As I’m passing by elegant Victorian-era homes with their ornate porches along Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I notice a building on the lakefront horizon.
It’s Fort Mississauga, a national historic site that’s just a short walk away from NOTL’s main strip. It sits strategically on the craggy shores where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. Built in the early 19th century to help the British protect the Niagara frontier from the invading American army, this fort was part of a system that included nearby, more well-known Fort George and Fort Erie. With Fort George temporarily closed, and Fort Eerie another hour’s drive away, my choice of historic spot is not only convenient, but also an off-the-beaten-path option.
Like all of Niagara’s history and its natural surroundings, there’s a layered story here. Prior to becoming Fort Mississauga, this spot was home to the first lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Before that, it was used by many First Nations, including the Seneca and Mississaugas, as a fishing settlement.
It’s a blustery, bright and crisp winter’s day, and the horizon is so clear that I can see Toronto’s spiky skyline all the way across the water. The fort tower sits on rolling grass that looks like it was lifted straight from an oil painting. The tower is a sturdy, square brick block surrounded by a unique, star-shaped earthwork to further protect it. All I have to do is squint, and it’s easy to imagine myself as a foot soldier emerging from a barrack, on the lookout for danger, the wind rushing between my ears and the sun blazing overhead.
From its flagship waterfalls formed over 10,000 years ago and some of North America’s oldest forest land, to its strategic fortifications and mesmerizing towns – a history buff could never feel bored in the Niagara Region. (Case in point? I didn’t get a chance to visit, but Fort George is a must on any War of 1812 discovery trail.)
If Fort Mississauga evokes thoughts of regiments and battle stations, then Ball’s Falls in the nearby Twenty Valley, about a 35 minute drive down winding winery-flanked roads, is decidedly calmer and quainter. This tiny, historically restored village is a literal hidden gem – you have to take a short hike (past the namesake waterfall) to get to it.
The hamlet dates back to 1809, and began as a gristmill built by the Ball brothers, powered by the nearby Twenty Mile Creek. The handful of buildings include a schoolhouse, the original Ball family home and a darling white chapel. There’s even a tie back to Fort Mississauga here – the gristmill provided flour for the troops during the War of 1812.
The charming little village hosts historic tours that include a glimpse at some of the homes and their antique-filled interiors, but on this day I wander from building to building alone, walking unhurriedly down the grassy trails that connect this tiny settlement (at its peak, 19 people lived here) and imagine what life must have been like for the area’s early European settlers.
Finally, a history-filled visit to Niagara must include a trip to the Tunnel – the region’s newest attraction and quite literally the talk of the town. Located 180 meters below the Niagara Parks Power Station just a stone’s throw from the falls themselves, this old tunnel, used to funnel away wastewater from the power plant, was built a century ago using only rudimentary tools and dynamite.
After entering the power station – which, having been built by iconic Toronto architect E.J Lennox of Casa Loma fame, is an architectural destination in its own right – I take a glass-walled elevator down into the tunnel. I glide down past rust-speckled gears, hidden platforms and pipes that seem forgotten by time. My fellow elevator passengers even compare the sight to the Titanic.
The tunnel is wide and brick-covered, its walls curve up towards an arched ceiling. Walking through it and hearing echoes of my footsteps makes me feel like I’m being allowed to experience something secret. The story of the tunnel’s construction and usage is revealed to me step by step as I walk past historic photographs and diagrams. Although it feels like it could go on forever, after a ten minute walk the tunnel culminates with the viewing deck – what was once the point where the water exited the station. Today, it’s a prime spot to get the best photos in the area, thanks to the unique lower vantage point of the falls.
As soon as I step out onto the deck, I think it’s started raining. But no, that’s just the mist from the powerful falls hitting me from all directions. I suddenly regret being the only visitor to turn down the free plastic poncho. Still, standing there, taking it all in, I’m left in awe, thinking about how enduring the history of these falls – and the region – really is.