited in Canada, drawing hundreds of people each year from cities throughout Canada and the U. S. For the graveyard philosopher, St. Mark’s is a rich source of quaint and charming epitaphs. One dedicated to Hermanns de Graff, who died in 1802 at the age of twenty-eight, laments:
Stop traveller and weep For here beneath death’s shade Snatched from his friends A lovely youth is laid.
Thomas Easton, the British trumpeter at the Battle of Queenston Heights, is remembered poetically with:
Here lies within this silent grave A Royal soldier, brisk and brave,
Who suddenly was called away From off this sodden foot of clay.
So many people want to be buried in the graveyard that a restriction had to be adopted, allowing only bona-fide members of the church to apply. Last year the Rev. C. H. E. Smith, the previous
minister, was overjoyed when his wife Madeleine bought him a plot for a Christmas present, as well as one for herself.
The walls of St. Mark’s are lined with memorial tablets in honor of former parishioners. The most famous is that to Col. John Butler, whose tablet proclaims that he was born in New London, Conn., in 1728 and served in the French and English War and in the American Revolutionary War when he raised and commanded the Royal American Regiment of Butler’s Rangers.
The Niagara Historical Society has made an effort to locate Butler’s grave— said to be somewhere on the town’s outskirts—but without success. An old farmer, Alvie Hood, stated years ago he knew what happened to Butler’s bones. He said he sold them to a junk man for glue, and placed the skull on a post. However, he claimed, one day it so badly frightened a team of horses that the driver threw the skull into the underbrush, and it was lost.
“We need a miracle”
The importance of graves as a link with the past has increased with the gradual disappearance of nearly all the original settlers’ homes. One of the few still standing is Prest House, a rambling stone farmhouse built in 1818 under the brow of the escarpment, near Queenston. It is still maintained by Mrs. Bertha Prest who moved from Chicago on the death of her husband to make her home in the old house and so keep the building in the family.
Nearby live Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Ramsay, a retired couple who several years ago bought a house as old as Prest House but in dilapidated condition. They restored it—a restoration that closed off a tiny staircase leading into the kitchen, thus surely discomforting a ghost described as “a little old lady dressed in grey, with a shawl over her shoulders,” who is said to have used the staircase for midnight prowls. The Ramsays say the former owners, the Uptegraphs, descendants of the original Pennsylvania Dutch owners of the house, saw her quite often, usually in the garden picking berries.
To the residents of Niagara-on-theLake the inroads made by new construction, and the gradual destruction of old homes and graveyards to make room for it, are grim foreshadowings of the passing of the beauties and landmarks of the past. To preserve its memories, a member of the Niagara Historical Society recently photographed all the old homes left standing in town, and a committee was formed to compile a history of each before they disappeared.
There is talk of zoning part of the town to save the old homes, but already the power is passing to newer residents who want a modern community.
“We need a miracle,” Lord Mayor Greaves says gloomily, “or we’ll just become a suburb of St. Catharines.”
That, to the proud little town of Niagara - on - the - Lake, will be the final crushing blow, if
ANSWER to Who is it? on page 28 George Drew, the leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada, the official opposition in the House of Commons.