In 1792, John Graves SIMCOE, the first lieutenant-governor of the new province of UPPER CANADA, chose Niagara as the temporary capital of the province and held parliament here until 1796, when the capital was moved to York [TORONTO]. Simcoe changed the name to Newark, but after his departure for England in 1796, the citizens petitioned the province to have the ancient name of Niagara reinstated. This was done in 1798. Nearly a century later, the post office added "on-the-Lake" to the name to avoid confusion with NIAGARA FALLS, which is 19 km to the south.
Among the Loyalists who first settled were some men of African descent who had been members of Butler's Rangers and African Americans who remained loyal. Some other early Black residents were the slaves of Loyalist families. An early abolitionist, Simcoe pushed through a law that would eventually end SLAVERY in Upper Canada. The fact that any enslaved person would automatically be free on entering Upper Canada made Niagara and the rest of the province a haven for people escaping slavery. The town became an important terminus of the UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and at one time had a thriving, industrious Black population. During the WAR OF 1812 and the REBELLIONS OF 1837, Blacks from Niagara formed their own militia companies, referred to as the "Coloured Corps."
FORT GEORGE, within the town, served as the headquarters of the central division of the British army in Upper Canada. General Isaac BROCK, commander and administrator of the province in 1812, lived in the government house where the courthouse now stands on Queen Street. On 27 May 1813, the fort and town were captured after an amphibious assault by an overwhelmingly large American army after a fierce battle through town. The Americans occupied the fort and town until 10 December 1813, when they were driven back across the Niagara River by a force of British regulars, aboriginal warriors and Canadian militia. Before retreating, the American army burned the entire town. In 1814, the British rebuilt Fort George and began construction on 2 new posts - Fort Mississauga at the mouth of the river and Butler's Barracks further inland. Butler's Barracks served until 1965 as a training base for Canadian militia.
Development of Modern Economy
During the 1830s to early 1850s the rebuilt Niagara was important for its shipbuilding, with a shipyard launching many elegant steamers during those years. Economic depression in the 1850s and the construction of the WELLAND CANAL caused the decline of industry in Niagara and a loss of its importance as a port and transshipment point. The town was revitalized in the railway era of the 1860-90s and became a tourism mecca. Elegant hotels and restaurants sprung up and by the turn of the century, 4 large steamers made 2 trips daily between Niagara and Toronto, frequent trains linked the town with Niagara Falls and Buffalo, NY, and hourly electric trains ran to ST CATHARINES, all to bring tourists to the town and to ship agricultural produce, the tender fruit that flourished in the gentle climate, to city markets.
Business suffered a downturn during World War I, and after the war the advent of the affordable automobile eventually drove the steamers and passenger rail service from the town. The GREAT DEPRESSION, followed by World War II, sounded the death knell to tourism. By the late 1940s Niagara-on-the-Lake was in poor shape with little money and very few jobs. That turned out to be a saviour for heritage. With little money, residents could not replace the old houses with smart new bungalows, a phenomenon that was occurring elsewhere in Ontario at the time.
In the early 1960s a small group of people began purchasing and restoring the older buildings. The SHAW FESTIVAL was founded to try and boost tourism. Together this was a magical formula. Tourists began to visit to enjoy the history and the restored buildings and increasingly to attend the Shaw Festival.
In 1970, the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake joined the Township of Niagara including the villages of Virgil, QUEENSTON, St Davids, Homer and McNab to become a regional town retaining the name Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Today, the major industries of the town are agriculture and tourism. Its climate permits the growing of tender fruit and grapes. Internationally acclaimed wineries have sprung up and agritourism has become a huge business. The Shaw Festival has also grown and now has 3 theatres attracting visitors between the early spring and late autumn each year. Many more visitors come to enjoy Fort George, the old town's heritage, the shops, restaurants, accommodations and the magnificent setting at the mouth of the historic Niagara River.
A National Historic District
In 2004, the old town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was designated by the Canadian government as a national historic district because of its unique collection of preserved architecture dating from the 1815-59 period, all standing in the well-ordered grid-pattern street plan. The town boasts the largest and best collection of the architectural styles of that period in the country, including the Niagara Apothecary, MacDougal-Harrison House (both c 1820), Kirby House (c 1832), once the home of William KIRBY, and St Andrew's Church (1831), one the finest examples of the Greek revival style in Canada. The historical significance of the old town was first recognized in 1986 when it was designated as a provincial heritage conservation district.
