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Jan 1 1938
From: Ronald L. Way 1

OLD FORT HENRY at Kingston, Ontario
Bird's eye view of Royal Military College (site of the naval establishment) and of Old Fort Henry
The One Time Citadel of Upper Canada--Completed by the Royal Engineers more than a Century Ago--An Historical Sketch.
By Ronald L. Way, M.A.
Published 1938 for the Fort Henry Management

KINGSTON, ONTARIO, the old Cataraqui or Fort Frontenac of the French and one time capital of Canada, has as its most conspicuous feature a picturesque old fort which is located upon a commanding promontory overlooking the harbour. Just one hundred and two years ago, in 1836, the main portion of the present fort was completed and two batteries of Royal Garrison Artillery and one regiment of the line took possession.

During the War of 1812, Kingston, as the base of the British Naval Establishment on Lake Ontario, was in a military as well as a naval sense the most important strategic position in Upper Canada. As long as Kingston was held securely and the communications with Montreal kept open, the necessary materials for the equipment of war vessels could be forwarded from Britain and the supremacy of the Lake contested with the Americans. Upon this command of Lake Ontario depended the security of the country as far as Niagara and the means of dispatching troops and supplies for the defence of the Niagara frontier and the country farther west. The Naval Establishment occupied the long narrow peninsula just west of Fort Henry, and in May 1813 the site of the present fort was cleared of trees and an entrenched battery of six 24 Pdr. guns was set up for the defence of the dockyard. Later in the same year the battery was completely enclosed and the earthworks reveted with logs. In 1814, two stone blockhouses, each fifty feet square, were constructed within the ramparts and picketting set up in the bottom of the ditch. Between 1815 and 1820, the logs sustaining the walls of the ditch were replaced by stonework, and the addition of bomb-proof magazines, ordnance offices, an armory and extensive stone barracks, made this first Fort Henry the strongest post west of Quebec.

The necessity of securing an alternative and safer means of communication between Montreal and Kingston, than that provided by the St. Lawrence River route was demonstrated by the War of 1812. Upon the recommendation of the Duke of Wellington, after preliminary surveys had proved the project feasible, the military authorities decided to reconstruct the Rideau Canal connecting the waters of the Rideau River, flowing into the Ottawa, with those of the Cataraqui emptying into the St. Lawrence at Kingston. The building of the Rideau Canal further increased the strategic importance of Kingston, and the then existing defences were considered inadequate for the protection of the entrance of the canal. In 1828 a military committee, of which His Excellency, Sir James Kempt, the Governor of Lower Canada, was president, in the course of a report dealing with progress made in the construction of the Rideau, recommended the erection of a system of six detached forts--three on each side of Kingston harbour--designed to keep an enemy from 2300 to 2700 yards distant from the naval dockyard, and the entrance to the canal. Experience during the War of 1812 had indicated that a hostile force would move against Kingston from the land side and the forts should be designed to resist a regualr siege from that direction. Defence of the harbour in the face of a purely naval attack would be taken care of by a system of martello towers constructed at half-mile intervals. In October of the following year, 1829, a Committee of the Board of Ordnance in England, headed by Sir Alexander Bryce, approved the recommendations of the Committee of 1828, and drew up the plans of a new Fort Henry, the five other redoubts and the martello towers. Of these the present Fort Henry with its Advanced Battery and four martello towers were the only units of the system constructed. Complete estimates and plans for the five other forts--very similar in design to Fort Henry--were prepared and negotiations carried on for the purchase of the necessary sites; however, as relations with the United States improved, opposition to the increased cost of Colonial Defences, led to the British House of Commons to refuse the funds necessary to complete the fortifications of Kingston.

Only through an understanding of the scheme of defence adopted by the Engineer Committees of 1828 and 1829 is the structure of Fort Henry fully comprehensible today. Sprawled across the crest of the high peninsula upon which it was built, the main portion of the fort consists of a pentagonal figure, the three-sided front of which faces inland towards the north and completely covered the Rideau entrance and the Naval Establishment against attack from that direction. The entrance to the fort is on the south side through the Advanced Battery and the Commissariat Stores, which while included in the plans of 1829 were not completed until 1842. Built into the walls of the fort are long and narrow vaulted shellproof casemates which served as barracks for officers and men. The casemates on the front faces, in which the ordinary soldiers were quartered, consist of two tiers; those on the side faces, which were occupied by the officers, have only one tier. The chief armament was mounted upon the ramparts above the casemates and consisted of twenty-seven 24 Pdr. guns upon traversing platforms which allowed them to be turned with ease in any direction required. Surrounding the principle part of the fort is a dry ditch approximately 40 feet broad and 30 feet deep, the counterscarp of which effectively screened the walls from gun-fire. The walls are flanked by a caponniere in the centre of the north front and by gun-rooms--known technically as reverse fire chambers--built in behind the counterscarp in the north-east and north-west angles of the ditch and connected with the fort by tunnels. Branch ditches extend down to the shores on either side of the peninsula where they terminate in strong martello towers 60 feet in height and 30 feet in basal diameter. Swept by the fire of Fort Henry and the martello towers, these ditches served as obstacles to an enemy approaching the south side of the fort. The whole peninsula was thus a compact defensive unit and constituted the first sector of the chain of forts planned for the protection of Kingston.

