Highlights of the Great Trail: Niagara River Part 10

Go back to Part 9

Part 10: To Frenchman’s Creek

Hike: 4
Date: Monday 19 July 2021
Start: Niagara Parkway at Netherby Road, Black Creek
End: Frenchman’s Creek, Fort Erie
Distance Covered: 9.7 km
Total Distance Covered: 48.5 km

107. Today’s hike takes us almost 10 km southeast, from Black Creek near the junction of the Niagara Parkway with Netherby Road, to Frenchman’s Creek near the northern edge of Fort Erie. Near the end of the hike, we pass the southernmost point of Grand Island, where the Niagara River divides into two branches on its way downstream. And then the industrial suburbs of the city of Buffalo, New York come into view across the River. The Canadian shore is, with the occasional exception, affluent and suburban and this section of the Parkway is very lightly trafficked.

108. If you are determined to stick to the Parkway, The Lighthouse Restaurant on-the-Parkway is, as the sign says, the “Last Chance for Food” for about 13 km in both directions. As far back as 1842, there were three hotels around Black Creek, the midway point on the stage road between Chippawa and Fort Erie. We dined on the patio of the Lighthouse after today’s hike, and spoke to the owner, who revealed that the building was at least 140 years old, that he had recently sold it, and that the new owner was taking over at the end of the month. The current menu is “like the Canadian population” extremely eclectic: wonton soup, fish tacos, poutine, souvlaki, bruschetta, teriyaki, pizza, fish and chips ….

109. This is Black Creek from the stone bridge that carries the Parkway over it. The creek is navigable by canoe for about 6 km inland as far as Stevensville. Anglers troll it for muskie, pike, perch, bass, carp, and mudpuppies (large salamanders). Remarkably, there was once a train station near this spot, on the Erie and Niagara branch (1864) of what would later become the Canada Southern Division of the Michigan Central Railway (1882) (see map left). By 1873 there were three trains a day between Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie. But by 1925 service between Fort Erie and Chippawa had been discontinued and now there isn’t even a bus service between these places.

110. A colourful display of the low-maintenance flora typically featured in the front gardens of the affluent homes on the Parkway. Hydrangeas, hostas, tickseeds, petunias, and day lilies figure prominently.

111. The quiet Parkway meanders enticingly towards Fort Erie on this morning in high summer.

112. A 1.75 acre lot with a 200 foot / 61 m frontage for sale on the Parkway will cost you just north of $1 million. On it you can build your 5,000 sq. ft. dream house …

113. … but first this Caterpillar D6M XL crawler dozer will have to finish clearing and levelling the lot. It has a 140 horsepower Cat 3116T diesel engine, and weighs 15,000 kg/33,200 lbs. A good twenty-year-old used machine will cost you about CAN $75,000.

114. This 20,000 sq. ft. edifice in rustic Norman style at 3425 Niagara Parkway is on sale for $5.9 million. It may originally have been intended as a golf clubhouse, but it’s now being offered as a single family dwelling.

115. A line of old growth oak trees provide welcome shade to our Trail on this hot and humid July day.

116. At a distance we assume it’s yet another cormorant on a bare branch, but this large solitary bird, its eyes fixated on the river below, is actually an osprey. From this angle it looks almost entirely brown, but that’s because its white chest and belly is turned away from us. This raptor, a species of large hawk, specializes in catching fish by diving talons-first into water. On each foot, two talons face forward and two backward, and their undersides are covered with spicules (small spines) to stop the wriggly catch from squirming away. Ospreys are widely distributed globally, and their fish-catching prowess is famous enough to be the subject of a Shakespearean metaphor: Speaking of Coriolanus’s popularity, his arch-enemy Aufidius declares: “I think he’ll be to Rome / As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it / By sovereignty of nature” (Coriolanus IV.vii, 35-37).

117. At left, the wooded southern extremity of Grand Island: the Niagara River splits here into two branches which will reunite just south of Niagara Falls.

118. The Trail following the Parkway is popular with recreational cyclists, as it’s largely flat and free of pedestrians (except ourselves, of course). Of that small minority who courteously alert us to their intention to pass us from behind, almost all are female.

119. This house in neoclassical style is for sale at $3,290,000, and may be of particular interest to people who like to collect and restore historic cars in climate-controlled comfort. Here’s some of the realtor’s blurb, verbatim: “Welcome to your dream home 2707 Niagara Parkway on a 11.4 Acres lot. Permitted Air B&B business. Private trail behind…. It has almost 4,818 sq. ft. finished space, features 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms. Professionally landscaped back yard has a beautiful pool. Complimented by 2,000 and 4,000 square foot fully equipped, heat and air-conditioned automotive collector’s garages. Plenty of parking spaces in driveway and lots of room for boat and RV.”

120. Niagara Christian Collegiate describes itself as an independent, non-denominational Christian private school located at 2619 Parkway at College Road. It was founded in 1932 by the Brethren in Christ Church, a branch of the River Brethren based in Pennsylvania who baptized their followers by immersion in the Susquehanna River. Thus the school is a legacy of the Radical Pietist sects who settled in the Niagara Peninsula after the American Revolution.

