½ Gas Tank Trips

Niagara-on-the-Lake: The prettiest town in Canada

This small town located at the northern terminus of the scenic Niagara Parkway is my heart magnet. Each time when I need to elate my soul I go there. I love this place in bright and colorful summer days, in a magic golden fall or in an emerald green spring. It is always warm and peaceful even in an endless and melancholic Canadian winter. A lot of sweet memories forever connected with a wonderful Victorian mansion where my husband and I spent a few days of our honeymoon. There is something special and enigmatic in the air that makes me feel as if I am in a fairytale.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, located where the Niagara River enters Lake Ontario, is one of the best-preserved 19th-century villages in North America. Named the Prettiest Town in Canada in 1996, the town is the jewel of the Province of Ontario.

National Historic District
Niagara-on-the-Lake played a significant role in the establishment of many of the national and provincial institutions: parliament, the first newspaper, lending library, historical museum, and governing body for the legal profession. Critical battles in the defense of Upper Canada took place here, at Queenston, including one in which heroine Laura Secord gained her fame.

The town gave many black Americans their first taste of freedom. Its unique collection of preserved architecture dating from the 1815-1859 period includes the Niagara Apothecary, MacDougal-Harrison House, Kirby House, and St Andrew’s Church. The town has many national historic sites including Fort George, Brock’s Monument, Willowbank, Fort Mississauga and Butler’s Barracks. Historic properties of the Niagara Parks Commission include McFarland House, Mackenzie Printery, and Queenston Chapel. The Niagara Historical Museum was the first building constructed in Ontario specifically as a museum and displays a collection of early artifacts related to the history of the town. All these facts led the Canadian Government to designate the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake as a National Historic District in 2004, the only one in Ontario.

St. Mark’s Church (built 1791) – oldest Anglican Church in Ontario
The Court House, a Shaw Festival theatre and Parks Canada headquarters of Niagara National Historic Sites.

McFarland House is the oldest surviving building in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Built in 1800 by John McFarland and his sons, on land granted to him by King George III, and located in a picturesque park, McFarland House has stood as a monument to the impeccable manners, good taste and gracious living that epitomizes Niagara-on-the-Lake for more than two centuries. During the War of 1812 the house was used as a hospital and headquarters for both the British and American armies. By the way, the House is the oldest property owned by The Niagara Parks Commission. It was opened to the public in 1959. You can take a guided tour or have a cup of the finest tea at its patio or both. McFarland House is open daily from early May until Labour Day weekend, and weekends from Labour Day until Thanksgiving weekend.

Niagara Apothecary Museum (built 1820) is the oldest pharmacy in Ontario.

The Niagara Peninsula has been a home of native people for over 10 000 years. The Neutral Nation who lived here 500 years ago gave the name “Niagara” to the magnificent falls and river. The name means either “thunder of the waters” or, less romantically, “neck.” The first European settlers were refugees fleeing the excesses of the American Revolution in 1778. At the end of it, Loyalists who chose not to live in the new republic of the United States were given land grants here and carved new homes out of the wilderness. Under the leadership of John Butler, who had led a regiment of rangers during the revolution, the town of Niagara was laid out on the west bank of the Niagara River.

In 1781 the British Government purchased land from the Mississaugas; a strip of land 6 miles wide along the western bank of the Niagara River for “300 suits of clothing”. By 1782, 16 families had become established and had cleared 96ha (236 acres). By 1796, 70 new homes were built, and the town continued to prosper as the economic, administrative and judicial centre for the Niagara Peninsula.

In 1792, John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of the new province of Upper Canada, chose Niagara as the temporary capital of the province and held parliament here until 1796. He founded York (now Toronto) and was instrumental in introducing institutions such as the courts, trial by jury, English common law, freehold land tenure, and in abolishing slavery. Simcoe changed the name to Newark, but after his departure for England in 1796, the citizens petitioned the province to have the ancient name of Niagara reinstated. This was done in 1797. Nearly a century later, the post office added “on-the-Lake” to the name to avoid confusion with Niagara Falls, which is 19km to the south.

Among the Loyalists who first settled were some men of African descent who had been members of Butler’s Rangers and African Americans who remained loyal. Some other early Black residents were the slaves of Loyalist families. John Graves Simcoe ended slavery in Upper Canada long before it was abolished in the British Empire as a whole – by 1810 there were no slaves in Upper Canada, but the Crown did not abolish slavery throughout the Empire until 1834. The fact that any black person would automatically be free on entering Upper Canada made Niagara and the rest of the province a haven for people escaping slavery. During the War of 1812 and the Rebellions of 1837, blacks from Niagara formed their own militia companies, referred to as the “Coloured Corps.”

