Highlights of the Great Trail: Niagara River Part 7

Go back to Part 6

Part 7: To the Chippawa Battlefield

Hike: 3
Date: Friday 4 June 2021
Start: Burning Springs Hill at Niagara Parkway, Niagara Falls
End: Niagara Parkway at Netherby Road, Fort Erie
Distance Covered: 12.8 km
Total Distance Covered: 38.8 km

78. After an almost six-month hiatus due to the Covid pandemic, we are back on the Niagara River Trail. This hike takes us from our start point at the Dufferin Islands Nature Area upstream from the Horseshoe Falls, to a parking lot south of the junction of the Niagara Parkway and Netherby Road on the northern edge of Fort Erie. The Trail, running on the land side of the Niagara Parkway, follows the west branch of the Niagara River.

“The Burning Spring”: undated stereo image by George Barker, courtesy of Niagara Falls Stereo Cards collection, Archives & Special Collections, Brock University Library, as provided by Example Organization.

79. Burning Springs Hill, our starting point, is a street name to conjure with. The nearest historical marker on the Parkway refers to the burning of the Bridgewater saw and grist mills on this site during the War of 1812. But the name of the street has nothing to do with this event. It refers instead to what in the mid-19th century became the second most popular tourist attraction in Niagara Falls: the “burning spring” located near here. This was a natural spring of water that was suffused with hydrogen sulphide gas. The gas, bubbling through the water, was collected in a barrel with a corked pipe inserted into the top. When the barrel was full of gas, the cork was removed and a taper used to ignite the gas, which burned explosively with a blue flame. A shed was erected in the 1830s over the spring, and visitors were charged a fee to view the natural “miracle” of inflammable water. The attraction lasted until the 1880s when the gas ran out. In a later attempt to revive the burning spring attraction, a building was constructed in 1924 to house a piped-in gas display, a wax museum, a Falls observation deck, a restaurant and a souvenir shop. This building burned down in 1969.

80. Looking back: (top) the Niagara Falls skyline in the distance, and (bottom) the lip of the Horseshoe Falls about 1.5 km away.

81. Ahead we encounter what looks like an uncompleted bridge (above) that terminates at the midriver border between Canada and the USA. Part of the International Niagara Control Works (completed 1954), it’s not a bridge but a partial dam containing a series of 18 sluice gates with a roadway (above) on top. The sluices are used to control the rate of flow of water over the Falls, and consequently also the flow through the artificial channels to the various hydroelectric facilities downstream in both Canada and the USA. The 1950 Treaty mentioned on the plaque (above) is very specific in its aim to preserve the majesty of Niagara Falls during daylight hours, as both countries reap the economic benefits of the appeal of the Falls to tourists: pre-Covid, the Canadian side saw about 14 million annual visitors, the American more than 9 million. According to the Treaty, the waterflow over the Falls should be no less than 2,832 cubic metres per second from 8:00 am – 10:00 pm between 1 April and 15 September, and from 8:00 am – 8:00 pm between 16 September and 31 October. The flow should be no less than half that rate (1,416 m3/sec) at any other time.

82. This is one of the 18 m tall x 14 m wide Ontario Power water intake gates on the shore close to the dam. It opens or closes a tunnel that channels water from the Niagara River to the forebays of the Sir Adam Beck Generating Stations at Queenston (see #39). There are three underground tunnels on the Canadian side and two on the American. The third Canadian tunnel (completed 2013) is 10.4 km long, lies up to 140 m below the surface, adds 150 MW (enough to power a city of 160,000 for a year) to the generating capacity of Adam Beck, and cost $1.5 billion.

83. This panoramic shot taken from Kingsbridge Park a little farther upstream shows the Niagara Control Works in relation to the Horseshoe Falls (making the spray) and the skyline of Niagara Falls, Ontario.

84. On a long footbridge, we cross the mouth of the Welland River (formerly known as the Chippawa or Chippewa River, see #86 below) where it flows into the Niagara River. Due to the massive hydroelectric works in the area, this river actually reverses its flow twice a day.

85. Downstream, a large bridge becomes visible in the distance. It’s the toll bridge of US Interstate I-190 connecting Niagara Falls, NY to Grand Island, NY, a large island (73.2 km2, pop. 20,000) that divides the Niagara River into two widely separated branches. Grand Island, entirely within US territory, is larger (though somewhat less crowded) than Manhattan (59.1 km2), and is not connected by bridge to the Canadian shore.

86. Three flags over a mown field commemorate the Battle of Chippawa on 5 July 1814, fought during the Niagara Campaign late in the War of 1812. Two days earlier, about 2,700 US troops (the Left Division of the Army of the North) under Major-General Jacob Jennings Brown had crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo and easily captured Fort Erie, about 25 km south of here. Joined by about 1,300 volunteers and First Nations warriors, the Americans then headed north under Brigadier-General Winfield Scott with the aim of securing the crossing over the Chippawa (now the Welland) River. But the Right Division of the British Army of Upper Canada, under Major-General Phineas Riall had partially destroyed the bridge and had dug in 2,000 men, including about 300 First Nations allies, on the north bank. As he crossed the Chippawa River to engage them, Riall was confident that his troops were greatly superior to what he assumed were poorly-trained US militia. But the grey-coated Americans were actually well-trained regular troops and outnumbered the British. On this field on Samuel Street’s farm between the village of Chippawa and Street’s (now Ussher’s) Creek the Americans forced the British to retreat back to the north bank of the Chippawa River and to destroy the bridge completely to stop the US advance. Over 100 British troops were killed and about 319 wounded on this battlefield, compared to 58 Americans killed and about 250 wounded. Next day, the Americans buried the dead on the battlefield itself. It was the first time since Independence that an American army had won a battle against a force of roughly the same size, and Winfield Scott, whose reputation was made on this field, would later become the top-ranked general in the US army. However, on 25 July, less than three weeks after Chippawa, the Americans were held to a stalemate not far from here at Lundy’s Lane, the bloodiest battle ever on Canadian soil, where Winfield Scott was badly wounded. From then on the British held the strategic advantage and the War of 1812 would end in 1814 with the territorial status quo ante bellum more or less intact. From a contemporary Canadian perspective the Chippawa monument commemorates a defeat, though the four plaques on the column make it clear that what’s to be mourned is the loss of life on both sides, while what’s to be celebrated are the more than 200 subsequent years of peace between Canada and the USA.

Go to Part 8.