Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Fort Mississauga is a National Historic site, but unlike many Canadian fortresses of its era— Fort York in Toronto, Fort Henry in Kingston, and nearby Fort George—it hasn’t been restored nor is it a well-known tourist attraction. In fact, it lies almost forgotten and in a state of disrepair amidst the grounds of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club (itself historic as the oldest existing golf course in North America), a rarely visited relic of yesteryear. A pathway leads from the corner of Simcoe and Front streets through a fairway to the shores of Lake Ontario and the fort’s imposing walls. While most of the fortress’ buildings have long since rotted into the ground visitors are free to explore the earthworks, marvel at the imposing concrete tower, and tour a powder magazine.
Fort Mississauga was built during the War of 1812 and was designed to improve British defenses along the Niagara Frontier and secure the western end of Lake Ontario. In particular, it was intended to become a replacement for Fort George, which had quickly proven itself to be highly vulnerable to artillery fire from Fort Niagara and American war-ships (a bombardment on May 25 and 26, 1813, left Fort George a smoldering ruin and left Niagara open to invasion two days later). To replace it, planners envisioned a massive fortress, larger even than Fort George and home to more than 1000 troops.
When completed, the planned fort would be among the largest anywhere in North America.Work began in 1813 when a battery was built on Mississauga Point a few miles to the north of Fort George. By the summer of 1814 Fort Mississauga had begun to take shape, with star-shaped earthen redoubts (the only one of their kind in Canada) surrounding a solid central tower. Measuring fifty feet by fifty feet, with walls standing twenty-five feet high and eight-feet thick, the tower was built on a foundation of re-blackened bricks and stones salvaged from the ruins of Niagara-on-the-Lake, which had been burned to the ground the year before by American forces.
Atop the tower was a reinforced platform on the roof which held a battery of cannons with a range of 1.6 kilometers and therefore capable of reaching the American shore or bombarding enemy vessels entering the Niagara River from Lake Ontario. Within the tower were a storeroom and ammunition magazine, and living spaces for 34-men and their families. Additional buildings, made of more vulnerable wood, lay within the earthworks to house as many as 80 troops.
The closest Fort Mississauga came to be attacked occurred in July of 1814, when an American brigade of 3000 men commanded by Colonel Moses Porter half-heartedly advanced against it. Facing earthworks that were formidable despite not yet being complete, and under fire from powerful long-range guns, the American attack was tentative at best and Porter quickly withdrew his men from the field of battle. Even with construction only just begun, Fort Mississauga had proved its worth in defending Canada.With the end of the War in 1815, construction of Fort Mississauga slowed. The tower, only completed in 1823, was as far as construction of Fort Mississauga ever went.
Nevertheless, even in its reduced form Fort Mississauga served as a vital strongpoint in a defense system that extended along the Great Lakes. A British garrison was maintained at Fort Mississauga until 1826. For years it lay abandoned, except for use as a training ground for militia units.
Repaired and rearmed during the Rebellion of 1837, it continued to be maintained and garrisoned by British soldiers until 1854. British regulars returned during the American Civil War and the Fenian scare of 1877, in both cases to ward off cross-border assaults that never materialized, but by 1870 Fort Mississauga was no longer considered of military value and was abandoned, seemingly for good.
During the Twentieth century, by which time its earth-works and stone walls had become obsolete and the enemy it was built to defend against no longer a threat, the almost forgotten Fort Mississauga found itself once again relevant as a training ground for the Canadian military—most notably during the two World Wars and Korean War. Thousands of young men passed through here on their way to distant battlefields.
In 1976, Parks Canada announced plans to restore Fort Mississauga as it did Fort George half a century earlier. It was their intention to reproduce how she would have looked in the 1820s and open her to the paying public as an exciting new tourist attraction.
The membership of Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club rose up in arms, however, and rebelled at the notion of losing part of their beloved course. In the end, they succeeded in blocking Parks Canada’s plans, and Fort Mississauga remained silent and empty. Ironically, that only adds to Fort Mississauga’s appeal. Today, Fort Mississauga is owned and minimally maintained by Parks Canada, and is open to the public. Though you can see the stone tower and the earthworks surrounding it from the road, to truly appreciate Fort Mississauga you need to experience it up close an first hand.
A pedestrian pathway from the corner of Simcoe and Front Streets leads through the fairways of Niagara-on-the-Lake Golf Club (watch out for incoming balls coming off the tees!). While the dominating stone tower is stoutly sealed up, visitors are free to explore the earthworks, enter tunnels (one of which emerges onto the lake and a spectacular view), and tour a subterranean powder magazine.
Pretty soon, and with the assistance of several information markers spread out around-site, one begins to gain an appreciation for the history of these ruins.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a truly beautiful community with a rich history. Some of this history is revealed in the evocative fortifications of Fort Mississauga, a priceless if unrestored Canadian treasure.
BY ANDREW HIND