Highlights of the Great Trail: Niagara River Part 8

Go back to Part 7

Part 8: The Prettiest Sunday Drive in the World

Battle of Chippawa map (1869) by Benson J. Lossing, courtesy of Archives of Ontario Library.

87. There’s usually a story behind the renaming or respelling of placenames. As this map (left) of the Battle of Chippawa shows, the Welland River that forms the northern boundary of the battlefield was in 1869 still referred to as the “Chippewa River,” even though it had been officially renamed the “Welland River” by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe in 1792 after the river in Lincolnshire, England. Why Lincolnshire? As Alun Hughes in “The Naming of Niagara’s Townships” (2013) notes, Simcoe named the counties west of the Trent River in Upper Canada systematically for counties in eastern England, probably indicating his “desire to create a ‘Little England’ in Upper Canada,” and placed the entire Niagara Peninsula in Lincoln county.

Several current placenames in the Niagara Peninsula have their originals in Lincolnshire, including Grimsby, Louth, and Saltfleet. But earlier names die hard, and in Ontario, Native or Native-sounding names have often proved quite resilient. The Welland River is still today sometimes referred to as “Chippawa Creek” by locals. As for spelling, the placename of the village near the River’s estuary was first spelled “Chippewa” but changed to its present spelling with two “a”s in 1844. The reasons are unclear, though it may have been to distinguish it, on the analogy of “Ottawa,” from the many US placenames where “Chippewa” with an “e” is standard. But as we can see from the 1869 map, the “e” spelling was hard to dislodge. In fact, both “Chippewa” and “Chippawa” are earlier alternative forms of “Ojibwe,” the name of the Anishanaabe First Nation.

But it’s the renaming of relatively insignificant Street’s Creek, the southern boundary of the battlefield, that provides a more interesting story.  

Destruction of the American Steam-boat Caroline by the British [1837], by L.M. Lefevre & J. Bouvier. Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

88. The Niagara Parkway crosses this small creek (above) on a new bridge (2018). The creek is labelled “Street’s Creek” on the 1869 Battlefield map above. But a historical marker (right) on the Parkway now calls it Ussher’s Creek. (Google Maps still labels it “Streets [sic] Creek,” showing once again the persistence of original names.) The renaming, possibly in 1911, was intended to memorialize the militiaman Edgeworth Ussher (c. 1804-38) who, the marker reticently notes, “was killed near here during the 1837-38 Rebellion.” The story behind Ussher’s death requires rather more elaboration. On 14 December 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie (see #29 above) and about 200 of his followers had retreated to Navy Island (see #89 below) after his failed rebellion against the Upper Canada status quo. There Mackenzie established the short-lived “Republic of Canada,” an action that had the sympathy of many Americans. An American steamship, the Caroline, was used to supply the Republic of Canada from the US shore. On 29 December 1837, Ussher, a captain in the Lincoln Militia, was one of a small British commando-style force who crossed to the American side of the Niagara River, killed a watchman, seized the Caroline, set it afire and then allowed the current to sweep it over Niagara Falls (above). The British justified their action as the destruction of a vessel supporting a traitor. But Americans were outraged at the violation of their territory and property, and to whip up anti-British feeling some US newspapers falsely reported that the entire crew of the Caroline had been murdered. Almost a year later, on 16 November 1838, Ussher was shot to death on the front step of his house near Chippawa village. Charged with his murder was Benjamin Lett (1813-58), who avoided prosecution by fleeing to the USA. Lett’s motive seems to have been revenge for Ussher’s part in the Caroline affair. Several further raids in reprisal for the Caroline occurred in 1838, including the seizure and burning on 28 May of the British steamer Sir Robert Peel on the US side of the St. Lawrence River. The assassination of Ussher took part in this context of great tension between the British and Americans on the Niagara border. Benjamin Lett, incidentally, was almost certainly the “veteran of the 1837 rebellion” (see #33 above) responsible for the bombing of the Isaac Brock column in Queenston in 1840. Lett, Irish-born, would have a long history of anti-British terrorism but usually managed to escape judicial punishment, until eventually his actions became too extreme for the American authorities, who imprisoned him at Auburn, NY. Pardoned, he would later die in Milwaukee from strychnine poisoning, possibly at the vengeful hands of Canadian agents.

