While exploring Kingston, Ontario (the gateway to the 1000 Islands, yep, of the salad dressing fame), we discovered that history, like beauty, can be in the eye of the beholder.
We also found that historic perspective can change drastically just by stepping across a border.
In general, our culture shock is minimal when visiting Canada—sure they might add an “eh?” at the end of a sentence—but we certainly don’t feel like strangers in a strange land.
While that was again true on our recent journey and, as always, the people of Canada were overwhelmingly welcoming, there was a revelation or two that reminded us we were indeed foreigners.
Kingston began as a French trading post called Cataraqui, but was taken by the British in 1758 during the Seven Years’ War—or what we Americans from south of the border call the French and Indian War.
The Brits renamed Catarqui The King’s Town or King’s Town, in honor of King George III, then over time the name was shortened and the words melded together.
During the American Revolution, the settlement became a refuge for British Loyalists fleeing north and grew into an important military stronghold as a base for the Great Lakes British naval fleet.
By the war of 1812, the crown considered Kingston to be of prime military importance and built one of the most impressive fortresses we have ever seen, Fort Henry.
This is where we began to find that the Canadian version of events didn’t quite jibe with our memories from history class. During this war, the British (Canada was still British territory at that time) were concerned about protection of the St. Lawrence River and hastily built protection where the river met Lake Ontario.
After defeating the Americans, they replaced the cobbled-together fortifications with a formidable stone version to ward off any future attacks.
Wait, what? Defeated the Americans? Yup, we lost the war of 1812, but nobody told us in school.
At least that’s the Canadian take on things.
Actually, both perspectives can be correct. It can be argued that Canada won, in that they held off an attempt by the Americans to wrestle them away from the British and have them join the Union.
Or it can be said that the United States won, in that they defeated the British and remained independent.
It’s all in the eye of the beholder.
The Most Impressive Fort We’ve Ever Seen!
Our neighbors to the north remained pretty paranoid for the first part of the eighteen-hundreds, at least judging by the defenses built at Fort Henry (and we certainly understand why).
A moat and two huge walls, specially designed to allow strategically placed cannons in each corner to send scatter shot shrapnel ricocheting through the open area between them, protected the troops inside.
Hundreds of additional cannons covered every inch of water from six different locations along the coast and on the surrounding islands.
Our guide, fully decked out in authentic lieutenant’s regalia from the period, was rightfully proud of the fort’s history of never being attacked.
America was never crazy enough to try. It also helped that relations quickly improved over the latter half of the century.
Several-greats grandfathers of our guide had served in the British army at the base, and asking around we found that many of the employees had long family ties to the fort.
We followed our lieutenant (pronounced leff-tenant in these parts) inside for a look at what day-to-day life was like.
Surprisingly, many of the soldiers were married, and their wives and children lived with them inside the fort.
Fort life had all the hallmarks of a full community.
The accommodations were Spartan to say the least, unless of course one had the good fortune of being an officer.
And we do mean good fortune, as our lieutenant explained. The one and only way to become an officer was to buy your rank. No merit system involved.
The outpost was completely self-contained—it had to be, should a siege take place—so all of the necessities of fort life were handled in-house in a number of kitchens, bakeries, and workshops, all segregated by rank, of course.
For a farewell salute a fully bedecked artillery team rolled a ten-pounder into the parade ground in the center of the fort.
They loaded the cannon up, but only with one of the ten pounds of black powder she was designed to hold, and let her rip, not once, but twice!
Looking around at the gathered crowd, we had to come to the conclusion that the display was not only in honor of us, but first-rate none the less.
The Safest Restaurant on the Planet
After grabbing a bite at the Fort Henry’s Battery Bistro, which was without a doubt the safest we’ve ever felt while eating lunch…
(we feel like we’re not officially in Canada until we’d had poutine—a gloriously unhealthy dish consisting of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds),
…we took a quick spin through the campus of the Royal Military College of Canada.
The Royal West Point
As an offshoot of the fort, the college was founded in 1876.
This so-called West Point of Canada trains cadets for all branches of the military and is the only academy of its kind in the country.
Though our visit was in the dead of summer, we were regaled with tales of the college’s ice hockey team and their annual match with the United States Military Academy Black Knights in the annual West Point Weekend.
This series is the longest-running annual international sporting event in the world, going back to when General Douglas MacArthur suggested a game between the two schools in 1923.
Army may currently lead the Series by ten games, mostly on the strength of recent victories, but the spirits of the Paladins remain high.
So Much History!
Crossing the St. Lawrence into Kingston itself, we were drawn to the focal point of the city, the Historic City Hall.
Since Kingston was the capital of the new Province of Canada when construction began in 1841, the structure was designed to reflect the city’s prominence.
Unfortunately by the time it was completed in 1844, the government had moved to Montreal. Still, the building holds the honor of being designated a National Historic Site of Canada.
Directly across the street from the hall, Confederation Park seemed to be the hub of the town’s activity.
A former Kingston and Pembroke Railway station serves as the visitor information center, with the giant locomotive the Spirit of Sir John A standing alongside.
There’s even a replica for the kiddies!
Good Ol’ Sir John A
We would be hearing a lot more about Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, as our day went on—and as our journey across Ontario continued —beginning right away when we caught the hop on hop off Kingston Trolley Tour in front of the old steam engine.
The route took us past a couple of more Sir John A related sites, including his one-time home, the Bellevue House, hidden behind a grove of apple trees, and the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church that he attended.
John A’s stay in Kingston may have been brief, but he certainly left his mark before moving on to lead the effort to create the Canada that we know and love today.
His spirit of tolerance and democracy certainly lives on.
Sunset Dinner on the Water
After passing through the campus of Queen’s University, established by a royal charter from Queen Victoria, and Kingston’s hopping shopping and entertainment district along Princess Street, we headed back to the waterfront and Confederation Park.
The park sits on the harbor, serving as the boarding spot for numerous ferries and tour boats, which worked out great for us since we were set to sail on the Island Star for their sunset dinner cruise.
We did our best to ignore the ominous sound of the description as a three-hour tour and boarded anyway.
After all, they didn’t repeat the phrase like the song it invoked—and the ship was not named the Minnow—so the possibility of getting stranded on an uncharted desert isle seemed more than reasonably remote.
None were uncharted, or desert for that matter, but we did get our first look at the chain of islands in the St. Lawrence River known as the 1000 Islands.
We wound our way through what seemed to be at least a 100 of the 1000 with the setting sun glinting off the water while munching of salmon and roast beef… and dessert.
As twilight faded, we pulled back into Kingston and walked along the waterfront to our room at the Residence Inn Water’s Edge, happy to have been introduced to a new friend in the North.
Even if we don’t see our history eye-to-eye, eh?
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com
P.S. Here’s the view from our room in the morning: