Highlights of the Great Trail: Niagara River Part 3

Go back to Niagara River Part 2

Part 3: Queenston and the Heights

23. The Trail now departs from the Niagara Parkway and leads us south up Queenston Street, the main thoroughfare through the historic village of Queenston. That’s Brock’s Monument (see 33-34 below) on the Niagara Escarpment overlooking the village.

24. On a rise above the west side of Queenston Street stands Willowbank (1833-35), a National Historic Site. That’s the back of the house facing us. Its builder, Alexander Hamilton (no relation to the American politician), saw action at the Battle of Queenston Heights and in the retreat from Fort George. In 2001, Willowbank was saved by local heritage groups from demolition and since 2009 has been the site of a School of Restoration Arts, teaching the skills necessary in effective architectural restoration.

25. John Richardson (1796-1852) is sometimes called the Father of Canadian Literature. His mother was the daughter of fur trader John Askin and his mistress from the Ottawa First Nation. His heritage made him particularly sympathetic to First Nations issues. He met Major-General Brock and his ally, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh (1768-1813), when serving with the British army. During the Battle of Moraviantown (1813) in the War of 1812, an American victory in which Tecumseh was killed, Richardson was captured and imprisoned in Kentucky for nine months. His first book was the long poem Tecumseh; or, the Warrior of the West, published in London in 1828. It begins:
It is in truth as fair and sweet a day
As ever dawn’d on Erie’s silvery lake,
And wanton sunbeams on its surface play
Which slightest breeze nor rippling currents break.
Yet Devastation’s voice her friends obey,
And stern Bellona loves e’en here to slake
Her quenchless thirst in streams of human gore,
Which soon must dye that lake and distant shore.

Richardson wrote eight novels of which the third, Wacousta; or, The Prophecy: A Tale of the Canadas (1832), was the first by a Canadian to achieve international recognition. He is thought to have died in poverty in New York City, having failed to make a living there as a writer.

26. Elkanah Holmes (1744-1832), the founder of this church, was the first American Baptist minister to preach in Upper Canada, where he had a particular interest in converting First Nations. A staunch republican, his position in Queenston during the War of 1812 became equivocal, to say the least, and his life dramatic. He welcomed invading US troops in 1813, retreated with them later that year, was captured by the British, then rescued by the Americans, and then had to flee Buffalo, NY, when it was burned by the British in December 1813. The congregation did not survive his departure.

27. The Laura Secord Homestead is at 29 Queenston Street in the centre of the village. Laura Secord (née Ingersoll, 1775-1868) is the national heroine of Canada. She is famed for having walked 20 miles (32 km) in June 1813 from here in Queenston, then occupied by the Americans, for 18 hours through the dreaded Black Swamp (where she was aided by loyal First Nations warriors) to the John DeCew House at Twelve Mile Creek in Thorold. There she warned Lieutenant James FitzGibbon what she, or her husband, had overheard the night before: that 500 American troops were about to attack the position of FitzGibbon’s guerrilla fighters, the Bloody Boys. Thanks to her warning, FitzGibbon, quickly mustering allied Mohawk troops, surprised the Americans and won a decisive victory on 24 June at the Battle of Beaver Dams. The Homestead, where Laura lived with her husband James from 1803-35 (he had been seriously wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights), is now a museum. A 32 km Laura Secord Legacy Trail that follows her route as closely as possible now connects the Homestead (and the Great Trail) to the site of the DeCew House.

28. Kitty-corner from the Secord Homestead at Queenston and Partition Streets is this plaque marking the now demolished house where Brock’s body was taken after his death in battle. Brock’s body eventually found a permanent resting place in the crypt under his Monument on Queenston Heights (see 33 below).

29. At the southern end of Queenston Street sits this fine stone house, now a Printing Museum. The stone marker identifies it as the home of William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861), Scottish-born publisher and political firebrand who promoted “responsible government.” In Upper Canada, executive and legislative powers were chiefly invested in the Lieutenant Governor and his advisory Executive Council. “Responsible government” meant replacing this system with an elected legislature responsive to the will of the people. Mackenzie, an admirer of American democratic ideals, moved briefly to Queenston from Dundas in October 1823. Here he opened a print shop and started publishing the weekly Colonial Advocate. In its columns he attacked the Family Compact, the oligarchy of about thirty men who ran Upper Canada largely for their own benefit. In November 1824, Mackenzie moved to York (now Toronto), the provincial capital, where he became the town’s first mayor and continued to assail the powers-that-be. He led the failed Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, though one consequence of this fiasco was the Durham Report that advocated reform of the Canadian political system by bringing in many elements of responsible government. Mackenzie was fiery and erratic, and even if his legacy is debatable, his reformist zeal was sincere.

