Water, water everywhere. This was the view from Fort Henry.
Canada has no shortage of mind-bogglingly huge lakes and roaring rivers coursing through its endless miles of vastness. We had been staying in Toronto, a city that dips its toes into the massive expanse of Lake Ontario, which seems more like an ocean at first glance.
I’m told the water plunges down 800ft at its deepest and acts like a huge heat sink for the city, keeping the winters’ and summers relatively mild. Nevertheless, the lake can freeze over during winter and ice breaking ships are called in to stop the city being cut off.
So why am I banging on about water?
Well, it had a crucial role in shaping Canada’s history and we learned all about those difficult early years on a trip to Kingston, Canada’s first capital that sits beside Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands. It’s about a 3 hour drive north of Toronto and well worth a visit. The place just oozes history.
When the United States kicked the British out after the Revolutionary War many loyalists to the crown moved to the British colonies in what we now know as Canada. Many of them settled around Kingston in the hope of leading a peaceful life after all the violence. But things were still tense between Britain and the USA and seeing as Kingston was only a short boat ride across the lake from American territory it was heavily fortified.
The British built Fort Henry (check out the video above) on the heights above Kingston to defend the city and the rest of their territory against a land invasion by the Americans. They also constructed scores of little bases called Martello Towers which had removable roofs – when they spotted the enemy the roof would come of revealing huge battery of guns. Sneaky Brits!
The waters of Lake Ontario were a hotbed of action during the war of 1812 between Britain and the United States. When the war was over the British reviewed how it had all gone and realised the Americans could have cut off their supply lines had they crossed the nearby St Lawrence River.
They needed a better way to link Kingston with Ottawa and the rest of the colonies in Quebec. So they copied the local aboriginal tribes and scouted out a path through the wilderness.
Their idea was to link up all the naturally occurring rivers, waterfalls,lakes and tributaries into one long canal and to do it they sent thousands of labourers into the harsh wilderness. More than a hundred men died completing this mammoth feat of engineering and when it was completed the head engineer was recalled to London in disgrace for going over budget.
But when you look at the country surrounding his handiwork it’s not hard to see why he spent more than he was supposed to.
The border between the USA and Canada is very friendly now and the waters of Lake Ontario are covered in yachts and birds rather than warships and massive cannons. But the history is always lurking just below the surface.
We were told that the accidental introduction of parasitic zebra mussels to the Lake had an unintended benefit – they eat algae so the water is now incredibly clear, so clear in fact you can see the ghostly outline of all the warships that were scuttled when the last of the North American wars was declared over. So it’s true what they say about Canada, there’s something in the water….
Fort Henry and The Rideau Canal Transcript:
Dave Piece to Camera (PTC) – So here we are at Fort Henry which was first built by the British in 1812 to protect their colonies in North America which we now know as Canada. Now the saying here is that every day is 1862 and they try to keep the place as genuine as it possibly could be to that time.
Dave Voiceover (VO) – Our guide at Fort Henry is Mark Bennett. He’s been leading tours here for years and he’s one of the driving forces behind all of this historical accuracy.
Now these soldiers are actually local students recruited for the summer to drill and march just like British soldiers did back in 1862. It was a tough life for the soldiers. They weren’t allowed to marry, lived in tiny barracks and they were paid a pittance which they mostly spent on booze. Seems like a good idea if they’re facing all of that.
Worst of all they faced a terrible death in battle. Mark showed us a three sided bayonet that cut a hole so ragged it couldn’t be stitched up.
Carmen VO – After all that military madness we needed a little serenity.
Carmen PTC – So here we are at the Rideau Canal and it was built in the 1830s by the British and it involved people from five different nations. Unfortunately more than a thousand of those involved lost their lives on the project.
Dave PTC – Now it joins up the city of Kingston to the capital at Ottawa. These days it’s a UNESCO world heritage listed site and it’s very, very beautiful, and during the summer time thousands of boats use these locks to get between all the different lakes and rivers.
Carmen VO – The Rideau Canal was a great spot to end our trip to Kingston. I think we’ll be back.