Old Fort Niagara
If you are not familiar with this series and what I am trying to accomplish exploring my backyard, then be sure to check out my "About the Series" post here. Don't forget to read my previous post about Ellicottville, which you can read here! Enjoy!
Brief Disclaimer; I am no historian. I’m not even an amatuer historian. But I do like history and I am always interested in the history of my beloved city. Old Fort Niagara has a long past, so I’ve tried my best to piece everything together in an interesting way that makes sense.
Old Fort Niagara was built and founded not by the US, but by “New France” to keep tabs on their colonies in North America. That was in 1679, when the fort was originally christened “Fort Conti”. The fur trade was a burgeoning business, and fort provided the opportunity for New France to keep eyes on their trade route through the Great Lakes.
The fort burned to the ground later that year, and it wasn't until 1687 that the Governor of New France, Jacques-Rene de Brisay de Denonville, decided he wanted to keep occupation of the area, rebuilt the fort, and called it Fort Denonville.
The Seneca Nation was not pleased with the presence, and attacked the post the following year in retaliation from a previous attack by the French. The harsh winter had forced many soldiers back to Montreal, so only 100 were left to hold the garrison against the Seneca. When the Seneca took control, many of the remaining soldiers died of either starvation or scurvy and were held captive until the remaining soldiers returned from Montreal that spring.
The location remained under French control with limited occupation until 1726 when the construction of the permanent (now known) “French Castle” was completed. At the time though, it was called the “Maison a Machicoulis”. It was ostensibly built as a fur trading post as a gesture of goodwill to alleviate tensions with the nearby Iroquois Nation.
During the French and Indian War of 1754-1763, (A part of the Seven Year’s War, which was basically a fight between the British and French colonies in North America) the fort was seized by the British after a nineteen day battle known as the Battle of Fort Niagara. This victory by the British effectively removed much of the control the French had over the Great Lakes
During the American Revolutionary War, Fort Niagara was a base for the American Loyalists. Even after the Treaty of Paris ended the war in 1783, it remained under the British until 1796, where it was finally held for a short time by the US. Niagara was captured in the War of 1812 once again by the British, but was returned to the US after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814.
The Fort’s importance remained, but its function varied as the turn of the century approached. From a military prison to a training location for US soldiers, the Fort had a stream of occupants until the early 1920’s when upkeep and neglect of the property began to show.
Around then, an organization that goes by the name of Old Fort Niagara Association begun raising funds and awareness of the historically significant location with the goal to preserve the property and it’s 18th century buildings. They were successful, and much of this restoration was completed by 1934.
Despite the recognition in the community of the Fort’s historical significance it remained in a variety of uses through the early 1900’s. Among other things, it served as a reception center for prisoners of war. When the Korean War broke out it was occupied with military units again from 1950-1953.
That was the last time Fort Niagara was used as an operating military site. It was designated a National Historical Landmark on October 9th, 1960, and the surrounding property was placed on the Register of Historic Places on October 15th, 1966.
The current occupation of a United States Coast guard on the property has given Old Fort Niagara the distinction of the longest running military base in the United States, from 1726- Present. Though it is important to point out the coast guard base is not within the physical walls of the old fort, just on the grounds.
I didn’t know much of the history before visiting. “It’s a Fort from the War of 1812” I explained to Adrienne, adjusting the speed of my windshield wipers and turning up the heat in my car. Adrienne had agreed to accompany me. She’s such a good friend and almost always up for my ideas. (You may remember her from my Ellicottville post).
The day was rainy with a hanging mist. The type of chill that hangs in the air and soaks into your clothes. Not the best day for an outdoor museum visit. Once I make plans though, I never like to change them. So when Adrienne had texted me earlier to ask if we were still on, my answer was “Of course”.
My vague description is sort of true to be fair, but it doesn’t come close to covering the significant impact and history of the fort. I knew the fort was historical, I knew it was old, and I knew it was haunted (allegedly), so those three things were more than enough to warrant a visit.
The parking lot was sparsely populated, but I was a little surprised to see what few cars there were. The Fort is open year-round, through March weather in Buffalo can be far from acceptable for an outdoor activity. But Adrienne and I were also there I reasoned, as we climbed out of my car.
There is a rather ordinary one-story building serving as the entrance and welcome center. Once inside we could see the glass walls of the gift shop opposite a ticket desk, which stood before a set of double doors.
As we purchased our tickets, the clerk explained that behind the door was the Old Fort Niagara Museum with a movie theater. The movie was about the history of the fort and played every 15 minutes. We entered and poked our heads in the theatre, but decided to not watch and continued through to the exhibit area.
The museum isn’t big. Two hallways run parallel on either side of the theatre and meet around back, forming a large “U” shape. We walked slowly, examining the artifacts arranged in back-lit boxes or tacked on the walls.
The museum displays mostly pottery, dishes, arrowheads and other relics from the Fort’s hundreds of years of active use. There are also old weapons, military uniforms and even a miniature model of the Fort.
The centerpiece of the museum, and certainly one of the most interesting, is Old Glory. A 12X27 foot awe-inspiring American flag mounted behind glass windows in a climate controlled room. The flag was captured by the British during a battle on December 19, 1813, (during of the War of 1812) and didn’t make its way back to Niagara until 2006 after years of restoration in Albany.
The viewing area for Old Glory is on two levels to optimize the space. Much of the original flag has deteriorated (as is expected for fabric over two hundred years old) but the restoration did a great job and the museum is hoping to keep Old Glory safe and prevent more damage, hence the climate controlled room.