30. Continuing up the stairs by the printery and then on a rustic path halfway to the top of the Escarpment, we come across this cannon and plaque. A redan is an arrow-shaped gun emplacement, and this one played a major part in the Battle of Queenston Heights. The 18-pounder cannon placed here changed hands twice during the battle, first firing down on the American invasion boats, then being spiked by the British before briefly captured by the Americans, unspiked by them, used to bombard Queenston village, then recaptured by the British as the battle swung their way. Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell (1785-1812), Brock’s aide-de-camp, was wounded trying to retake the redan and later died from his injuries. He is buried with Brock in the crypt under the Column on the Heights (see 33 below). 

31. The view downstream towards Lake Ontario from the edge of the Niagara Escarpment at Queenston Heights. Part of the village of Lewiston, New York, is visible at right, but the village of Queenston, Ontario, is not, as it’s steeply below us. It’s easy to see why Queenston Heights was viewed as a key strategic location in 1812, as it is possible to see vessels coming upstream for miles from here. Of course, no vessels would be likely to come downstream because of the powerful current and proximity of Niagara Falls. Moreover, the portage road round the Falls started here. “If the heights are lost the province is lost,” as Pierre Berton put it in The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813, p. 239. Ultimately, the Battle of Queenston Heights was won by the British, thanks to extreme American disorganization in spite of superior numbers, and the arrival of British and Mohawk reinforcements in the nick of time.

32. The view in the other direction is of the northern end of the Niagara Gorge. This canyon began to be carved by the Niagara River when, 12,500 years ago, it first began to fall over the Escarpment, and now extends 11 km from here in Queenston to the current base of the Falls, where the Gorge is at its minimum depth, 51 m. For those few thousand years, the Falls has been receding (rapidly from a geological perspective) upstream from this point towards Lake Erie as a result of its erosion of the Lockport dolomite cap of the Escarpment. (Dolomite is a kind of limestone that has been hardened by the addition of magnesium from sea water.) The Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, which we glimpsed earlier, spans the Gorge close to its last narrow point.

33. Brock’s Monument is a 56 m column of local Queenston limestone topped by a statue of the soldier who is considered the hero and saviour of Upper Canada and who lost his life near this spot. Designed by William Thomas of Toronto, it was erected 1853-56 here on Queenston Heights to replace a shorter column built 1823-24. This first column had been seriously damaged in 1840 by a bomb deliberately planted, probably by a veteran of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837 that had been led by William Lyon Mackenzie. This column is 4.5 m taller than Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London.

34. The column is surmounted by a 4.8 m statue of Brock making what is probably a defiant gesture towards the American border, beneath which are figures symbolizing Victory. During non-pandemic times, visitors can ascend a 235-step spiral staircase inside the column to an internal chamber, and look at a view circumscribed by those round windows under the base of the statue. In 1929, lightning struck the statue causing Brock’s outstretched arm to fall off. That’s why the statue and the column’s capital are currently spiky with lighting conductors.

35. A rather more modest granite memorial (1910) to the heroine of the War of 1812 stands on the northern edge of the Heights, where it is framed by the Niagara River valley. It reads: TO LAURA INGERSOLL SECORD WHO SAVED HER HUSBAND’S LIFE IN THE BATTLE ON THESE HEIGHTS, OCTOBER 13th 1812. AND WHO RISKED HER OWN IN CONVEYING TO CAPT. FITZGIBBON, INFORMATION BY WHICH HE WON THE BATTLE OF BEAVER DAMS. Many Canadians will be surprised at the matronly bas relief portrait of Laura Secord on the monument (above right), which seems to be based on a photograph of her taken in 1865, when she was ninety years old. They are used to more glamorous depictions, particularly the one on the logo of the upmarket brand of chocolate that has used her name since 1913 (above left).

“Laura Secord Warns Colonel [James] Fitzgibbons, June 1813” (ca. 1920)
by Lorne Kidd Smith (1880-1966),
one of many depictions of aspects of Secord’s legendary trek
Painting in Public Domain courtesy of Wikipedia.

36. But Laura Secord is now a legendary figure, and it’s difficult to separate legend and truth at this late date. Some of what is known for sure is that she was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1775, moved with her family to Upper Canada in 1795, married James Secord in Queenston ca. 1797, bore him seven children, nursed him through the severe injuries he sustained at the Battle of Queenston Heights, was 37 years old when she made her famous trek in 1813, and lived to the ripe old age of 93, dying in Chippawa, just upstream from Niagara Falls, in 1868.

Go to Part 4: Once Around the Whirlpool