In 1796, the British complied with the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which had granted Fort Niagara to the United States. To protect their interests in Upper Canada, the British set work immediately to construct a fort across the Niagara River. Control of the river supply route was essential to the survival of the forts west of the Niagara Region. By 1802, Fort George had been completed.

The imposing new fort stood guard over transportation on the Niagara River and protected Navy Hall, a vital warehouse and wharf facility. It was a substantial installation, boasting six earthen and log bastions linked by a wooden palisade and surrounded by a dry ditch. Inside the walls, the Royal Engineers constructed a guardhouse, log blockhouses, a hospital, kitchens, workshops, barracks, officers’ quarters, and a stone powder magazine.

During the War of 1812, Fort George served as the headquarters for the Centre Division of the British Army. These forces included British regulars, local militia, aboriginal warriors, and Runchey’s corps of freed slaves. Major General Sir Isaac Brock, the saviour of Upper Canada served here until his death at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1813. Destroyed by American artillery fire and captured during the Battle of Fort George in May 1813, the U.S. forces used the fort as a base to invade the rest of Upper Canada; however, they were repulsed at the Battles of Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams. After a seven month occupation the fort was retaken in December and remained in British hands for the remainder of the war. After the war, the fort was partially rebuilt, and by the 1820’s it was falling into ruins.

In the war of 1812 the physical appearance of the town was virtually erased by the burning by the Americans. Rebuilt, Niagara became an active commercial centre, with a busy shipping and ship-building industry, as well as many shops and warehouses. The beautiful old homes lining the tree-shaded streets attest to the prosperity of its citizens.

During the 1830s to early 1850s the rebuilt Niagara was important for its shipbuilding launching many elegant steamers during those years. Economic depression in the 1850s and the construction of the Welland Canal caused the decline of industry in Niagara and a loss of its importance as a port and transshipment point.

The town was revitalized in the railway era of the 1860-90s and became a tourism Mecca. Elegant hotels and restaurants sprung up and by the turn of the century, 4 large steamers made 2 trips daily between Niagara and Toronto, frequent trains linked the town with Niagara Falls and Buffalo, NY, and hourly electric train ran to St. Catharines, all to bring tourists to the town and to ship agricultural products, the tender fruit that flourished in the gentle climate, to city markets.

Business suffered a downturn during World War I, and after the war the advent of the affordable automobile eventually drove the steamers and passenger rail service from the town.

The Great Depression, followed by World War II, sounded the death knell to tourism. The site was used over the years for agriculture, as part of a golf course and by the Canadian Military as a hospital for Camp Niagara. The reconstruction of Fort George as a National Historic Site of War of 1812 was done as a “Make Work Project” during the 1930s, an early example of historic preservation.

By the late 1940s Niagara-on-the-Lake was in poor shape with little money and very few jobs. That turned out to be a saviour for heritage. Residents could not replace the old houses with smart new bungalows, a phenomenon that was occurring elsewhere in Ontario at the time. In the early 1960s a small group of people began purchasing and restoring the older buildings.

The Fort Gorge
The Fort Gorge is now a National Historic Site, maintained by Parks Canada. The fort is open to visitors from April to October. The staff maintains the image of the fort as it was during the early 19th century, with period costumes, exhibits, and displays of that time. They train summer students in the infantry tactics and firing drills of the 41st regiment from the War of 1812. They also have the 41st Fife and Drum Corps which provides an outstanding example of how the fife and drums were used.
Every year, scouts from both the United States and Canada meet on and near the grounds of the fort and reenact the battle that took place nearly two hundred years ago. This has taken place since 1984 and has grown from a small group of 300 “troops” to over 1800.

Those who believe in ghosts take note: the fort is one of Ontario’s favorite “haunted” sites. Author Kyle Upton leads ghost tours of the fort, which he has been offering since 1994. “I wasn’t a believer until I started working at the Fort,” he says. “But there have been too many incidents, too many reports of odd things happening here. After all, if any place in Canada deserves to be called haunted, this is it.”

Navy Hall
Navy Hall is a national historic site. The first parliament in Upper Canada met in a tent in 1792 near this site. The first session to sit under the roof was on September 17, 1792. Navy Hall is a wooden structure encased within a stone structure. It is situated on Ricardo Street near the Niagara River shore close to the Fort George. The original Navy Hall was built as naval establishment in 1765 by Royal Naval Commanders. It consisted of a small shipyard, docks, stores and residences, and was a local supply depot, as well as a trans-shipment point for posts on the upper Great Lakes.

Fort Mississauga
Today Fort Mississauga National Historic Site consists of a box–shaped brick tower and historic star–shaped earthworks—the only one in the country. The all–brick fort was built from 1814–1816 during the War of 1812. It was built on a foundation of brick and stone salvaged from rubble left after United States forces sacked the nearby town of Newark in December, 1813. It would help in the defense of Upper Canada the following year, as part of a regional network that included Fort George, Navy Hall, and Butler’s Barracks.