A blacktop path loops around the corner walls of the Fort on a decline before reaching the physical entrance. We stopped a few times to admire the view of the opposite shore.
The path curves to end at a black wood bridge leading under an archway that was set into a grass hill. I noticed that the wooden doors were standing open, and as we passed underneath we stopped to admire the stone. Adrienne and I are both fans of Game of Thrones, so we couldn’t help mentioning to each other how much the fort was looking like something we would see in the world of Westeros.
Another stone tower follows the first. This has a set of stairs leading up to a room where we could see impressive views of the layout of the Fort and the lake beyond.
We exited the second tower and came out onto the rain-dampened path that sections the grounds into four pieces. The middle of the fort is mostly lawn and of the buildings that have been restored are along the perimeter of the path. The grass sections are where most of the battle recreations and summer activities take place.
No battle recreations were on the schedule for that day, since we were visiting a touch before the heavy visitors season began. However, there is a rifle demonstration that happens a few times everyday the fort is open.
We headed straight toward the French Castle, which is by far the most impressive structure on the property and the first one to grab your attention.
Upon approaching of the castle, the realization of how close the castle is to Lake Ontario really became clear. Low walls separate visitors from the drop to the water, but you can easily poke your head over them. I did so and shivered at the site.
It was March, but the calendar still said winter, and although Lake Ontario had characteristically remained unfrozen, the bitter season we are used to in this part of the world was blatantly evident by the frozen foam below the castle. The rocks and railings below looked like someone had sculpted them out of ice, and the wind whipped and blew my hair about my face as I looked over the wall and out toward the horizon.
Lake Ontario spans the entire field of vision behind the French Castle. On clear days you can reportedly see the city of Toronto which is almost directly across from the fort. Not that day though, and I remarked as such to Adrienne as we turned to enter the structure.
The French Castle itself is stone and wood, and that day it provided some shelter from the wind. The walls did little to block the cold though. I couldn’t imagine spending the winter right on the edge of Lake Ontario with the wind blowing and the waves crashing so close. No wonder the New France soldiers had to retreat to wait out the winter! We took our time exploring the different rooms, which are staged to show what life in the castle was like. Rooms with cots, a room that was a chapel, a kitchen, a bedroom. Even a room filled with animal pelts to symbolize the original purpose of the french castle as a trading post with The Seneca nation. We peered down an old well on the first floor that was just short of terrifying; we took the stairs two floors up and took in a large room with exposed wood beams and wooden floor. Space they use for special events, if I recall correctly.
We exited the french castle just as the rifle demonstration started, and we gathered to watch.
A man dressed in a traditional uniform explained the complicated process fire even a single shot. The loading of the powder and the ball into the gun, the tamping it down, the careful aiming and the pull of the trigger. All of this had to be done within the midst of a full-out battle. He loaded the gun and warned of us the noise, but as he fired nothing happened. We all laughed, and the actor did too. He explained how the day was wet, and if the powder was wet it wouldn't set the spark off needed to fire the gun. He used this scenario to explain again how rough the soldiers had it, all that work to load the gun and it was only about a 50/50 chance it would even go off like it was supposed to!
He loaded the rifle again, and this time it did fire. The demonstration was interesting and very informative, but I couldn't help but wonder if it was done on purpose. It would have been really easy to wet the powder in the first paper pocket he funneled into the gun. It wouldn't be completely ridiculous to have the gun not fire in the first attempt to educate guests on one more aspect of war we wouldn’t have thought of. I don’t exactly care if this is the case; it would make sense from an educational point of view. However, since it was indeed a rainy day I cannot know either way. Perhaps the next time I visit the day will be a sunny one, and I can see if my theory holds up.
After the demonstration Adrienne and I headed into the handful of other buildings that still stand, none of which are as impressive as the french castle. They got little but a cursory look from us. Before leaving, we took a staircase up to an open wooden platform that faced West toward the community on the opposing shore. Niagara-On-The-Lake its called, and well known for its small town charm and wineries. To my left was the Niagara River, a slate grey rope that twisted out of sight. To my right was the mouth of the river as it emptied into the sweeping Lake Ontario. A cannon sat on this platform, facing outward as it would have done hundreds of years ago when the inhabitants of Old Fort Niagara would be on lookout. We stood for a moment, watching as some tourists horsed around the stone wall, ignoring the signs warning to stay off due to danger and posing with the cannon.
I took a look at the plastic sign tacked to the wall in front of me, yellow with a stick person frozen in a fall and an exclamation mark. I looked over Adrienne’s shoulder and saw someone texting behind a building. The figure was hidden from visitors that may be strolling the grounds, but clear to us at our elevated height. It was the young man who gave the rifle demonstration, his red coat unmistakable as he pounded away at his smart phone.
It’s really kind of funny how desperately some places try to preserve their history. Artifacts, live shows, exhibits and events. They want you to think about how life must have been, they try to really make you feel it. And make no doubt about it, Old Fort Niagara has done a fabulous job. It has a long past that is incredibly important to the Buffalo/Niagara area. Its importance to many battles and wars in American history cannot be ignored. But no matter how a place tries, our modern life will shine through. Briefly, I thought of my visits to Versailles. Its beautiful Rococo architecture and furniture. The home of arguably the most famous Queen in all of history, and the electrical outlets I kept spotting in the walls. I looked at the view in front of me, for which all I know is the exact same as what the soldiers saw, looked back at the young man texting, and than down at the obnoxious plastic sign. I glanced at Adrienne, who looked at me expectantly. “Let’s go get lunch.” I said, and we left.