Highlights of the Great Trail: Niagara River Part 11

Go back to Part 10

Hike: 5
Date: Monday 26 July 2021
Start: Frenchman’s Creek, Fort Erie
End: Old Fort Erie
Distance Covered: 6.5 km
Total Distance Covered: 55.0 km

126. This hike takes us from Frenchman’s Creek to Old Fort Erie. We go under the International Railway Bridge, through central Fort Erie (the town) where the Parkway changes its name to Niagara Boulevard, under the Peace Bridge that connects the QEW with Interstate I-190 in Buffalo, NY, and along the Lakeshore a little way past historic Old Fort Erie (the fort) to the start of the Friendship Trail, which continues westward to Port Colbourne. This completes our Niagara River hike.

Part 11: To Downtown Fort Erie

127. At Frenchman’s Creek, there’s not much to see except high water on the creek itself and a rusty plaque by the River. But this is another historic spot: the foot and road bridges over the Creek are the descendants of the bridge that featured in a notorious fiasco during the War of 1812. After their setback at Queenston Heights, the Americans under Brigadier General Alexander Smyth tried to regain the initiative by launching a two-pronged attack on 28 November 1812 preparatory to a major invasion of Upper Canada. But Smyth was an incompetent leader whose contradictory orders infuriated his own men and whose bombast—e.g., on 10 November he wrote that, “in a few days the troops under my command will plant the American standard in Canada”—continually alerted the British to his plans. His ineptness seemed to affect his subordinates. US Lieutenant Colonel Charles G. Boerstler with 200 men in eleven boats was directed to cross the River in darkness and destroy the bridge over Frenchman’s Creek, so as to stop British reinforcements at Chippawa from interfering with the main invasion force near Fort Erie. But after landing, Boerstler discovered that the axes for breaking up the bridge were in four boats that had failed to make the crossing, and these tools could not be retrieved before the British arrived. The US soldiers managed to tear up only about a third of the bridge’s planks until they were confronted by Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Bisshopp’s 300 men from Chippawa and hastily withdrew. The failure at Frenchman’s Creek, Smyth’s continuing inability to gain the respect of his subordinates, and worsening weather led to the cancellation of the planned American invasion at the end of 1812.

Image courtesy of Buffalo Psychiatric Center

128. (Top picture) As the River narrows, we now see on the US side, left, the tall spire of St. John’s United Church of Christ on Amherst Street in Black Rock, NY, and centre right, the twin towers that we glimpsed at a distance in #106 above. Formerly the administration building of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane (opened 1880), it’s now part of the renamed Richardson-Olmsted Complex that commemorates the collaboration of two outstanding figures in American culture: the architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), notable for his Romanesque Revival buildings, and the landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), responsible for New York’s Central Park. The administration building, which had been unused since the 1970s, has recently been repurposed as the Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center. The lower picture is a historic shot of the central buildings of the former mental hospital.

129. The Bowen Road Park Pavilion of the Great Trail in Fort Erie still hasn’t been updated to reflect the new name of this trail … But wait a minute! Consulting the Great Trail’s website I find that on 1 June 2021, “the name of The Great Trail of Canada has changed back to its original name, and is once again known as the iconic Trans Canada Trail.” The explanation: “Back in 2016, we decided to separate the name of our organization (Trans Canada Trail) from the name of the physical trail (The Great Trail), as a way to celebrate and highlight the significant milestone of connection in 2017.” But it turned out this wasn’t such a good idea, as “Trans Canada Trail” supposedly had the kind of “iconic” recognition that “Great Trail” didn’t. I don’t expect Michael Haynes, whose books The Best of the Great Trail: Vols. 1 & 2 (Goose Lane, 2018) (vol. 1 is illustrated) is too pleased about this volte face, though anyone wanting to familiarize themselves with the best parts of the Great … sorry … Trans Canada Trail should consult his detailed and beautifully illustrated volumes. The fact is, the name “Trans Canada Trail” is only “iconic” if that overused word can be taken to mean “having been around for a while.” Moreover, the original Trail branding and waymarking was never properly updated after 2017, probably because it was found to be too expensive to do so. Consider the fate of the original 88 pavilions: “In 2013, many of the pavilions were discovered to have fallen into disrepair due to weather erosion and vandalism, and the decision was made by many of the local communities and/or Trail partner organizations to have them decommissioned. The remaining 26 pavilions, located mostly in urban centres across Canada, were redesigned and refreshed for Canada 150. All inscriptions from the decommissioned pavilions were transferred to the remaining 26 pavilions.” Oh, the re-renamed Trans Canada Trail now has yet another new logo (not the one under the map in the pavilion above) … but I doubt that this will become “iconic” any time soon. See entries #1-6 of this blog for more on the Great Trail / Trans Canada Trail.

