ST. CATHARINES – Third in a five-part series on the War of 1812
The bloody ghosts of history are served up on Lundy’s Lane these days with doughnuts, pizza and seafood.
That’s what you can find in Niagara Falls on the site of one of the deadliest battles ever pitched on Canadian soil.
Where once the Battle of Lundy’s Lane raged, today little more remains than memory. Unless you know it was a battlefield, you might overlook the old war zone on the cemetery behind the church, as you drive past the Red Lobster on the corner, the Pizza Pizza, the nearby motel.
“It became a victim of modernity, basically, and expansion,” said Niagara Falls museum manager Clark Bernat.
“There’s no doubt that it’s missing that sense … Whatever we think a battlefield should be, it doesn’t have some of those characteristics.”
In a peninsula laden with battlefields, some do retain that feeling of history preserved.
And then there are the casualties of a growing Niagara: Lundy’s Lane, buried beneath the commercial growth of a booming city, and the site of the Battle of Beaverdams in eastern Thorold, torn apart by successive Welland Canals with only bits and pieces remaining.
Niagara 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council CEO Brian Merrett pointed the finger at Niagara Falls city policies of days gone by for the commercialization of Lundy’s Lane.
He said about 60 years ago, the municipality clamped down on hotel development. So it fled to the former town of Stamford, and hotels popped up en masse along Highway 20, even then a major route in and out of town.
But the city has made strides, Merrett said, applauding Niagara Falls for its efforts to recover more and more of the battlefield.
The killing zone extended well beyond the small areas preserved today at Lundy’s Lane, said Bernat.
Back then, he said, the engagement stretched largely between Main St. and Drummond Rd., where the main areas of preserved field lie.
But he said archeological finds have stretched farther, from a 24-pound cannonball discovered at Carlton Ave. and Culp St., a musket ball at High St. and Glenholm Ave. and a regimental button discovered on Temperance Ave.
Those finds are no surprise to Merrett.
“I grew up right there,” he said. “You had neighbours finding cannonballs in their gardens. It’s part of history.”
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati said part of the battlefield even saw some use as a quarry.
“We’re trying to repatriate it and give it the honour and dignity and respect that it deserves,” he said.
The latest plan, he said, involves returning the playground of the old Battlefield School, at the foot of the cemetery, to its original state – part of the field of combat.
Diodati figured that after the war, people were eager to get back to their everyday lives and didn’t think about the battle aside from the tourists who even then came to visit it.
Only in modern times, he said, has its significance come to the fore.
“Sometimes, you need history on your side before you can determine the significance of events,” he said.
Curiously enough, it’s when you get out of the battlefield and onto that commercial road, cruising toward the water, that the significance of the Lundy’s Lane war zone becomes clear.
The cut of the road through the field reveals it’s high ground. The perfect place to set artillery if you’re a soldier in 1814.
But that’s the trouble with strategic places, said Jim Hill, superintendent of heritage for the Niagara Parks Commission.
More often than not, they stay strategic long after the war ends, leaving the community to grow in around them.
And then there are the survivors.
Foremost among them? Chippawa.
To the eye, it’s simply a field. Beyond a zig-zagging wooden fence, tall grass waves as far as the eye can see. If not for the monuments nearby, it could be any other field in any other part of the world.
But it’s not.
It’s the place where, in 1814, British Maj.-Gen. Phineas Riall was absolutely punished by American Brig.-Gen. Winfield Scott in battle, humiliated by the U.S. soldier’s superior tactics and sent scurrying from the field.
That tidbit of knowledge changes the feel of the place entirely, as though in and of itself it awakens the ghosts long fallen.
You can almost see how the lines of red-coated and blue-coated troops and their respective squads of militiamen crawled across the landscape, muskets in hand.
Hill said the survival of Chippawa can be credited entirely to neighbours, who rallied to preserve it.
These days, it’s under the care of the Niagara Parks Commission.
Merrett said the battlefield is in great shape.
“The Chippawa site is basically like it was, except for maybe a farm or two,” he said.
That wasn’t always a guarantee, he said. At one point, the land had been eyed by a developer.
He said if the community hadn’t rallied to save the old battlefield, today it could very well be a subdivision.
Hill said the tall grass that has been allowed to run wild is aimed at replicating the field’s original look.
It was filled with oats during the war, he said.
• QUEENSTON HEIGHTS
On this battlefield, a hero lies almost where he fell.
In 1812, early in the conflict, Queenston Heights and the village below hosted a fierce battle between Sir Isaac Brock and his men versus an American invasion force.
