Imagine living on a frontier two hundred years ago during the war of 1812, carving a home out of the wilderness on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. For most people residing in Upper Canada in 1812, daily life was an adventure. The threat of invasion and reality of raids only heightened their sense of urgency and struggle.
The War of 1812 Bicentennial is creating some unique opportunities to explore the past in Eastern Ontario.
While the infamous St. Lawrence rapids have been hidden with the opening of the Seaway, the river is still a force promising adventure. Tracing the American campaign from Sackets Harbor to Grenadier Island past Kingston and Fort Wellington onto the Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Memorial is an experience unto itself.
After all, this is the home of the Thousand Islands. It’s just fortuitous that history and natural beauty can meet here as they do for an unusual adventure. Stopping along the way – for breaks and pleasure – just enriches the whole vacation. Sail past Carleton Island, the only territory lost (by us) during the War of 1812.
Dock in Bath to tour the new Lafarge 1812 Discovery Centre or further down the river, Fort Henry recently unveiled an innovative Visitor Centre featuring an interactive canon that fires on a tall ship out on the St. Lawrence. Visitors can ask questions of somewhat holographic figures from the past, bringing history to life in a most unique way.
Continue onto historic Gananoque. With a beautiful heritage downtown, replete with stone architecture reminiscent of England, Gananoque is a jewel on the St. Lawrence.
With the 200th anniversary of the declaration of war on June 18, Gananoque opened the Joel Stone Heritage Park, named after one of the town’s founders. The waterfront park features a refurbished period cannon and a bronze diorama showcasing the town as it was in 1812.
Gananoque was also the site of the first American raid during the War of 1812. To commemorate the attack, the town will host a re-enactment weekend August 24-26. The Raid on Gananoque will include skirmishes, encampments, a naval battle and period ball.
In remembering the raids, The Victoria Rose Inn in Gananoque is offering guests a special 1812 picnic of heritage food on a private island. The outing includes a boat tour through the islands, highlighting where Captain Forsyth landed with 95 American troops to raid Gananoque.
Brockville, renamed for the War of 1812 hero Sir Isaac Brock, also suffered a raid at the hands of Forsyth. To commemorate the conflict Brockville is choosing a more upbeat theme, hosting a Tall Ships Festival July 15-17, 2013.
This summer, Homewood Museum will come to life with the 1st Grenville Militia, Regency dancers and historic 1812 characters performed by the Kemptville Players. Visit one of the oldest houses in Ontario, built between 1799-1800, on August 18 while it is teeming with living history.
Eastward, Fort Wellington now houses the rare hull of a period gunboat that served on the St. Lawrence during the War of 1812.
Like Brockville and Gananoque, nearby Prescott will be marking the anniversary of an American raid – and subsequent Battle of Ogdensburg, effectively ending the Forsyth attacks. The commemoration will take place in February 2013.
For those seeking something more artistic along the way, the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival will be running Othello set during 1812 for the 2012 season. Next year will feature a special commemorative play written for the theatre group on the War of 1812.
Eastern Ontario was home to one of two crucial battles during the War of 1812. The British victory at Crysler’s Farm in November 1813 effectively ended the American campaign to invade Canada. Had the Americans succeeded in taking Montreal, the British would have lost control of the St. Lawrence River. Given Upper Canada’s reliance on imports for just about everything, the loss of the St. Lawrence would have meant the demise of all settlements up river and beyond along the Great Lakes.
To commemorate the significance of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, the then Department of Militia and Defence erected a monument at the site in 1895. A plaque was added in 1921 and the field designated a national historic site. Preceding the flooding of the battlefield (with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway), the monument was moved, in 1955, to its current location atop a manmade grassy knoll created of earth removed from the original battlefield.
Located in Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Park, the monument overlooks the St. Lawrence, across the river to the United States. In contrast to what happened there, the park is one of the most peaceful spots from which to contemplate the impact of the War of 1812.
Adjacent to Upper Canada Village near Morrisburg, Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Park is also one of the best places to experience history. The Village’s newly opened Discovery Centre includes an infantry charge through a projection fog wall and a multi-screen immersive theatre of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.
Next summer history will come to life with a major re-enactment of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm on July 13-14. This is the signature War of 1812 event for Eastern Ontario and will involve around 1000 participants re-enacting the battle.
A more sombre remembrance service will follow on November 11, 2013, the actual date of the 200th anniversary of the battle that turned aside the largest American invasion of the Canadas during the war.
Of course, if true adventure is what you seek, the best way to experience the War of 1812 is to help bring it to life. Nothing offers a first-hand experience quite like re-enacting. If camping, cooking over a fire and artillery guns beckon, this is the hobby for you.
Consider becoming acquainted with the past time in Spencerville June 21-23, 2013. The annual Heritage Fair offers new participants a gateway into re-enacting. Camp with seasoned re-enactors, muster with the 1st Grenville Militia, or go Austen with the English Country Dance Weekend and Regency Ball. The Spencerville Heritage Fair offers period fun for just about everyone. It’s a perfect embodiment for what the St. Lawrence Region has to offer throughout – beautiful scenery, wild recreation, and an abundance of heritage.