Saturday, July 13, 2013

History Traveller: Fort York

Over the past year I have continued my exploration of the sites of the War of 1812.  A recent trip to Ontario allowed me to visit several of the major forts and battlefields in the region.  First up was Fort York.  Now nestled in the heart of downtown Toronto, the Fort once defended the harbor of York, as the city was then named, on the shores of Lake Ontario.  In 1813 its stone walls were sited right at the water's edge, but years of coastal development have claimed much new land from the lake and the fort now finds itself at a considerable distance from the shore.  In these modern times the Fort sits in a perpetual siege not of musket or cannon, but of skyscrapers and highways, outliving its purpose of physical protection while withstanding the forces of time and progress that would have us forget our common heritage.

Fort York was attacked by a combined naval and infantry force from the United States on April 26, 1813 as part of the ongoing battle for the Great Lakes.  York was targeted because it was both the capital of Upper Canada and a major depot of supplies and shipbuilding materials.  The Americans landed from the lake and attacked the Fort.  The British defenders and Native allies attempted to withstand the assault but were eventually forced to retreat.  One notable casualty was Zebulon Pike, the famous explorer of the American West, who was killed when the Fort's magazine exploded.  The US forces took the Fort and the city of York proper.  Over the next few days the occupying force looted and burned many local homes and government buildings.  It has been said that the burning of the White House the following year was in retribution for the plundering of York.

Today the Fort remains well preserved in its easily accessible location close to the Canadian National Exhibition fairgrounds.  Each of the standing barracks, blockhouses and other buildings contains various artifacts, displays and maps relating the history of the war, life and culture of the period and the specifics of the battle.  Currently, it is not a large park so it can be toured comfortably in a few hours.  However, the venue is undergoing a major upgrade to enlarge the grounds and facilities, so it might be worth checking in on completion before planning a visit. 

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