The British Army was stationed at the fort from 1813 to 1855, followed by the Canadian Army, which used it as summer training ground beginning in the 1870s, then during both World Wars and the Korean War. A golf course was laid out nearby in the late 1870s. Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Course surrounds the site, but public access is permitted via a walking path, with a warning to look out for golfers, who have the right of way. The path starts at the corner of Front and Simcoe streets.

Butler’s Barracks
Butler’s Barracks was the home of Loyalist military officer John Butler (1728–1796), who is most famous for leading an irregular military unit known as Butler’s Rangers on the northern frontier during the American Revolutionary War. The original barracks were constructed in 1778 on the banks of the Niagara River, and were torn down during the construction of Fort George in 1800. The building currently referred to as Butler’s Barracks was constructed in 1818, and the site at one time was quite extensive, being first used by the Indian Department, and later by the British military.

The Shaw Festival
The Shaw Festival was founded to boost tourism. Together this was a magical formula. Tourists began visiting to enjoy the history, the restored buildings and increasingly to attend the Festival.

The Festival’s roots can be traced to 1962 when Ontario playwright Brian Doherty staged the summertime “Salute to Shaw” in the town’s courthouse, later known as the Courthouse Theatre. For eight weekends Doherty and his crew produced Don Juan in Hell and Candida to promote the works of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. It was an immediate success.

With the addition of Barry Morse as Artistic Director in 1966, the Festival gained huge international publicity and its productions garnered sold-out performances. From 1967, Paxton Whitehead served for twelve seasons as Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival. He was able to push through a plan of building the purpose-built 869 seat state-of-the-art Festival Theatre to expand considerably the capacity for audiences. Queen Elizabeth II, Pierre Trudeau, and Indira Gandhi, were among those who attended the Shaw Festival Theatre during its inaugural season in 1973.

In 1980, Christopher Newton, joined the company and continued to foster its development with the addition of a third theatre. The acting ensemble was carefully cultivated until it was widely recognized to be one of the best in the world. Under his direction, the Festival’s mandate became more narrowly defined: to produce plays written during the lifetime of Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). His successor, Jackie Maxwell (2002-present), has strived to program increasingly with a view to a younger audience.

The Shaw Festival is a major Canadian theatre event, the second largest repertoire theatre company in North America. The festival operates three theatres in the centre of the town: the Festival, Royal George, and Court House theaters

Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake has population about 15,000, but only 15% of it is under 14, those over 65 years number 22.6% and constitute a fast-growing population, of almost 1% yearly, partially due to a large number of retirees moving to the town.

The major industries of Niagara-on-the-Lake are agriculture and tourism. Its mild climate and fertile soils permit the growing of tender fruit and grapes. Internationally acclaimed wineries have become a huge business making the world’s largest volumes of ice wine. The town is also known for its gardens, art galleries, antique shops, and golf courses. There are many cozy hotels, inns, and B&Bs in the area to accommodate everyone who wants to see the loveliest town in Ontario.

Niagara Parkway
Niagara Parkway is a scenic road along the Niagara River from Niagara-on-the-Lake to Table Rock, Niagara Falls and continues as a rural riverside highway to Fort Erie. It was originally built in 1912 and extended in 1936 with a total length of 56km (35 miles).

A popular local tale is that Sir Winston Churchill, after having been driven down the parkway, called it “the prettiest Sunday drive in the World.” Winston Churchill had a deep affection for Canada. Churchill first visited Canada in the winter of 1900/1901. Already, at the age of 26, he was a veteran of four military campaigns, a celebrated war correspondent, the author of five books, a newly elected member of the House of Commons, and, as the result of his heroic escape from captivity during the Boer War, world-famous. On his seventh and final visit to Canada in 1954, Churchill said, “I love coming to Canada. Canada is the master-link in Anglo-American unity, apart from her own glories. God bless your Country.”

Laura Secord Homestead
Laura Ingersoll Secord (September 13, 1775 – October 17, 1868) was a Canadian heroine of the War of 1812. She is known for warning British forces of an impending American attack that led to the British victory at the Battle of Beaver Dams.

During the war of 1812, a brave woman set out on a perilous 32km (20 mile) journey in the service of her country, and stepped forever into the history and folklore of Niagara. Travel back in time to her lovingly restored homestead and be enchanted by stories of her adventures and surroundings as interpreted by authentically costumed guides.

Laura Secord Homestead was restored and furnished with original furniture by the Laura Secord Candy Company in 1971 and gifted to The Niagara Parks Commission in 1998. The house located in the pleasant village of Queenston, almost on the scenic Niagara Parkway.

