Imagine waking up to the smell of gunpowder and men shouting. Cracking an eye you are greeted with a small foot pressed firmly against your cheek. Fortunately it is your child and not some random, disembodied foot. You find that your wife is tucked at your side quietly snoring, not as easily roused as you. Pushing aside the offending foot, peeling off the scratchy blanket you sit up and immediately crack your head on wooden supports. You have momentarily forgotten that you are in a bunk bed. As a family you are awarded some manner of privacy with blankets draped around your bottom-most bunk. Sweeping these aside, you manage to crawl out of bed and find yourself stepping on a dog’s tail. In fact, a quick glance around will show you a smattering of men, women, kids and even animals sleeping. Such was the life of a soldier at Old Fort Erie.
Life, not just battle, occurred at Old Fort Erie. When many people think about war their brains drums up the tragically romantic notion of a soldier leaving his wife and children to mind the homestead in his absence, leaving her waiting months or even years for that dreaded letter. Some people can forget that entire families participated in the war.
Dan and I paid a visit to Fort Erie recently. We last visited the fort during their re-enactment of the War of 1812. Run by the Niagara Parks Commission, Old Fort Erie offers tours regularly and also have a very informative museum on-site. We took our time going through everything (there is so much to discover) and walked away with a better understanding of the War of 1812 and the fort’s history.
Delving into the history of Canadian forts in general is pretty fascinating. They can’t follow the same design principles as originally established by European designs. Canadian winters offer a challenge! For example, moats lose their effectiveness in the winter when they freeze over. You’ll find that Old Fort Erie has dug several ditches around its perimeter that used to be lined with rows of spikes. These ditches were accompanied by fencing plus sentries posted around the perimeter.
They had shelter and security, so what about food? The soldiers did their own cooking in fire pits and on the grounds of the fort. Old Fort Erie gardens were five times the size of the fort and included farming animals as well. The kitchen was used for the officers. That’s pretty fair since they paid the cooks’ wages! This all changed of course when American soldiers were occupying the fort.
We’ve all heard that the cure is worse than the cold. Well in war times it’s pretty true. A battlefield surgeon would do all they could, but they were working with limited options. They were overworked, using unsterilized instruments, dirty water and archaic medical knowledge to treat soldiers as quickly as possible before moving onto the next one. Many soldiers survived the battle just to die of infection later.
The fort itself is a bit of an obstacle. Walking towards the buildings, the ground looks level and will suddenly drop out on you. Sally Ports were built into curtain walls to avoid direct enemy fire and make it easier to defend. Winding your way around can be tricky so it really is necessary to have a guide.
Old Fort Erie is Canada’s bloodiest battlefield with over 3000 troops killed and wounded during the Siege of Fort Erie (Aug 3 – Sep 21, 1814). At different times it has been occupied by British, American and Irish armies. On a different note, the fort was also a major crossing point into Canada for the Underground Railroad (1793-1865).
Old Fort Erie can be found in Fort Erie, Ontario right near Buffalo, New York. In fact, you can see the downtown Buffalo skyline from the fort walls!
350 Lakeshore Rd. Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada (905) 871-0540
Adults $12.25, Children (6 to 12 years) $7.95 (Canadian $ before taxes)
Children 5 years and under admitted for Free at all Niagara Parks attractions
Hours of Operation:
Monday to Friday: 10 AM – 4 PM
Saturday and Sunday: 10 AM – 5 PM
Closed Wednesday, October 31
Free parking is available for visitors.