BY GARY MAY
Everyone enjoys a little romance with their history. Tales of daring escapes, the fighting of lost causes and dramatic episodes on the high seas add spice to the dry facts of those moldy old school books we had to wade through as children. And with the Town of Amherstburg gearing up to celebrate its role in the War of 1812 during next year’s bicentennial, there’s plenty of all three on offer.
If any region has the right to lay claim to being the spot where the war began, it’s the western shores of Essex County, where Amherstburg sits, just south of Windsor.
Before we explore why that is, though, let’s get a few historical facts out of the way: Who actually won the War of 1812?
If you ask a Canadian and an American, you’re likely to get two quite different responses. Americans consider it their second and successful “war of independence” from Britain, while Canadians argue British North America was defended from invasion. There’s truth in both views.
Both sides agree, though, that peace has blossomed for the last two centuries between our two countries and that’s what next year’s bicentennial of the war will celebrate.
Amherstburg is kicking things off a few months early, with its annual Doors Open tour on Sept. 17 boasting a strong War of 1812 theme by highlighting some of the buildings connected to that dramatic and pivotal episode in our nation’s history. That brings us to the first of our “romantic” tales — the one about the daring escape.
Valerie Buckie has worked at the town’s municipal museum, located at Park House, for 25 years, and loves to recount what she says is the old cabin’s romantic history, and its journey from the other side of the Canadian-American border. The cabin can truly be said to be a refugee of the American Revolution (1775-83), a sort of inanimate United Empire Loyalist, which found itself in the thick of things during the War of 1812.
The building was originally constructed on the Rouge River, at the south edge of what is now the City of Detroit, about 20 kilometres north of present-day Amherstburg. Buckie says it’s not known exactly when the solid log structure was built from the black walnut and tulipwood that grew in the area, but it is believed to have originally served as a French fur-trading post.
“The pièce en pièce
building style was typical of early French building in Detroit,” Buckie tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com. Pièce en pièce
avoided the need for post and beam construction, and was therefore ideal for places that lacked long logs and lifting systems.
Park House has tale to tell
After the Americans won their independence, the Jay Treaty of 1794 ceded the British forts within the new country’s territory to the United States. Plans were drawn up to open new military installations on the British-held sides of the Great Lakes and their connecting rivers, including one at what is today the Town of Amherstburg. The Loyalist owners of the little fur-trading cabin on the Rouge River decided not only to pick up sticks and move to a spot closer to the new British fort, they decided to take their home right along with them.
Buckie says the cabin was dismantled, its logs painstakingly numbered with Roman numerals, placed on rafts and floated downriver to its new location and then reassembled. The house changed hands a number of times, but came into the possession of the Park family in 1839, then remained under family control for 102 years. Again it underwent a succession of owners and tenants and, in 1972, the house was saved from demolition by a dedicated group of citizens and moved a short distance to Amherstburg’s beautiful Navy Yard Park, which overlooks the Detroit River.
Today, Buckie and others interpret the area’s 1812 wartime experience at Park House. A group of tinsmiths has also taken up their tools in a nearby cottage, and now produce tin products for museums all over Canada, says Buckie.
Park House is a not-to-be-missed stop on Amherstburg’s Doors Open trail, but it’s not the only building open that day with a War of 1812 pedigree. Nearby is Fort Malden, which was originally named Fort Amherst when it was opened in 1798. Like the town, it was named for General Jeffrey Amherst, first baron of Amherst. Once commander-in-chief of the British Forces, he was instrumental in the conquest of Louisbourg, Quebec and Montreal during the French and Indian War.
The fort was the meeting place for the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and General Isaac Brock, and was where Brock prepared for his successful attack on Detroit. Within sight of the fort is Bois Blanc Island, more commonly known today as Boblo.
The fort was actually destroyed by the British themselves when they recognized they would have to abandon it to the invading Americans, and was partially rebuilt by the invaders who occupied Amherstburg for a portion of the war. The Americans renamed the fortification Fort Malden and the name has stuck to this day.
On to Romantic Fact No. 2: The story of the man who fought valiantly for a lost cause. The gallant Shawnee Chief Tecumseh struggled for years to establish a “Confederacy” of Indian tribes designed to hold back the influx of American settlers into First Nations lands.
Talk about lost causes! But that didn’t stop Tecumseh from trying. Tecumseh’s “Confederacy” sided with the British during the War of 1812, and he became a trusted and valuable supporter of General Brock. He also became closely linked to Amherstburg when he set up his headquarters on Bois Blanc Island in the Detroit River, within a stone’s throw of Fort Amherst. Tecumseh’s connections to the area will be recognized in next year’s celebrations.
Beautiful park once a ship-building yard
As a final tragic footnote, Tecumseh was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, in what is now Chatham-Kent. His Confederacy crumbled, leading the way to the inevitable European settlement of the western United States.
Fort Malden is located next to the King’s Navy Yard Park, which was an important ship-building yard where several warships were constructed for the War of 1812. The park is now the location of an international peace garden and will be the site of several events to commemorate the bicentennial.
That brings us to Romantic Fact No. 3: the dramatic story of those who sailed the “high seas” and died for their respective causes. One of next year’s bicentennial events will be the unveiling of a Provincial Marine Monument to honour those wounded and killed during the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. It will be a life-sized bronze monument depicting a naval gun crew in action.
The September 1813 battle took place at Put-in-Bay, on an island off the coast of Ohio in western Lake Erie. The United States Navy’s nine vessels defeated and captured six ships of the Royal Navy and ensured control of the lake by the Americans for the rest of the war. It also allowed them to recover Detroit and win the Battle of the Thames in which Tecumseh was killed.