There Brock fell, and today he lies buried beneath the immense monument towering over the heights.
It’s far from the only monument on the well-known field, but it is the most visible. You can even see it from across the river in Lewiston, N.Y., as though Brock were studiously keeping an eye on our neighbours in the U.S.
The fighting made it down into the village, too, said Hill.
At a glance, the field seems mostly untouched. It’s simply rolling parkland.
But Bernat said most battlefields saw some encroachment. Even Queenston Heights, he said, saw society beginning to move in around it before the Niagara Parks Commission came in and took over.
The tower there today isn’t the original, incidentally.
The first monument to Brock was blown up in 1840, apparently by an anti-British agitator, Benjamin Lett.
The Heights are well-preserved among our battlefields, for the most part, it seems.
That mirrors how things are across the border. Merrett said the Americans have a huge interest in preserving their major battlefields.
“One only has to go to Gettysburg” to see that, he said.
But, he said, some of the lesser battlefields tend to fall prey to encroachment.
• FRENCHMAN’S CREEK
Along Battery St. in Fort Erie, one can’t help but notice the view.
From the street’s high ground, you’re above it all. You’ve got a clean look down at the Niagara River and the shore below and across to the American side.
It’s the kind of view two types of people could appreciate: Residents and artillery gunners.
Today, Battery St. is part of a residential neighbourhood, but in late 1812 it was where most of the action was during the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek.
A plaque commemorating the battle sits on Niagara Blvd. today, just south of the creek. But that’s not where the fighting happened, Hill said. Most of where the fiercest combat took place is under the town.
He said the British had three guns set on Battery St. American troops landed and captured the guns, but the Fort Erie garrison marched in and booted them back out.
“You can’t stand in one spot and say, ‘This is where it all went down,’” he said.
But he said the high ground on Battery made a perfect spot for the British to set up their guns.
The creek bridge itself was part of the conflict, too. The Americans crossed with several boats to try and knock it out, only to find the equipment they needed to take out the bridge didn’t make it across as a few boats went astray.
Even today, Hill said, the bridge has similar strategic significance.
If some 21st-century analogue to Col. Charles Boerstler were to come along today and knock it down, motorists would have to take a significant detour — at least down to Thompson Rd. — to go north between Fort Erie and just about anywhere.
Fort Erie Mayor Doug Martin said the battle is not as big in the town’s history as the sieges around the fort itself.
But he said there will likely be a recognition of the battle on its 200th anniversary later this year.
• FORT GEORGE
You might as well call this one the Battle of Fort Mississauga Golf Course, because that’s where you’ll find it.
Though it’s named after the fort in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the cairn marking the site of this battle lies in the heart of Old Town, right on the western edge of the golf course. And really, said Hill, most of the fighting didn’t take place at either the fort or the golf course.
In reality, Hill said, the Americans landed further west, along the shoreline closer to where the old Department of Defense rifle range now lies fenced.
There, he said, they had better landing conditions and were out of the shadow of British artillery, letting them sweep eastward into Old Town.
“The goal here was to capture the whole British and Canadian force here in Niagara,” he said.
Hill said the British covered their defenses in the area by one gun at Mississauga Point.
And he said when residents fled, they hid in some of the most unlikely places.
When the Americans did reach Fort George, they opened the doors to the ammunition magazines – where the bombs are stored – and found families taking shelter.
The cairn there is far from the only battle site around Fort George, though. Hill said much of the north coast of the Niagara River was studded with artillery.
Anywhere there was a hill or a small point jutting over the water, he said, both sides would set down guns, the result being the river shore wound up exceptionally militarized.
What would it be today – the Battle of Beaverdams, or the Battle of the Welland Canal?
Not a lot remains of the east Thorold battlefield, in which Laura Secord’s famous warning allowed the British to trounce an American force heading for the DeCew House.
It ended in an American surrender among a row of trees a Brock University professor figures is still intact.
That’s the theory of geography professor Alun Hughes, who has studied the history of Thorold.
He pegs the site of the surrender at a tree-lined plot in front of the former AbitibiBowater plant — now Resolute Forest Products — on the Welland Canal.
That part, at least, looks like a battlefield. And a sharp eye might even spot a heap of rubble that John Burtniak, who chairs Thorold’s 1812 bicentennial committee, said is likely the wreck of George Miller’s farm.
The rest? Much of it is at the bottom of the third and fourth Welland Canals.
“The canals kind of cut up Beaverdams,” said Hill.
He said it’s hard to place the key sites of the battle, though, because it was more of a running engagement with both sides moving around.
