Photography: Darren Creighton
Old buildings have stories to tell. Niagara-on-the-Lake’s The Old Courthouse, located at 26 Queen Street, has more than most. A National Historic Site and perhaps the most magnificent structure in this most historic of communities, it has played host to cutthroat politics and trials involving heinous crimes.
The Old Courthouse is actually the third in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s history. The village’s first courthouse was built in 1795, near the corner of King and Prideaux streets not far from the current courthouse. During the War of 1812, the British confined political offenders and pro-American residents within its secure walls. It’s believed as many as 300 prisoners may have been imprisoned during this tumultuous period. The courthouse was destroyed, along with the remainder of the town, when the occupying Americans retreated back across the Niagara River in December of 1813.
When the war ended residents were forced to rebuild their lives, including a new courthouse. A replacement was built in 1816, but further inland (where Ryde Park stands today) so as to be safely out of range of American artillery at Fort Niagara. This courthouse was in use for almost three decades, but by the 1840s the residents of Niagara-on-the-Lake began to plan for a new, more ambitious public building.
It was all a matter of politics. At the time, and thanks to the prosperity afforded it by the Welland Canal, St. Catharines was growing rapidly and challenged Niagara-on-the-Lake’s position as the economic and political hub of the area. The people of St. Catharines believed their community should be the seat of Lincoln County, not Niagara-on-the-Lake. Their petition for the honour kick-started a bitter feud between the rival towns. Hoping to force the hands of government decision-makers, Niagara-on-the-Lake began construction of a large and expensive courthouse that would house the varied judicial and clerical functions for the County (The former, second courthouse building was converted into ‘Our Western Home’, an institution where impoverished girls from Britain were brought to be trained in domestic skills and then placed in area households as servants. The building was demolished after the facility was closed in 1913).
The third courthouse—known today as the Old Courthouse—officially opened in 1847, located at 26 Queen Street. The community was justifiably proud of their grand new building and residents were confident they had secured for themselves the honor of County Seat.
Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work as expected. In 1862, St. Catharines was named the County Seat, leaving the people of Niagara-on-the-Lake embittered. Nevertheless, the newly completed courthouse continued to find use as the home of the county sheriff’s office, mayor’s office, meeting chambers, offices for the town council members, and holding cells for prisoners. It bought together Niagara-on-the-Lake’s movers-and-shakers—men of power, prestige, and pride—under one roof, where they could chart the future of the community.
The most prominent figure to hold court here was undoubtedly Edward Clarke Campbell. Born in 1806 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, the son of Donald Campbell, Fort Major of Fort George, Edward Clarke Campbell became a local lawyer, was elected a Member of Parliament in 1840, and in 1841 became a judge. In this capacity, he oversaw numerous trials within the courtrooms of this very building. In addition to a fine legal career, Campbell was a founding member and long-time president of the Niagara Mechanics Institute (the forerunner of the public library) and was prominent in a number of local social groups.
The Old Courthouse served as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s town hall until 1972, when the town was amalgamated with Niagara Township and centralized town offices were built in nearby Virgil. Since then, the Courthouse has continued to play an important role in town affairs by hosting the local Chamber of Commerce and offices for Parks Canada staff.
The Old Courthouse is also a beloved tourist attraction and was lovingly restored to its 19th century splendor as Niagara-on-the-Lake’s bicentennial project. The building’s upper floor has housed a 327-seat theatre since the Shaw Festival’s inaugural season in 1962, playing host to thousands of performances in the past 45-years. Further, guests can view recreated Lord Mayor’s Chambers as they would have appeared in the 19th century, and even step into the oppressive confines of a jail cell and peer forlornly out of the tiny window set into the heavy wooden door. One can’t feel as if time has stood still within this beautiful heritage building.
As one of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s most historic buildings, few would be surprised to learn that the Old Courthouse is rumored to haunted by spirits that cling to it like vines to crumbling mortar. Many believe that one or more of those who were tried within the courtrooms have lingered behind, their sentence extending well into the afterlife. Edward Clarke Campbell is also believed to remain as an ethereal spirit, presiding over the building in death as he once did in life. These ghosts, and others, are introduced to the public during chilling tours led by the lantern-carrying guides of Ghost Walks, a company that leads haunted and dark history events throughout the region.
The Old Courthouse, though very much a part of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s present and future, is a reflection of the community’s past. Its architecture, the restored Lord Mayor’s chambers and jail cells, and even the stories shared during chilling evening ghost tours allow people the chance to explore over 200-years of history in one of Niagara’s historic gems.