Although never attacked by an enemy, the history of Fort Henry has not been lacking in colourful incidents. In February, 1838, an American, Van Rensellaer, who was in sympathy with the Canadian rebels, formed a plan for an attack upon the fort. A traitor among the garrison had agreed to spike the guns, and even to open the gates upon the approach of the "Patriots." The plan leaked out and when 1,600 militia were placed in Fort Henry, an American force of 1,800 men, which had taken possession of Hickory Island near Gananoque, melted away.

In the guardhouse of Fort Henry, during November of the same year, was confined the misguided Von Schultz who with about 160 men crossed the St. Lawrence at Prescott and after four days fighting was captured by Colonel Dundas and a force from Kingston. After being tried by courtmartial he was hanged at the northwest corner of the fort. Here also were imprisoned John Montgomery and 14 others, who were captured after the skirmish at Montgomery's Tavern and placed in Fort Henry under sentence of death. The party was confined in a casemate separated by a 4 foot wall from one of the passages leading down under the ditch to the reverse fire chambers. As the mortar in the wall was not quite dry the men patiently loosened the stone separating them from this passage-way and succeeded in making their escape. In climbing from the reverse fire chamber into the ditch, Montgomery broke his leg but in spite of this and other difficulties the men made their way to Cape Vincent where they were accorded a civic welcome.

The gradual betterment of relations with the United States combined with military development of the late 19th century slowly to decrease and finally to nullify the importance of Kingston's defences. At the time of the North West Rebellion in 1885, Fort Henry was considered to be of little value and was soon afterwards abandoned as obsolete, the garrison being removed to quarters in Kingston. As the fort grew old and fell into decay, local legends enshrouded it. The plans of the Royal Engineers responsible for its design naturally had not been made public and in so technical a matter the speculations of amateurs, unsupported by documentary evidence, are poor substitutes for facts. Some have said that Fort Henry was built the wrong way around, the plans having been confused with those for a fort at Kingston, Jamaica; others, that the engineer responsible for the mistake was on that account cashiered out of the army after his return to England- or again that he committed suicide on his way there. It was commonly believed that deep underwater tunnels led from Fort Henry to the martello tower at Point Frederick, to Cathcart Redoubt on Cedar Island and to the Military Hospital, the ruins of which may be seen a short distance to the north-east of the fort. The builders of 1932-36 would certainly have smiled at such tales.

While it may be said that Fort Henry has never fired a gun in battle, it has nevertheless strong claims to preservation. In the first place, there is the obvious desire of all those possessing any sense of history or fondness for antiquities, to save for the future this excellent specimen of early nineteenth century fortification, which is one of the finest examples of masonry on the North American continent.

The site is replete with historical associations, and has been a military reserve since 1784. Navy Bay, overlooked by the guns of the Fort, was a hive of activity during the War of 1812. More than twenty men-of-war were built in the Naval Dockyard where the Royal Military College now stands and the shores of Navy Bay were once busy with the hauling of huge oak timbers and resounded to the clank of massive chains and munitions of war, the strokes of hammers and calking irons, and exultant cheers rose as ship after ship was launched upon the waters to add strength to His Majesty's Lake Ontario Navy. The Fort was a centre of military life for more than half a century. Kingston belles can still remember dances in the old Officers' Quarters and tennis parties in the lower square. Imperial troops were stationed there from 1836-1870 and native Canadian troops more or less regularly from 1870-1890. People are still alive who were born within its massive walls. In military language Fort Henry is a casemated redoubt with caponnieres and reverse fire chambers as flanking devices in place of the usual bastions. Both in design and massive construction Fort Henry is unlike any other fort ever built in Canada.

The work of restoration which has been in progress since the summer of 1936 under a joint scheme sponsored by the Dominion and Ontario governments, is almost complete. Although the fort today has the appearance of an impressive fortress, bristling with mounted cannon and defended by glacis, ditch, drawbridge, caponierre, reverse fires, flanking towers, and all the paraphernalia of nineteenth century fortification, it is no more than a museum. It is not in any way a renewed citadel nor intended to be one and its guns, stricktly appropriate appropriate to their periods, are as useless as Roman catapults for or against modern attack. The casemates which once sheltered 350 men now serve only to house illuminating collections of antique weapons or to show how soldiers of a century ago lived and toiled. The museum proper displays separate and specialized collections of infantry, cavalry, artillery and naval arms and equipment. Much of the material in the Naval Museum is especially interesting having been salvaged from the wrecks of the war vessels of 1812, which lie sunk in Navy and Dead Man's Bay. The officers' quarters, one of the soldiers' barrack rooms, the guard and orderly rooms, kitchen, etc., are refurnished as they were lived in by troops of 1838.

To Canada's American friends, always welcome guests, Kingston's past defences must remain an indirect compliment to the energy, ambition and resources of their forefathers whose ignorance of Canadian sensibilities made their ideas upon "Manifest Destiny" excusable enough. But for Canadians themselves a restored Fort Henry will long stand as a vivid reminder of those long years of tutelage when Britain, not without parental grumbling it is true, freely gave the lives and services of her sons and spent lavishly of her treasure in order that this youthful nation might grow up unhampered and be free.

View of Cedar Island from the Armstrong Gun [Image]
Hanson & Edgar, LTD., Printers, Kingston.

1 Ronald L. Way was hired as a history researcher by the government. He sometimes disagreed with the methods of construction employed by Somerville and McQuesten on the question of authenticity, but for the most part he applauded them.

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