Navy Island map created by Norman Einstein, May 11, 2005, courtesy of Wikipedia.

89. (Above) Part of wooded Navy Island, Ontario is at right, with the I-190 bridge from the mainland over to much larger Grand Island, New York visible in the left background. Navy Island’s role in Canadian history is short but dramatic. The British established a Royal Naval Shipyard here in the later 18th century. There was a blockhouse and storehouse for British troops on the Island during the War of 1812. William Lyon Mackenzie proclaimed it the “Republic of Canada” in December 1837 but was forced to abandon it and retreat to the United States in January 1838. From 1875, the Queens Hotel served as a Navy Island summer resort, but it burned down in 1910. Remarkably, in 1945, Navy Island was proposed as the site for the new headquarters of the United Nations! (New York City subsequently won out.) About 1.2 sq. km in area, Navy Island is currently closed to the public, uninhabited, and without facilities. A lost opportunity … but for what?

90. This section of the Niagara Parkway contains many examples of striking suburban architecture facing the Niagara River. Here’s a ranch-style house with an extremely elongated profile, low-pitch roofline, overhanging eaves, and large windows.

91. “Legends on the Niagara” could refer to many things, but here designates a public golf facility with two 18-hole courses (Battlefield and Ussher’s Creek) and one 9-hole “executive” course (Chippawa). That’s Grand Island about 700 metres away over on the US side of the River.

92. Willoughby is another placename derived from Lincolnshire. It refers to a former township that until 1970 included both the Chippawa Battlefield and Navy Island, but is now merged into the Regional Municipality of Niagara. This little museum on the Parkway occupies a former Willoughby brick schoolhouse (1916): “visitors can admire former report cards and photographs and observe the markings on the floor where the desks were bolted down. Early life is shown through farming tools and family heirlooms.” The museum also contains material explaining the experiences of different people at the Battle of Chippawa … but is currently closed due to the pandemic.

93. We pass a McMansion with French chateau stylings, a round corner tower, and a beautiful front garden. Two bronze male lion sculptures sit at the gate (top), while another pair guard the front doorway (bottom). In such lions a number of different traditions seem to merge. Those on the gateposts are, in heraldic terms, lions sejant guardant, that is, sitting on their haunches with their faces turned inward. The ones at the doorway are identical lions sejant, or sitting on their haunches looking forward. All these lions are alert and evidently intended to have a guardian function. They can be contrasted with Edwin Landseer’s four enormous bronze lions couchant (1867), i.e., stretched out at the foot of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, probably intended to embody the relaxed confidence of the British Empire. There are also two famous lions in New York City: white marble Patience and Fortitude (1911) who guard the entrance to the New York Public Library. The Fifth Avenue lions, like those in Trafalgar Square, are irresistible to children who want to ride them. But three-dimensional lions are not by definition heraldic, and these Niagara Parkway lions do not invite riders. Perhaps instead they are intended to invoke the protective function of traditional Chinese stone shishi, what are known in English as “lion dogs” or “foo dogs.” Those sculptural Chinese lions, however, are typically stylized and are usually found in non-identical pairs, one male, one female. The posture of the doorway pair definitely recalls that of the two marble lions flanking the steps to the doorway of Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis. There is a legend in real estate circles that homeowners place lions in front of their house to signify that their mortgage is finally paid off. Given that the current asking price for this 9,000 sq. ft. property is $5,398,000, for any new owners to continue to display these lions would suggest, how shall I put it?, an unproblematic access to funds!