The town has many national historic sites including Fort George, Brock's Monument (1856), Willowbank (1835), Fort Mississauga and Butler's Barracks (post-1815). Historic properties of the Niagara Parks Commission include McFarland House (1800), Mackenzie Printery, of William Lyon MACKENZIE, and Queenston Chapel (1862). The Niagara Historical Museum was the first building constructed in Ontario specifically as a museum and displays a collection of early artifacts related to the history of the town.
Author RONALD J. DALE
Ronald J. Dale, Niagara-on-the Lake: Its Heritage and Its Festival (1999); Margaret Dunn, Historic Niagara-on-the-Lake: A Pictorial Discovery (1995); John L. Field, ed, Bicentennial Stories of Niagara-on-the-Lake (1981); Niagara-on-the-Lake Guidebook (1984); Nick and Helma Mika, Niagara-on-the-Lake: The Old Historical Town (1990); Richard Meritt, Nancy Butler and Michael Power, eds, The Capital Years: Niagara-on-the-Lake, 1792-1796 (1991); Michael Power and Nancy Butler, Slavery and Freedom in Niagara (1993); Peter J. Stokes, Old Niagara-on-the-Lake (1971).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
The website for the historic Ontario Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Check out the section "Visiting Our Community" for notes about the town's top tourist attractions.
A biography of John Butler army officer, office-holder, and Indian agent. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Fort George National Historic Site of Canada
Take a virtual tour of Fort George National Historic Site, a much fought over location in the War of 1812. From Parks Canada.
Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum
This fine museum, located in the former home of William Lyon Mackenzie, features a collection of working heritage presses and exhibits about the history of printing.
Check out the seasonal attractions and events offered throughout the Niagara River corridor from Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake. From the Niagara Parks Commission.
The Underground Railroad
Follow the flight to freedom along the Underground Railroad to Canada. This Canada’s Digital Collections web site focuses on St. Catharines and other locations in the Niagara Region. Also profiles noteworthy individuals such as Harriet Tubman. Wind your way through mazes and other fun games.
A Century of Sail and Steam on the Niagara River
Explore 400 years of sailing history in the Niagara River and Lake Ontario region. Peruse original illustrations and rare photographs and the full text of this 1913 publication. From the “Maritime History of the Great Lakes” website.
Shaw Festival Theatre
The website for the acclaimed Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Features the latest festival news, performance calendar, learning resources, and much more.
The website for Music Niagara, a multifaceted music festival held each year in scenic Niagara-on-the-Lake. Features chamber music, jazz, dance, spoken word, and virtuoso performances by outstanding artists. Check out the online programme for musician profiles and the latest performance schedule.
A well-illustrated guide to events, re-enactments, and celebrations commemorating the War of 1812 in the Niagara region of Ontario. From the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake's Bicentennial Committee.
This site documents the historical, architectural, and environmental values associated with Brock’s Monument, located at the Queenston Heights National Historic Site of Canada, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. A crypt beneath the monument contains the bodies of General Brock and Colonel Macdonnell. From the Canada's Historic Places website.
Niagara Historical Society & Museum
The website for the Niagara Historical Society & Museum, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Niagara-on-the-Lake's history and heritage. Check out the online collections of photographs, artifacts, and more.
RiverBrink Art Museum
The website for the RiverBrink Art Museum, located in the historic village of Queenston, within the picturesque town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The museum produces exhibitions featuring artworks from their Samuel E. Weir collection and other Canadian and international museums. Click on "Collections" to view images of featured artifacts.
The Burning! Destruction of Niagara
An account of the horrific buring of the town of Niagara (present day Niagara-on-the-Lake) by American forces during the War of 1812. From Parks Canada.
The War of 1812 Heats Up on the Niagara Frontier
Read professor Arthur Bowler's chilling acounts of cross-border attacks on military targets and civilian communities in the Niagara region during the War of 1812. Click on the link at the bottom of the page for "The Burning of Buffalo". From the website Buffalo Architecture and History.
Niagara oon Fire
This website tells the story of the burning of the town of Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) on December 10, 1813 by American forces, one of the most shameful events of the War of 1812. Click on the link "Niagara on Fire" at the bottom of the page for information on related bicentennial events.