Old Fort Erie Ontario during the War of 1812 was a blood-soaked battlefield. Today it is a living history museum with costumed guides. Read on for a detailed review of the tour, buildings, exhibition centre, dining, shopping and more.
When you’re driving through the countryside, past the fruit orchards and the vineyards, it’s hard to imagine the Niagara region as anything but peaceful.
But look a little closer, and you’ll come across historic sites and museums that will reveal the truth about this area's dark past: Niagara, and much of Ontario in fact, was once a blood-soaked war zone. I recently visited one of these former battle sites, Old Fort Erie, with my sister.
This historic fort close to the centre of the Town of Fort Erie was the site of fierce fighting and death on a massive scale during the War of 1812. Although most of the fort was destroyed during this war, and the rest crumbled during years of neglect afterwards, remnants of the foundations did survive. In the 1930s, as part of a Depression era employment project, the site was painstakingly reconstructed. The restoration of several other historic sites date back to that period as well, including Fort George in Niagara on the Lake and Fort York Toronto.
Today you can tour Historic Fort Erie with a guide, watch a cannon demonstration, view the unusual exhibits at the new interpretation centre opened in 2011, and gain a sense of what daily life must have been like for soldiers and other employees who worked and lived inside these fortifications two hundred years ago.
Visit the Interpretation Centre at Old Fort Erie
Once you have entered the Interpretation Centre and paid your admission fee, find out when the next movie presentation begins. If you have time to spare, visit the exhibition first. If not, you can wait, see the movie and take the tour, then return for the exhibit on the way out. We saw the movie and took the tour first, then returned for the exhibit. This wasn’t ideal because our tour guide bombarded us with so many details that I wound up with information overload by the end and wasn’t really energetic enough to read through the exhibit as much as I would have liked (there is quite a lot of reading). But you may get a different guide ... or you may have more stamina than I do!
In any case, back to the exhibit: it features two sections. I call it “unique” because one side of the room is devoted to the stories of the British and Canadian side, and the other to the American forces. Our guide told us that Old Fort Erie is the only War of 1812 site that attempts to portray the viewpoints of both sides of the conflict. (Usually the American forts tell it from their perspective and the Canadian sites from the British & allies' perspective.)
On both sides of the exhibit room, you’ll find cases and display panels depicting real individuals, both well-known and unknown, who were present at Fort Erie during the conflict. It’s a promising and personal way to tell the story, but unfortunately I’m not sure if it really succeeds due to the shortage of details about some of the individuals. Of course, there are no photographs of those people because this era predated photography, but there are modern-day photographs of what I suspect are museum volunteers dressed up in typical period costume. I think they are supposed to “represent” the person featured in that panel.
Although most of the representative people are military personnel, you’ll also find one woman, a nurse who worked in the fort – a nice touch acknowledging that women did play active roles in the war and were of course affected by it. There’s also a male doctor, again recognizing the role of civilians in the war. Each case and panel provides a few details about the lives of the people mentioned, including what happened to them after the war if they survived, and some artifacts that might have been associated either with that individual or someone in a similar social position during the war.
Watch the Movie about Old Fort Erie
When the movie is ready to start, someone will call you in. It’s only about 15 minutes long and it gives a short history of the war as it took place in Fort Erie. (By the way, this room has the most comfortable seats in any cinema I’ve ever visited!)
At the end of the movie, your guide in period costume appears and he or she will take you out to the field and start your tour.
Take a Guided Tour of Old Fort Erie
Some of the sights you’ll see on the tour include:
Earthworks and cannon just outside of the fort. This is an example of what the attackers would have been using AGAINST the fort.
We also saw a shelter dug into earthworks --- just a hole covered with twigs really. This pathetic attempt to escape the wind, rain, sleet, snow when tents leaked or rotted into uselessness is where soldiers would have slept outside in the field. Not very comfy! At this point in the tour, our guide mentioned that although thousands died, disease actually killed more men than battle wounds in this era. In the period before antibiotics, pneumonia killed many. One serious problem was with the feet: soldiers had to stand in pools of water all day and night and eventually their feet would just rot off. Living conditions were brutal, infections were rampant, and medical treatments rudimentary at best (when they were available at all).
Outside the fort, there’s a large monument below which lies a mass grave of 153 soldiers. The grave was uncovered during the restoration in the 1930s.
You enter the fort over a trench and through a gate and just inside you stop for a firing demonstration. The noise is REALLY loud so if you’re sensitive, put your hands over your ears. You’ll get a warning.
Inside the fort you'll find a few buildings. You can visit the doctor’s room with its creepy medical instruments:
Or the kitchen:
You'll notice the strong contrast between the living quarters of officers and that of the regular soldiers and their families at Old Fort Erie (yes, women, children and even pets lived here too). The officer had his own private bedroom while the common soldiers shared a barebones dorm.
One room in the fort is devoted to the role of the Iroquois warriors who were important British allies during the war. The display depicts an outdoor encampment with tents, a canoe and other related artifacts.
There’s also a gun powder magazine where ammunition would have been stored.
Visitor information for Old Fort Erie
The Interpretation Centre, or Welcome Center, opened July 1, 2011. (Many of the War of 1812 sites are getting money to fix things up because of the 200th anniversary of the war.) Inside you’ll find the theatre, exhibition area, washrooms and a cafe with cheap meals like sandwiches for a few dollars, ice cream, coffee and tea etc. There’s also a covered picnic area, so you can bring your own lunch or snack. The gift shop sells books, toys and memorabilia relating to Ontario history.
Special Events: Old Fort Erie hosts Special Events during the year. The main one is the Re-enactment of the Battle of Fort Erie which is held every year in August with costumed military re-enactors. There are also Ghost Tours.
NOTE: Like many of the historic attractions in the Niagara Region, Old Fort Erie is open only during tourist season ...summer/fall months, from roughly June to October. Check their web site (see below) or call ahead for current schedule.
Another tip: Old Fort Erie is smaller than Fort George in Niagara on the Lake, so if you only have time to see one fort in Niagara, you might want to take that into consideration.
Old Fort Erie is located at 350 Lakeshore Road in the town of Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. This is about a 20 minutes drive south of Niagara Falls along the beautiful Niagara Parkway. Tel: (905) 871-7211.
For more information
For current fees and hours and special events, see: http://www.niagaraparks.com/old-fort-erie
MORE ABOUT THE WAR OF 1812
As I mentioned, Fort Erie is one of several historic sites in Ontario commemorating the War of 1812 in from 2012-2014.
In Niagara you’ll find:
Fort George in Niagara on the Lake
Queenston Heights Park in Queenston
Laura Secord Homestead in Queenston
McFarland House in Queenston
In Toronto there is:
Fort York Toronto, which has the largest collection of War of 1812 era buildings.
Other sites in Ontario:
Fort Henry in Kingston
Battlefield House in Stoney Creek