130. A refreshingly different architect-designed contemporary bungalow at 751 Niagara Boulevard in Fort Erie.

131. Bertie Hall, a.k.a. the Forsyth-Pattison-Kilbridge house (built 1834), 657 Niagara Boulevard at Phipps Street, has many interesting associations, not all of them verifiable. William Forsyth (1771-1841), who built it, was a colourful if shady character who had a large part to play in the early commercialization of Niagara Falls. One of his outrageous stunts involved sending a schooner with a cargo of living animals over the Falls in 1827 in front of an audience of 10,000. The plaque (left) by the door would seem to indicate that the house honourably participated in the abolitionist movement, but this has recently been cast into serious doubt. “’We did not find any evidence that Bertie Hall was ever associated with the Underground Railway,’ explained Niagara Parks Commission (NPC) CEO David Adames. A large plaque in front of Bertie Hall was recently removed by the NPC, and Adames confirmed it was taken away because the information on the plaque was a false account of history that never happened. While there is evidence that other places in Fort Erie played a role in helping Black slaves escape to freedom from Buffalo and into Canada, the oft-repeated story about Bertie Hall is simply untrue”: James Culic, “Fort Erie’s False Black History Tale Quietly Corrected,” Fort Erie Post (28 April 2021). It seems more likely that any smuggling associated with Bertie Hall had far less altruistic purposes. It is possible that Bertie Hall may have been occupied by Fenians or the basement used to house Fenian prisoners of war during the Raid of 1866, when about 1,000 Irish-Americans, mostly veterans of the Civil War, briefly invaded the Fort Erie area to pressure the British for Irish independence. From 1982-2010 Bertie Hall housed a dollhouse museum, which closed when it became too expensive to maintain, the collection then being auctioned off. Since the dollhouses departed, there have been many reports of paranormal phenomena experienced in Bertie Hall, which sceptics might view as having been inspired by the “haunted dollhouse” meme in popular horror film. Currently the building houses the archives of the Niagara Parks Commission. Unless new counterevidence emerges soon, expect to see that Underground Railroad plaque removed in the near future. See Girl in Niagara’s photoblog post, “Haunted Bertie Hall and the Underground Railroad in Niagara” (3 March 2021) for links to more information about Bertie Hall.

132. A low metal bridge over Niagara Boulevard (upper image) blocks the progress of large vehicles: a too-tall camper van is having to make a U-turn as we arrive at this spot. This is the International Railway Bridge that crosses from here in Bridgeburg, ON to Black Rock, NY on the US mainland. The challenges to the engineers of this bridge were considerable: the River is up to 14 metres deep here, the current is strong, and in winter the bridge had to withstand ice floes sweeping downriver from Lake Erie. However, it was completed in 1873 without loss of life, and is still in use by freight trains on CN and CPR lines. The section of bridge visible in the lower image is almost 600 metres long, and there’s another more than 500 m of it across Unity Island, over the Black Rock Canal, and into Black Rock itself. A pedestrian walkway on the bridge was closed in 1900. In July 1903 Big Ed Delahanty (1867-1903), a baseball power hitter latterly with the Washington Senators, was forcibly removed from a passenger train as it was crossing this bridge for being drunk, disorderly, and brandishing a razor. His body was found at the foot of Niagara Falls two weeks later.

133. The Fort Erie Underwater Recovery Unit was founded in 1961 to assist in the recovery of people and property lost in the River and vicinity. These days the FEURU is a private scuba diving club with its HQ in an old pumping station on the riverbank. Its website reports: “While we still provide the public with underwater search and rescue operations, we do so purely on a voluntary basis.”

134. A gleaming black four-door Chevy Impala (1966 or thereabouts) with a stuffed panda in a rear passenger seat stands in a driveway on Niagara Boulevard. They don’t make them like this any more.

135. This bar in Fort Erie is well named. Whoever He is, He’s definitely NOT Here any more, as the place is now permanently closed.

136. St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Fort Erie dates from 1893. There was a wooden church on this site as early as 1821, then a stone church was constructed in 1881, only to be destroyed by an explosion and fire in 1892. The current stone church is a close replica of the previous one. Incidentally, Fort Erie (the town) was first incorporated as Waterloo in 1857, and amalgamated with Bridgeburg in 1932 to become the basis of the present-day town of Fort Erie.

Go to Part 12