Fort York Toronto is a popular living history museum that boasts Canada’s largest collection of buildings from the War of 1812. With its military demonstrations, tours led by costumed guides, and interesting artifacts from daily life in the early years of Toronto, Old Fort York is a great family outing.
Above: The new Visitor Centre for Fort York Toronto is just west of the fort. It's at 100 Garrison Road beside the parking lot.
Fort York is a cluster of some of the oldest buildings in Toronto encircled by its newest buildings. It's a handful of short brick and wooden structures engulfed by a forest of glass and metal skyscrapers. If you’ve only seen it from the highway, you can be forgiven for mistaking the fort for a plot of land awaiting condo development. But get off the highway and take a closer look at “the place where Toronto began”, and you’ll discover a very different world.
I have visited Fort York many times. I've attended many special events featuring concerts, plays and dance performances.
I've joined one of their tours that explored the lifestyle of the military elite of the day, where I got a peek into the kitchen and dining rooms and bedrooms of some of the officers of the day (call ahead for schedules). I've also wandered around the grounds on my own and explored the buildings and displays open to the public.
About the buildings:
The story of Fort York Toronto goes back more than 200 years to 1793 when the first British fortification was built on this site by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe. Intended primarily as a naval base, the fort's job was to control Lake Ontario and secure Upper Canada against attacks by water. The first buildings were wooden, and these were improved in 1811 by General Brock who knew that trouble was then brewing with the Americans. Sure enough, in 1812, war came to the colony. (The War of 1812 between the British and the Americans actually lasted until 1814.) In April 1813, the Americans attacked and burned down the fort. But although the battle was lost, the war wasn't, and soon after this battle, the British rebuilt the fort. These "new" buildings are the structures you see today. They all date from 1813-1815.
Over the years, there have been many other buildings on the site of Fort York Toronto, but as they crumbled they were torn down. The current buildings were renovated in the 1930s when the City of Toronto decided to turn the fort into a living history museum. The renovations in the 1930s were part of the province’s “make-work” projects during the Depression; several other forts in Ontario were also rebuilt at that time. Fort York Toronto was lucky in that it still had many of its original buildings; places like Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake had few and they had to make do with recreating buildings from plans.
About the people who lived here:
Thousands of people made their "home" in Fort York Toronto over the years. The spot was a military base for more than a century, first British and then Canadian, and military and domestic life certainly changed during that period. Therefore not every era can be shown. The site as you see it interpreted today is intended to show life in the era of the War of 1812.
At that time, approximately 600-700 persons lived within these walls: 6 or 7 “companies” of 100 soldiers each, with 3 officers for every 100 soldiers.
In addition, there were wives and children living in the fort. We don’t often think about women and children in forts but they were there! At that time, the British had a tradition of holding a “lottery” before the soldiers left England for duty overseas. Approximately 6 men out of every company of 100 would be allowed to bring their families with them. The wives and children lived in the barracks with the other men and worked alongside their men. At times families were allowed to put up curtains around the beds for privacy (in any case, 19th century people had a different concept of “privacy” than we do today). At other times, when infectious disease was a concern, those curtains were yanked down.
Besides these regular residents, people from the neighbouring town of York (today’s downtown Toronto, just east of Fort York) also came in to work in the fort, to cook and clean for the officers, for example.
So before you enter Fort York Toronto, try to picture it not as the peaceful museum setting you see today, but as it was back in 1814: a busy, crowded work and living space with soldiers and civilians including women and children running around and making the place much like a chaotic shopping mall or market on a busy Saturday afternoon. This was not just a place of military drills and death, but a scene where babies were born (and conceived), children raised, the sick cured, the dead mourned, meals cooked, dances held, and the general business and insanity of daily life took place, all going on with the ever-present threat of bombardment looming in the background.
Now that you have a picture of this boisterous 19th century community in your head, it's time to enter the grounds. The first buildings that you encounter once you've passed the gates of Fort York Toronto are the soldiers' barracks. To your left are the North Soldiers Barracks; this long low building houses the canteen (the museum's store), an interpretation room where you'll find a short video about the site and several large panels with text on the walls, plus the soldiers' barracks, which you see here:
Soldiers and their families slept and ate in this room but they did their cooking in a cookhouse on the grounds.
On your right when you come in a similar-looking building, called the South Soldiers Barracks and this building houses the public washrooms and a room for temporary exhibits. There was a photography exhibit there on the day I visited.
Not far from the North Soldiers Barracks you'll find the Officers' Quarters:
There's quite a contrast in living standards between the quarters for the officers and those for the regular soldiers. Here is the parlour for the officers:
Their dining room:
And a bedroom. Note the bearskin hanging on the wall!
There are two blockhouses on the site. One is normally closed during regular visiting hours. It's used for overnight programming such as sleepovers for scouts.
One blockhouse is large and spacious and inside on two levels you'll find displays of artefacts relating to the fort and to military life at the time, including military music, uniforms and even medicine:
Note: That fancy looking tureen is actually a bowl for leeches, a popular medical treatment in that era.
Another building onsite has a small display about the fur trade which was, after all, the main motivation for the colonization of the so-called "New World" in the first place … business.
One of the oddest things about walking around Fort York is the fact that, as mentioned, it's "encircled" or "bombarded on all sides" by modern-day Toronto. So one moment you're immersed in the 19th century, and the next moment, you look up and see cranes working on 21st century skyscrapers that are still in the process of being built. It's a bit jarring.
The address is 250 Fort York Boulevard, Toronto.
The Visitor Centre is just west of the Fort at 100 Garrison Road. It will eventually have a store and cafe but for now there's just the Canteen inside the fort. The Canteen is a small store that sells books and souvenirs and some snacks (refrigerated sandwiches, pop and chips, etc) but no full restaurant, so be sure to bring a lunch if you're coming for the day. There's a picnic area right on the grounds.
The washrooms are in the barracks just to the right of the entrance.
For current admission fees, opening hours and events, visit the museum web site at http://www.fortyork.ca
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