121. This rather confusing plaque near Miller’s Creek celebrates the first passage of two vessels in 1829 from Lake Ontario via the then newly opened Welland Canal to Lake Erie. It doesn’t make plain that in 1829 the Welland Canal reached only as far south as the Welland River, and thus the two vessels must have turned east at that river, then turned south into the Niagara River at Chippawa just upstream from the Falls, from where they sailed more than 20 km farther upstream to Black Rock, on the American side north of Buffalo. Why this plaque is located here rather than at the Welland River 16 km north of here, or opposite Black Rock, NY about 5 km south of here, is unclear. William Hamilton Merritt (1793–1862), born in New York state of a Loyalist family, was the force behind the construction of the first Welland Canal, which began construction in 1824. The current, fourth Welland Canal (completed 1932) is a ship canal that cuts through the Niagara Peninsula to the west of here and is thus a crucial section of the St. Lawrence Seaway. At no point does the modern Welland Ship Canal intersect with the Niagara River.

122. As the plaque only hints, this quiet marina at Miller’s Creek (established 1965) was once the unlikely site of an “emergency shipyard” during World War I. At least four merchant ships were built here (all too late to serve in the war) by Canadian Allis-Chalmers, a subsidiary of Canadian General Electric. The fate of three of these vessels, all of which had been renamed by subsequent owners, was unfortunate: War Vixen (built 1919) ran aground in the Black Sea off Constanța in 1933; War Magic (1920) went missing in mid-Atlantic in 1941 with the loss of all aboard; War Wallaby (1920), later a Japanese cargo ship, was torpedoed and sunk by a US submarine in 1944. The fourth, the bizarrely christened War Wombat (1920) survived World War II, and renamed Shoryu Maru by its Japanese owners, was scrapped in 1960.

123. A guy our age brushes down his riding mower with the tenderness of a groom tending to his favourite horse. I have dealt elsewhere in detail with lawn theory as it relates to riding mowers. Now I find that the eminent journals Scientific American and Psychology Today have both recently published articles aiming to explain the strange obsession of North Americans with unproductive acres of closely-clipped grass. The current expert consensus seems to be that the cumulative effect of the space given to North American lawns amounts to an ongoing ecological disaster, which will probably not come as welcome news to property owners on the Niagara Parkway.

124. This plaque by the Parkway at Thompson Road marks the approximate spot in 1837 where William Lyon Mackenzie, whose attempted rebellion against the government of Upper Canada had failed abysmally, took a rowboat provided by Captain Samuel McAfee across to Grand Island and thus evaded the authorities aiming to capture, imprison, and almost certainly hang him for treason. Mackenzie’s clandestine journey with a £1,000 price on his head starting on 7 December 1837 from Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street north of Toronto covered over 160 miles / 257 km, took five days, and was conducted by foot, horse, wagon, sleigh and (from this point) by boat on the morning of 11 December over to Grand Island and the safety of US territory. Christopher Raible’s excellent article “’A journey undertaken under peculiar circumstances’: The Perilous Escape of William Lyon Mackenzie, December 7 to 11, 1837” in Ontario History 108.2 (Fall 2016) includes all the dramatic details and a timeline and map of the escape route: “Mackenzie’s flight was an extraordinary feat. From Thursday afternoon to Monday evening is 5 days, 4 nights: a total 99 hours. He was on the move for more than 56 hours, nearly 40 of them in the dark. He stopped more than 30 times, mostly only brief intervals for food or rest, finding perhaps a total of 12 hours for sleep. He travelled on foot nearly 24 hours (almost 70 miles), on horseback 15 hours (about 65 miles), in a wagon or sleigh another 10 hours (nearly 30 miles)” (p.149). The townspeople of Dundas, where Mackenzie had resided between 1820-23, may be disappointed to learn that there is no evidence to support the local legend that during his flight he hid out in a cave on the face of Escarpment above the town. Given the generous reward offered for him, the chief explanations for Mackenzie’s avoidance of capture are 1) that he knew the local terrain better than his pursuers; 2) that he had many sympathizers who either sheltered him or turned a blind eye when they recognized him; and 3) that the proclamation above failed to include a physical description. We have encountered William Lyon Mackenzie several times before on this hike: please see #29, #33, #88, #100 above.

125. The former Charles R. Huntley Generating Station looms across the Niagara River in the town of Tonawanda, NY, a blue-collar suburb of Buffalo. It was a coal-fired 780 MW facility, originally built in 1916 then enlarged between 1940-50. The worst air and water polluter in Erie County, as well as the largest contributor to the local tax base, it was closed down by current owners NRG Energy on 1 March 2016. The enormous size of its adjacent coal storage yard can be seen on the satellite view courtesy of Google Maps. (Why a coal-fired power station was needed on the bank of a river famous for its hydroelectric generating capacity is a whole other story.) Possibilities for reuse of the site were recently debated in Tonawanda: they included a bioenergy plant, an industrial heritage museum, and green space, as (unlike here on the Canadian side) public access to Tonawanda’s six miles of riverbank is limited. An eagerly anticipated sale of the property fell through in 2020, and the owners are currently inviting new proposals.

Go to Part 11