The city recently sought to get that plot of land turned into a park.
“That is still in the works,” Burtniak said. “It’s been a long, drawn-out process, the city negotiating with the company to work out a long-term lease.”
But he said he couldn’t go into the details for fear of heightening expectations.
Burtniak said the canals did a number on the old battlefield.
“It’s the canal, the industrial use of the land,” he said. “It sort of happened that the battlefield was near where the canal went through.” The canal attracted industry, he said. More and more of it sprung up along the waterway.
Few paid attention at the time to what was there before, though the government did declare the lands on the canal’s east side a national historic site in 1923.
There’s a stone cairn marking that honour at Old Thorold Stone Rd., a distance from the surrender site.
Still, there are signs.
To look northeast from the cairn is to find wild, empty land – the sort of terrain one could well imagine a small army of blue-coated Americans tromping through on their way to John DeCew’s house.
“I think there’s a recognition that this is a historic piece of land,” Burtniak said. “There’s enough there to get a sense of the approximate field of battle.”
But it also shows, he said, how the way we use land today can destroy the history that was there before.
• FORT ERIE
You could have called it Fort Erie’s creepy castle less than a century ago.
As late as the 1920s, the old fort, site of a bloody, protracted siege in 1814, lay in ruins.
Pummeled during the fighting, it was simply let go, the dry ditch around it flooded to form a moat around what remained.
“You could still make out clearly it was a fort. It was kind of like a ruined castle,” said Hill.
Not so today. The fort’s been restored now, and much of the field around it has remained preserved even as the town of Fort Erie grew up around it.
Most of the siege site, where 283 British soldiers and 213 Americans were killed in a battle that dragged for a month and a half, survives, but Hill said some of the old siege lines are residential neighbourhoods now.
The British, he said, set up their guns roughly along Albany St., within range of the fort.
The fort and surrounding area, though, remained military reserve land for some time. He said they flipped from there to parkland, leaving no window for anyone to move in and build over the battlefield.
Martin said people are usually interested to know how far the battle went. He noted the British lines went up as far as Garrison Rd., where a McDonald’s stands today.
“I wonder why it’s called the Garrison Road,” he quipped.
As to the fort itself, said Hill, it’s been through a lot, from the bombardment of the war to being blown up twice to eventually falling into ruin before finally being fixed up as a Great Depression-era work project.
And he said beyond the fort, there are still American earthworks nearby, currently being pored over by an archeological team from Wilfrid Laurier University.
“It’s done pretty good,” he said.
“People in our past were thoughtful enough to preserve some of these important places.”
Martin said the fort hasn’t always gotten its due.
“The fort was always taken for granted that it was here. It was part of history,” he said.
He said schools need to do more to teach kids in Niagara about the history in their own backyards. That includes Fort Erie, he said, and the part it played in securing what would eventually become Canada.
“If it’s close to home, I think it sometime gets overlooked,” he said.
n COOKS MILLS
One must learn to see the battle through the trees to find a proud piece of Welland war history.
There’s a cairn marking the site of the Battle of Cooks Mills. It’s been there for decades at Lyons Creek Rd. and Mathews Rd.
It also happens to be sitting smack behind a very unfortunately placed tree, hiding the big plaque on the cairn from immediate view.
Once you get through the trees, there’s really not much to suggest the area has changed much over the years. Time has passed, but Cooks Mills remains a hamlet and a largely rural area, much like it was on Oct. 19, 1814 when the second-last battle of the War of 1812 raged.
That fight saw American troops score a minor victory over a smaller British force before destroying the grain in the hamlet’s mills and retreating to Black Rock.
The site was named a national historic site back in 1921.
“It’s quietly slept there for all those years since, possibly because it wasn’t in a larger municipal area,” said Nora Reid, executive director of the Welland Historical Museum.
“It’s been quietly ignored until the anniversary came up.”
Hill said little has come along to disturb Cooks Mills. He said it’s likely in much the same state it was after the war.
Reid said many of the old farmsteads from the original Cooks Mills linger.
So, too, do the old families. She said many old Cooks Mills residents have lingered, including some of those who lent their surnames to streets in the vicinity.
With those families, she said, remains a certain abiding pride in the war.
“The battle may have been long forgotten even by the citizens of the greater city of Welland, but the battle has never been forgotten by the residents of Cooks Mills,” she said.
The museum has honoured the battle with an exhibit highlighting the lives of the hamlet’s residents during the war. Reid said a Heritage Welland subcommittee is looking to set up a peace garden in the area.