History comes alive in Fort Erie, Ontario – along with a few ghosts of battles long ago. The reconstructed Old Fort Erie site on Dominion Road is open to the touring public. Originally built by the British, the fort on the banks of the Niagara River was surrendered to the Americans during the War of 1812. When the war-weary British, along with civilians and First Nations allies, tried to recapture it in August 1814, it became the site of that war’s bloodiest battle. After the fighting had dragged on, a huge explosion took many lives.
Today the tours begin with a film recounting the history, and they continue with a guided stroll through the grounds where visitors can see the finely furnished officers’ quarters and adequate soldiers’ barracks. Reported sightings of the fort’s ghost took place in the kitchen – perhaps they were attracted by the freshly baked shortbread cookies! In the surgeon’s room you might want to avert your eyes from the tools that were used: the saw, siphon and leeches. As part of the tour, visitors can watch costumed soldiers load five-foot-long, 19th century muskets. They were clumsy to load and inaccurate in their aim. To add to the confusion, many civilian fighters on both sides were not in uniform; they wore their working clothes, making it difficult to distinguish who was in the line of fire.
In 1988, 28 American soldiers’ skeletons were discovered near the old fort – buried hastily, some with amputated limbs, and identified as American by their buttons. With collaboration from both countries, the bodies were reburied ceremoniously on the other side of the border.
Every year the siege of Fort Erie is recreated by interested visitors, dressed in costume and demonstrating their battle prowess. This year on Aug. 24 on the old fort grounds, soldiers competed in drill competitions. On Sept. 7, the fort will offer a Murder Mystery on site and on Oct. 19, 25 and 26 an All Hallows’ Eve tour with ghost stories and a Guy Fawkes bonfire (see www.oldforterie.com).
Viewing Mewinzha, a First Nations Interpretive Centre and Gallery, takes the visitor back thousands of years. Artifacts recovered from the site of Peace Bridge construction are on display in a tiny, free museum where the colourful inlaid floor and skeleton exhibit is worth the visit (museum.forterie.ca). The museum is housed in a larger building that also displays the story of the border crossing bridge between Fort Erie, Ont. and Buffalo, New York.
If all the talk of skeletons and ghosts is too weird, it’s easy to cheer up by enjoying combo plates and fiery kung pao at Happy Jack’s Chinese restaurant – a quiet dining place for families to gather. From there, continue on a drive along the scenic Niagara Parkway with its wildflowers, shade trees and river views. More about regional attractions can be found at niagaraparks.com.