Mackenzie Printery & Newspaper Museum
Located in the picturesque village of Queenston, Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum was reconstructed from ruins by the Niagara Parks Commission opened to public in 1938 by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, Mackenzie’s great grandson. (William Lyon Mackenzie served as the first mayor of the city of Toronto in 1834 and was an important leader during the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion.) The home of William Lyon Mackenzie, a rebel publisher of the Colonial Advocate dedicated to political reform, is Canada’s largest operating printing museum devoted to displaying historic presses covering more than 500 years of the letterpress printing era. That museum contains Canada’s oldest press circa 1770. You can put your “hands-on experience” there: work one of eight operating presses.

Queenston Heights
The Queenston Heights is a geographical feature of the Niagara Escarpment immediately above the village of Queenston. The promontory forms a cliff face of approximately 100m (300ft).
Queenston Heights was the site of the War of 1812 Battle of Queenston Heights, where Major-General Sir Isaac Brock was killed in action in the defense of Upper Canada. It is mentioned in the 1867 song “The Maple Leaf Forever”: “At Queenston Heights and Lundy’s Lane our brave fathers, side by side, for freedom, homes, and loved ones dear, firmly stood and nobly died. And those dear rights which they maintained, we swear to yield them never. Our watchword evermore shall be, the Maple Leaf forever!”

Brock’s Monument
Atop Queenston Heights sits a 56m (185ft) column, Brock’s Monument, which is dedicated to Major General Sir Isaac Brock, one of Canada’s heroes of the War of 1812. Brock and one of his Canadian aides-de-camp, Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell, are interred at the monument’s base, on the heights above the battlefield where both fell during the Battle of Queenston Heights. The current monument was constructed between 1853 and 1856 and is the second such structure to occupy the battlefield.

Floral Clock
Just behind the Sir Adam Beck Power Plant and near the Lewiston-Queenston International Bridge, at 14004 Niagara Parkway, located a unique attraction and very popular stop – Floral Clock. The hands of the clock are stainless steel tubing: the hour hand is 14.5ft, the minute hand 17.5ft and the second hand 21ft long. Their combined weight is 567kg (1,250 pounds). An ivy-clad, louvered stone tower stands 7.3m (24 feet) tall and contains speakers that every quarter hour broadcast Westminster chimes. The intricate designs on the face of the timepiece are created with up to 16,000 carpet bedding plants. The floral design is changed twice each year.

The Floral Clock was built by Ontario Hydro in 1950 but the idea to build the attraction came from Dr. Richard Lankaster Hearn, Hydro’s General Manager and Chief Engineer at the time. Since 1977 The Niagara Parks Department has been responsible for designing and planting the face of the Clock and a site maintenance worker regularly checks the official time to ensure the Clock’s accuracy. The mechanism is kept in working order by Ontario Hydro.

To say the truth, Carolus Linnaeus proposed the concept of the Horologium Florae (“flower clock”) in 1751 and published it in Philosophia Botanica. Actually, it was a hypothetical garden plan that would take advantage of several plants that open or close their flowers at particular times of the day to precisely show the time. The idea was attempted by several botanical gardens in the early 19th century with mixed success because the accuracy of such a clock is affected by weather, seasonal effects and other factors.

Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens & School of Horticulture
Just right on Niagara Parkway, Niagara Parks’ Botanical Gardens are located. This beautifully maintained garden was established in 1936 on 40ha (99 acres) and features over 2,400 roses and one of Canada’s finest collections of ornamental trees and shrubs. This Garden is home to the Butterfly Conservatory and serves as the unique outdoor classroom for students attending the Niagara Parks School of Horticulture.

Butterfly Conservatory
The Butterfly Conservatory is the world’s largest glass enclosed butterfly conservatory. This unusual magical attraction features over 2,000 colourful tropical butterflies floating freely among lush, exotic blossoms and greenery.

Whirlpool Aero Car
The Whirlpool Aero Car is a cable car that transports passengers over a section of the Niagara River referred to as the whirlpool.

Ronald J. Dale, Niagara-on-the Lake: Its Heritage and Its Festival (1999)

Brian Doherty, The Pictorial Stage, 25 Years of Vision and Design at the Shaw Festival (1986)

Margaret Dunn, Historic Niagara-on-the-Lake: A Pictorial Discovery (1995)

Keith Garebian, George Bernard Shaw and Christopher Newton (1993)

John L. Field, ed, Bicentennial Stories of Niagara-on-the-Lake (1981)

Nick and Helma Mika, Niagara-on-the-Lake: The Old Historical Town (1990);

Richard Meritt, Nancy Butler and Michael Power, eds, The Capital Years: Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1792-1796 (1991)

Michael Power and Nancy Butler, Slavery and Freedom in Niagara (1993)

Peter J. Stokes, Old Niagara-on-the-Lake (1971)

Kyle Upton, Niagara’s Ghosts at Fort George, By Kyle Upton Copyright ©1999




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