An earlier event that went better for the British will be the subject of one of the re-enactments planned for next year in Amherstburg. This one will interpret the capture of an American military transport schooner by a British boat crew that took place near Amherstburg in the early days of the war. The battle was pivotal in helping to secure British control of the area.
Here’s what happened: Two weeks after the United States declared war, an American schooner was travelling up the Detroit River past Fort Amherst. The crew had not received word of hostilities, but the British at the fort had. As the vessel passed the fort, a mixed group of British soldiers, sailors from the Provincial Marine, and natives rowed out to the ship and captured it without a fight.
The biggest windfall was the discovery of secret papers outlining American General William Hull’s planned campaign against the fort. Despite this coup, however, by September 1813 the Americans captured the fort and the town, and held them until the war’s conclusion.
An island with a colourful history
Other events next year related to recognizing the 1812 war include a First Nations pow-wow and fireworks. And of course during the various military re-enactments, participants will be dressed in period costume as they play significant and average people who lived at the time, including Tecumseh and Brock.
Amherstburg is a historic town and for many years it and Boblo Island — an amusement park between 1898 and 1993 — were destinations for cruise ships and steam vessels leaving from Detroit and Windsor. The amusement park is gone now, and Boblo has become a residential community that boasts plenty of greenspace and beautiful views of the river.
Just this year, Amherstburg completed work on mooring facilities at the Navy Yard. Now Tall Ships, cruise craft and large passenger boats can dock there. A ferry service re-creates the days of the old Detroit River steamers with trips from Windsor’s Riverfront Festival Plaza to Amherstburg. Stops are long enough for passengers to grab a bite to eat and tour nearby Fort Malden. While you’re in town, you can even take a three-minute ferry to Boblo where you can bicycle, walk around or check out the marina and restaurant.
There’s also hope that the Jet Express ferry, from Put-in-Bay, will eventually drop in to the new Amherstburg facilities. What better way to celebrate 200 years of international peace than to have a friendly visit paid by a ship from the scene of one of the greatest sea battles of the war?
Back on the Doors Open trail, there are more buildings with an 1812 theme. Among them is a building known as the Commissariat that sits at the Navy Yard and was the place from which garrison supplies were purchased. Today the building serves as the home to the Provincial Marine Amherstburg Re-enactment Unit, which will play an important part in next year’s events.
Other buildings on the Doors Open trail include the North American Black Historical Museum at 277 King St., as well as the next-door church. While the famous Underground Railroad — a route that led thousands of American slaves to freedom in Canada — is traditionally more linked to the mid-1800s, the black influence on the region stretches much farther back. The first blacks arrived in the area in 1794 after the legislature at Niagara-on-the-Lake banned the ownership of “new” slaves. Later, thousands of black volunteers fought for the British during the War of 1812.
After slavery was outlawed altogether in the British Empire in 1833, southwestern Ontario became a haven, the last stop on the Underground Railroad. Between 1780 and 1865, as many as 90,000 black refugees fled to Canada. Next door to the museum, the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church was built by black refugees in 1848, making it one of the oldest existing black churches in Canada.
At 268 Dalhousie St., Gordon House was built between 1798 and 1804 and heavily damaged during the war before being renovated in 1817. It stands as an excellent example of early Canadian architecture and today houses the chamber of commerce and tourism office, as well as a couple of local festival offices.
At 317 Ramsay St. is Christ Church Anglican, one of the oldest brick churches in Ontario, having been constructed just after the 1812 war ended. Its Palladian style is one established in Britain in the early 1800s, marked by simplicity, beauty and dignity. It contains the oldest brick nave in Ontario. The oldest stone in the adjacent graveyard dates to 1809 and is that of Alexander Duff, captain of volunteers.
Meanwhile, at 214 Dalhousie St., sit the Pensioners’ Cottages. While not connected to the War of 1812, they were certainly linked to the fort. In 1851, British army pensioners were brought to Amherstburg to maintain Fort Malden after the regular British Army left. Each pensioner was given a lot on which was built a two-room cottage, many of which still exist today, although heavily modified.
Doors Open Amherstburg offers free public access to the buildings on the tour on Sept. 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information phone 519-736-2511 or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or go online to Doors Open Ontario
Battle brews over Bellevue House
Meanwhile, some hope that the Doors Open and 1812 bicentennial programs will help to focus public attention on their bid to save a long-abandoned Amherstburg home that dates back to the days soon after the war ended.
John McDonald is a member of the Friends of Bellevue, who want to see the huge old building at 525 Dalhousie St. S. saved from neglect and ultimately demolition. Bellevue House was built by Robert Reynolds, then commissariat officer at Fort Malden, in a neo-classical style that, despite its dilapidated condition, even today will take your breath away. The huge brick home has been compared to Government House in Halifax and is considered one of the few remaining examples of domestic Georgian architecture in the province.
Declared a national historic site in 1959, it has fallen on hard times and is in a growing state of deterioration. “Its construction was an expression of the faith and hope people had in the community after the wartime damage it suffered,” McDonald tells MyNewWaterfrontHome.com.
He would like to see it put to any purpose that would allow its renovation and preservation, and suggests a facility for seniors, assisted housing or a long-term care facility. It could also be appropriately developed to accommodate some aspect of hospitality or tourism-related activity, he believes.
MyNewWaterfrontHome.com — August 2011