Before Canada became the nation we know of today, there was Upper Canada and Lower Canada. We won’t get into the long history lesson but we will hopefully spark your interest to explore one of the capitals that made headlines back in Britain pre-Confederation during the early 19th century. It’s known as Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL) and was the first capital of Upper Canada.
This waterfront settlement held great significance as it was located where the mouth of the Niagara River spills into Lake Ontario.
The forested flat area was a hop, skip and a jump to the river’s other side where those “Damn Yankees” lived in the neighbouring United States.
Gun powder soon filled the air and battles were fought and won. It was down to one critical war known as the War of 1812 which solidified the future of Upper Canada.
Here are five early events and people who hailed from NOTL:
1-Fort George National Historic Site
This British garrison, while it’s largely been recreated, represents an early 19th-century military fort located on the outskirts of town by the river’s edge with Fort Niagara in perfect view over in the United States.
The main purpose of the fort was to defend the Niagara peninsula which was part of Upper Canada.
It also housed soldiers and was the headquarters of top military officers like Sir Isaac Brock.
Head inside this fort, watch re-enactments, participate in programs and learn about Canada’s early days before Confederation.
The National Historic Site is managed by Parks Canada and for the 150th Canadian anniversary, Parks Canada is offering free admission to historic sites and parks.
2-Queenston Heights National Historic Site
I love heading to Queenston Heights. The setting is gloriously rich in walking trails and panoramic vistas from this lofty perch situated on the Niagara Escarpment.
The absolute must-do when here is to ascend the corkscrew staircase at Brock’s Monument which is not for the squeamish or those who dread heights.
The monument is in commemoration of Major General Sir Isaac Brock, Commander at Fort George who died defending this turf.
It is the largest monument of its kind in Canada and is comparable to the other great British hero’s monument: Lord Horatio Nelson whose statue graces Trafalgar Square in London.
Some records indicate Brock’s Monument is even four metres taller than Nelson’s monument.
This location holds huge significance as soldiers like Brock fought here during what is known as the War of 1812 which was the brutal Anglo-American conflict that occurred in 1812 to 1815 over a lot of territory.
It remains the last time that the Brits and Americans fought against each other.
See one of Canada’s first thriving shopping centres of its day where trade was booming.
Goods arrived daily on the Niagara River and that included bundles of mail and parcels. Welcome to the country’s first post office which amazingly was in the home of the first postmaster.
The palatial home with river views was built for Alexander Hamilton, the son of Robert Hamilton, Queenston’s first mayor and a founding father of Upper Canada. It’s a fabulous impressive Greek Revival mansion which was the fashion of the day.
The home was designated a national historic site in 2003. In May 2006, Willowbank was recognized as a site of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
Today the heritage property houses the School of Restoration Arts. Events and festivals are regularly scheduled and the historic space is available for event rentals.
4-Laura Secord Homestead
You’d be surprised at what an unassuming wife of a United Empire Loyalist (this is a term used to describe an American loyal to the British Crown who moved to Canada) who while stirring her pot might overhear in her kitchen.
For Laura Secord, considered a Canadian legend, it was a top secret plan of an American military invasion.
One day in 1813, three American officers who were billeted there became way too relaxed and boasted how they would finish off one of the Canadian military outposts.
The long and short of it was Secord went on an arduous 32-km journey to warn the local British commander, Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, of an imminent American attack.
All she had for this dangerous covert mission through enemy lines was her cow and a milking pail used to disguise her harrowing journey.
She hiked through thick brambles and swampland to successfully deliver the message to the Lieutenant.
Today, visitors can see the humble abode of the Canadian heroine Laura Secord. The restored historic home under the stewardship of the Niagara Parks Commission is open to the public.
Guided tours are available. And, yes for the chocolate lovers, it’s a “must” to purchase some famous Laura Secord chocolates.
5-Niagara River Parkway
The best way to arrive at NOTL is via this winding roadway known as the Niagara River Parkway. The road snakes along the mighty Niagara River.
From the Niagara Falls, you drive north passing along a route which defined the nation’s founding. See landmarks and monuments that proudly stand as a testament to Canada’s early days.
Cyclists enjoy the leafy river trail maintained by the Niagara Parks Commission that has its own designated path. called the Niagara River Recreation Trail, which makes biking here very enjoyable.
You head through sacred Carolinian forests and inch by the glorious vineyards but make sure to take the time to stop along the way.
There is a fabulous collection of heritage plaques. These chunks of stone have chiselled stories that tell passers-by what used to be here.
Some of my favourites belong to Thomas Moore, the Irish poet who illustrated this dreamland of Niagara to fellow Irish countrymen who later immigrated and made homesteads there.
His creative inspiration it’s been said was found beneath a large oak tree outside the McFarland House.
Another fabulous plaque is the story of the McFarland House (open to the public). During the War of 1812, it was used as a hospital by both British and American forces and a British battery.
Niagara-on-the-lake (NOTL) is 22km (27 minutes) from Niagara Falls.
Inspired to find out more about NOTL and surrounds? Here are some stories you might enjoy.
If you’re wondering where else to go while in Canada, consider staying overnight at the historic village of Val Jalbert in Quebec.
Another beautiful spot to visit in Canada is the Thousand Islands, where you can take a Boldt Castle cruise.