Fort Henry National Historic Site of Canada
By Patricia Henderson
Imagine spending a whole night inside the walls of an ancient fort while your imagination turns every echo into the whisper of soldiers long gone. Fort Henry, the largest fortification west of Quebec City, was built in the 1830s to replace an existing fort from the War of 1812. Restored in 1936, the fort embraces 19th century military life and has become a living museum populated by schoolteachers, soldier’s wives and the Fort Henry Guard – students trained as 1867 British soldiers.
Will Baird, the Special Events, Promotions and Sponsorship Officer for the St. Lawrence Parks Commission, says, “There are not too many UNESCO World Heritage Sites where you can spend the night just like a Victorian officer on an 1860s foldout soldiers cot. Imagine waking up in a castle with a view of the water and the entire city of Kingston!” But that is only one of a myriad of special events unique to Fort Henry.
Baird says, “In our Sunset Ceremony, the Fort Henry Guard performs a mock battle, and you get a glimpse into a British soldier’s life - a complete recreation of what history would have been like in the 1800s. This Wednesday night ceremony has been one of the top 100 events in Ontario for nearly a decade.”
On July 16 the Last Night at the Prom recreates an old British tradition and features BrassWerks and a 100-person choir. Baird says, “Once a year, in the mid-1800s in the British Empire, everyone was invited to see great bands and choirs perform in various locations – especially the Promenade.” The best part of the tradition is that everyone can sing along with the performers!
Just a week later, the famous Tattoo hosts different military bands and at the end of the evening, there is a 100-person finale in the parade square. Baird explains. “Tattoo is a Dutch word meaning ‘turn off the tap.’ Years ago, the band would march through the town playing so the bar keepers would know when it was time to shut off the taps and encourage the soldiers to return to their barracks.”
In August the US Marine Corps visits Fort Henry. “This is a co-performance that has been happening since 1954, and one of the only places that the full Battle Colour Detachment of the US Marine Corps (including the Silent Drill Platoon that executes a routine with no verbal commands) performs outside of the states.” It is fitting that a fort once built during the War of 1812 to defend Canada from the States, now delights in hosting this extraordinary event with our military neighbours to the south.
The tone of this historic fort, apparently one of the most haunted places in Canada, takes a turn for the ghostly when it is transformed from Fort Henry to Fort Fright in the fall. “This massive scare attraction showcases animatronics and ‘scare’ actors who jump out of spooky corners. One of the largest special events in the province, it won Best New Special Event in Ontario a few years ago. And last year it was nominated as one of the top 100 “must-see” festivals in the province.” It is followed by the new Victorian Holiday Festival in the winter.
Paul Fortier, a trained historian and owner of Jessup Foods and Heritage, has been at Fort Henry since 1994 and loves both history and food. He says, “There is no equivalent program of heritage dining linked to a National Historic Site anywhere in Canada. We take people back in time as though they were dining in the Officer’s Mess in the middle of the 19th century. Guests are served by soldier servants in an historic setting and because guests know they are in a unique dining setting, they can really let their hair down.”
Fortier says, “We don’t even need all the ghost stories at the fort, because the real stories are hugely entertaining. Once a Scotsman in the 89th Regiment was dining in his residence during the War of 1812 when a knock came at the door. When he opened it, a Yankee was standing there. (Keep in mind this was in the middle of the war!) Turns out he had heard that the British army paid top dollar for beef so he had herded 200 head of cattle all the way from Vermont, across the St Lawrence River, to Kingston. He had heard right though, and the two sealed the deal with a glass of wine and some gold coins.”
Today the fort and food and history and music are still deliciously intertwined. Fortier says, “Groups from across Canada say their evening at Fort Henry was the most enjoyable and entertaining they have ever had, not just because of the fun, but because they learn about Canada’s past.”