The History Lover’s Guide to Ontario's Forts
Though home to Indigenous people for thousands of years, the earnest wave of European exploration in North America began in the 15th century, followed by centuries of colonization, claims and conflict by the French and English.
By the 18th century borders began to form, and Upper Canada – present-day Ontario - was established. Meanwhile, the Napoleonic Wars of the ‘old world’ gave rise to tensions between the United States and Great Britain in the ‘new world’ and the War of 1812 took place for two years along the border between the US and Upper and Lower Canada. Much of the military and some naval combat took place in Upper Canada. The Treaty of Ghent was signed in 1814, signaling the end of the war. And, as many historians would agree, laid the foundation for a national Canadian identity.
Several military forts and strongholds in Ontario still stand, and have been carefully restored and preserved, providing endless fodder for history buffs with guided tours, battle re-enactments and uniforms, weapons, barracks supplies, and other artifacts showcased.
Here’s a guide to some of Ontario’s significant military fortification sites.
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One of the oldest forts in Ontario, Fort Frontenac was erected as a French trading fort in the summer of 1673, at the spot where the Cataraqui River meets the St. Lawrence. Although today it’s currently in use by the Canadian military, Fort Frontenac changed hands several times over the last few centuries. It was abandoned by the French in the late 1600s before being rebuilt a few years later. The fort was instrumental in the famous Battle of Fort Frontenac when British forces overtook the French trading post during the Seven Years’ War. By the late 1800s, Fort Frontenac became property of the Canadian military. Tours are by invitation only.
Location: 388 Ontario Street, Kingston
Since its construction in 1764 to 1812, Fort Erie battled flooding, ice and stormy weather, not war, until its capture by the Americans in 1814. They abandoned it that same year, and eventually the fort was restored in 1939. In 1987, the remains of 28 American soldiers were exhumed and returned to the US with full military honours. Today Fort Erie is operated by Niagara Parks Commission.
Location: 350 Lakeshore Road, Fort Erie
Dwarfed by high-rises and highways, the heritage site of Fort York is nestled in the heart of downtown Toronto. It was first built in 1793 to defend the harbour of the settlement of York, which was to eventually become the city of Toronto. To prevent it falling into the hands of the Americans, the fort was destroyed in 1813 and rebuilt the following year. Eight original building still stand, including blockhouse and barracks.
Location: 250 Fort York Boulevard, Toronto
Initially named Fort Amherstburg, this was the site of a dizzying back-and-forth volley. The fort was constructed in 1795, burned down by the British in 1813, rebuild by occupying American soldiers in 1813 (the longest American occupation on Canadian soil), restored and renamed in 1819, rebuilt and maintained by retired soldiers until 1859, when it served as an ‘insane’ asylum and a lumber yard among other things before being recognized and preserved as a national historic site in 1921. Phew.
Location: 100 Laird Avenue South, Amherstburg
Set on the southernmost spot of St. Joseph Island, facing Lake Huron and St. Mary’s River, this former British fort included a blockhouse, bakery, powder magazine and storehouse after construction began in 1796. At the time it represented the most westerly outpost of the British Empire. Parks Canada maintains the site, preserving the limestone ruins and their stories of struggle and peace.
If these walls could speak, Fort George would tell quite the tale. Instead, hear the saga of this military outpost from interpreters dressed in redcoats who reenact significant parts of battle, complete with scheduled musket fire. The fort was created in 1796 to replace Fort Niagara, a defense hold awarded to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. During the War of 1812, Fort George and Fort Niagara dueled it out with the Americans victorious in 1813, only to be recaptured by the British that same year.
Location: 51 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is located just outside of Kingston by the mouth of the Cataraqui River, and Fort Henry is easily one of the most impressive forts in the country. Construction began in 1812, strategically atop a hill called Point Henry for sightlines over the St. Lawrence River and to protect the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard. Fort Henry, named after Henry Hamilton, former Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec, was rebuilt in 1830, restored 100 years later and is now one of Ontario’s most popular heritage attractions with tours and special events taking place through-out the year.
Location: 1 Fort Henry Drive, Kingston
Just across the river from Point Henry, the battery of Fort Frederick experienced action in 1812 defending from an American naval squadron attack. It was destroyed and rebuilt in 1846 after the Rideau Canal opened, requiring further fortification. The result was the most robust armament of any fort in Kingston, with 32 carronades built into five-metre-thick walls. Despite the investment in reinforcement, Fort Frederick was abandoned just decades later in 1870. Today, it functions as a park for the Royal Military College cadets.
Location: 15 Passchendale Drive, Unit 9, Kingston