Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont, incorporated as a town in 1792, and reincorporated in 1970, population 15 400 (2011c), 14 587 (2006c). The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake is located where the NIAGARA RIVER enters LAKE ONTARIO. The NIAGARA PENINSULA has been the home of native people for over 10 000 years. The NEUTRAL Nation who lived here 500 years ago gave the name “Niagara” to the magnificent falls and river. The name means either “thunder of the waters” or, less romantically, “neck.” The first European settlers were refugees fleeing the excesses of the AMERICAN REVOLUTION in 1778. At the end of the American Revolution, Loyalists who chose not to live in the new republic of the United States were given land grants here and carved new homes out of the wilderness. Under the leadership of John Butler, who had led a regiment of rangers during the revolution, the town of Niagara was laid out on the west bank of the Niagara River.
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 1830’s to early 1850’s the rebuilt Niagara was important for its shipbuilding, with a shipyard launching many elegant steamers during those years. Economic depression in the 1850’s 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 FESTIVALwas 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).