Ontario is separated from the United States by the Niagara River that flows east between lakes Erie and Ontario, first through the mighty Niagara Falls and on below the cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment until it empties into Lake Ontario.
At this strategic location, on the Canadian side, the British built military establishments to protect Canadian sovereignty. The main base of the British forces in Upper Canada (now Ontario) is Fort George, which remains the most famous of these fortifications and is a popular tourist
In the shadow of Fort George is the remnant of a lesser known, but perhaps no less important military facility: Navy Hall.
In 1765, British naval craftsmen from Fort Niagara built naval establishments at the outlet of the Niagara River at Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake). The base was known as Navy Hall even though it consisted of a number of buildings and facilities, including a small shipyard, docks, warehouses and residences. Labourers cut wood here for ship construction, and established lumber yards where wood meant for ship construction could season properly and thereby prevent the decay that consumed most British vessels on the Great Lakes in as little as seven years.
Navy Hall evolved into a key military supply facility for the Provincial Marine. The Provincial Marine was a colonial naval force manning small vessels mostly on lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron whose task it was, primarily, to keep the British forts on the Great Lakes in supply. In existence since the second half of the 18th century, the Provincial Marine played a significant role in both the American Revolution (during which time the Marine wintered its vessels at Navy Hall) and most especially during the War of 1812.
In 1792 Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe converted one of the buildings into his residence. That same year, on September 1, the first parliament in Upper Canada met in a tent on the grounds of Navy Hall. The next year, Simcoe decided to move the provincial capital to York (now Toronto), a location deemed to be less vulnerable to attack from the United States as Niagara-on-the-Lake was literally under American guns sited at Fort Niagara, across the river. While the first purpose-built Parliament Buildings were being constructed in York, Newark continued to serve as the seat of government until 1796.
When parliament moved, Lt. Governor Simcoe’s former residence served as a dining hall for the officers at nearby Fort George. It was here that the first act of the War of 1812 occurred. News of the declaration of war arrived during a dinner given by the British officers at Fort George to the American officers of Fort Niagara, with whom relations were good. After reading the news in stunned silence, all finished the dinner cordially, said goodbye with wishes of good luck, and the next day they were preparing their cannon for war. Not long after, Navy Hall was destroyed by artillery fire from American forces at Fort Niagara. One wonders if there were any misgivings on the part of the American officers giving that order to fire on the building where they had been hosted just a short while before.
In the years immediately after the war, the British rebuilt some of the buildings and they continued to serve an evolving military purpose for over a century.
They became barracks for British troops in 1837-38 during the Upper Canada Rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie and again during the Fenian scare of the late 1860s. Later, during World War One, it served as a medical commissary for Canadian troops trained at Camp Niagara for overseas service.
By the 1930s, only one of the buildings that had previously comprised Navy Hall remained, and it was rapidly falling into disrepair due to age. In an effort to preserve it, the Niagara Parks Commission moved it a short distance to its present site and had its walls encased in stone.
Today, Navy Hall is managed by Parks Canada as part of Fort George, one of several national historic sites which fall under the administrative umbrella ‘Niagara National Historic Sites’. It houses artifacts from more than 200 years, but sadly is rarely open to the public save for when rented for private functions. Nevertheless, people are encouraged to visit because there is indeed much to see. Wander around Navy Hall’s exterior and let your mind go back to the 18th century when Lt. Governor John Graves Simcoe resided here. Read outdoor interpretive displays that trace the history of Navy Hall over the years, view the Simcoe Memorial monument, and enjoy the tranquility of its parkland setting with stunning views out onto the Niagara River and, on the distance shore, Fort Niagara in New York.
Though overshadowed by the imposing walls and cannon of Fort George, Navy Hall deserves some attention as it represents 250-years of Ontario history.
Location: Navy Hall is located across the street from Fort George, at 305 Ricardo Street. Find out more by visiting friendsoffortgeorge.ca.