94. Double-crested cormorants roost in a leafless tree by the bank of the Niagara. The cormorant is a bird with a long-standing bad reputation. In Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), for example, Satan, brooding on how to undermine God’s handiwork, is described thus:
Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
The middle tree and highest there that grew,
Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising death
To them who lived.
The Buffalo News reported on 18 November 2018: “The once rare black bird is now ubiquitous here. The cormorant is blamed for overfishing waters in the Niagara River and Lake Erie, taking over the nesting grounds of common terns on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor, spooking herons and egrets and threatening to dismantle millions of dollars worth of habitat restoration efforts. Flocks of cormorants have been likened to motorcycle gangs.” But from another perspective, the flocks of cormorants can also be seen as part of the revival of the local ecosystem. Their appetites are large, but according to a report on cormorants in the Great Lakes by Environment Canada, less than 2% of their catch involves game fish (p. 9). The report concludes: “The return of the cormorant to the Great Lakes has been a tremendous success story. The species almost vanished from the Great Lakes due to the effects of DDE and other toxic chemicals. Through voluntary and legislated controls, levels of this compound and other toxic substances have declined dramatically in the Great Lakes – to a point where the cormorant population can again breed successfully. The cormorant has finally been re-established as an integral component of the Great Lakes ecosystem” (p. 11).

Photo of Churchill and daughter Mary (12 August 1943) in Queen Victoria Park, Niagara Falls, Ontario, courtesy of R. Bobak’s website Right in Niagara.
Original photo source: Niagara Falls Library Archives

95. “The prettiest Sunday drive in the World”: so Winston Churchill is supposed to have remarked of the Niagara Parkway. And almost all of the online tourist material relating to the Parkway, official or otherwise, includes this quote. Let’s not question the truth of the remark: the Parkway really is a very pretty drive, not to mention a world-class hike on any day of the week. But did Churchill actually say these words? The International Churchill Society’s website has a full page of “Quotes Falsely Attributed” to Churchill. They include such Churchillian axioms as “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen,” which, the ICS notes brusquely, “appears nowhere in the Churchill canon.” Well, Churchill did visit Niagara Falls thrice, in 1901, 1929, and 1943. On his third and final visit, he and his daughter Mary were certainly driven along part of the Niagara Parkway. He had come to Canada in the middle of World War II for the Quebec Conference with US President F.D. Roosevelt, hosted by Canadian Prime Minister W.L. Mackenzie King. Churchill historian Bradley P. Tolppanen takes up the story in his blog Churchill and Niagara Falls (22 April 2019): “Before the conference started, Churchill traveled to Hyde Park, New York to meet with Roosevelt and took the opportunity to detour to again see Niagara Falls. Traveling overnight from Quebec City, Churchill’s six-car private train arrived at Niagara Falls, Ontario early in the day on August 12th. An honor guard from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was on hand as Churchill and his daughter Mary arrived on the Canadian side of the gorge. The prime minister was greeted by George Ingalls, the mayor of Niagara Falls, Ontario, and other officials. Churchill spent an hour and a half at the Falls. He viewed the cataract from the Canadian side and then drove through Queen Victoria Park and along the Niagara River as far as Queenston Heights.” Tolppanen doesn’t mention any Churchillian remark about the Parkway. However, an anonymous blogger on the Niagara Falls Tourism website (7 August 2015) claims: “I remember many years ago reading an old edition of the Empire newspaper about Churchill’s visit. In the article he was quoted as saying that, ‘The Niagara Parkway was the prettiest drive in the world.’ I liked the quote and included it in a number of articles I wrote on Niagara. I see the quote is still very much in use today.” Note, however, that the latter quote doesn’t include the word “Sunday,” and that 12 August 1943 was actually a Thursday! The attribution of the quote about the Parkway to Churchill therefore awaits verification from the backfiles of newspapers with Empire in their titles!

Go to Part 9.