Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

Lunch was enjoyed at the Red George Public House, an impressive old stone warehouse overlooking the river on Water Street in Prescott. Owner Scott Hubbard said he and a partner bought the building some 30 years ago. It was constructed in sections that date from 1828, 1832 and 1836 – all combined in 1836. Prescott was once an important staging area because of the rapids between there and Montreal. Hubbard says that forwarding trade was decimated with the opening of the first canals in the 1890's.

Today, parts of the building are offices. The current pub operation is just five years old. It is named after “Red” George MacDonnell, a conspicuous figure in the War of 1812. Hubbard graciously detailed the history of the building and some of its interesting quirks and features. He says he bought it out of love. It is nice to see buildings being cared for by people who value architecture and regional heritage. Oh, and the food was good too!

After lunch we pushed on to the Grenville County Historical Society Archival Resource Centre. Founded in 1891, the organization is now housed in the old Grand Trunk Railway Station at 500 Railway Ave. (Excellent adaptive re-use for an attractive building.) As you might imagine, RTHS members who actively volunteer with the Rideau Archives were very interested in looking around. Small clusters formed to exchange shop-talk about techniques and equipment. Several books were purchased from that society's publication shelves. We owe thanks to guides, Bonnie Gaylord and Sandra Robertson, who kindly shared their facility with us.

   Grenville County Historical Society

The Grenville County Historical Society in the old Grand Trunk Railway Station in Prescott

The next stop was “The Little Blue Church”. The original church on the site was used from 1809-1826. It was destroyed by fire in 1840. The church seen there today was built in 1845. Though not in active use, the building is under the trusteeship of St. John's Anglican Church in Prescott. The surrounding cemetery is one of the most historic in the area.

   The little Blue Church

A stained glass window in the Little Blue Church.

One of the first buried there was Barbara Heck. Born in Ireland, Heck is credited with establishing the first Methodist congregations in North America – one in New York circa 1766 and another in Upper Canada, as a Loyalist refugee. Part of Heck's memorial tombstone reads “In memory of one who laid foundations others have built upon”.

The cemetery is graced with lovely old trees and enjoys a fine view of the St. Lawrence River. It is still in active use. Our group enjoyed the church (inside and out) and strolling the attractive grounds looking at the grave markers.

Lastly, we swung past the Battle of the Windmill site. As time had grown short, we did no more than look from our bus. The tall stone windmill is quite striking.

The site's significance is described thusly on an Ontario Historic plaque: “After the 1837 Rebellions many rebels fled to the United States where a few joined American sympathizers in a new attempt to overthrow British rule in Canada. On 12 November 1838 they landed 190 men here and seized this windmill and nearby buildings. The local people remained loyal, reporting to their militia units; in a few days 2,000 militia and regulars, supported by naval vessels, besieged the mill. Although British guns did little damage to the mill, the insurgents, seeing no escape, surrendered on the 16th. Eleven were later executed and 60 exiled to Australia.”

In due course, we were back at the North Gower client centre, happy, a bit tired and much better informed about our region. Do consider coming along on next year's field trip, which is open to members and non-member alike. Suggestions for what to go and see are welcome too. We thank Program Director Ruth Wright for handling all the arrangements that allowed this interesting event to take place so smoothly.

Site of the Battle of the Windmill

The “Battle of the Windmill” site with a ship passing down river on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

It was a very pleasant Saturday, June 16th, as we gathered at the Roger Stevens Drive client centre in North Gower for our annual field trip. Bus driver Mark Strong transported twenty-nine attendees to Prescott in short order. We were joined there by others who arrived in their own vehicles.

Fort Wellington National Historic Site bills itself as one of the best preserved nineteenth-century fortifications in Canada. Readers who haven't been there lately should consider going again. A new $3.1 million dollar visitor's centre opened this year. Parks Canada reports the major project was finished on time and on budget.

The showpiece of the new visitor's centre is a recovered wreck representing regional maritime history. Excavated from the river near Mallorytown in 1966, experts believe the hull began as the HMS Radcliffe, a gunboat built at the Kingston dockyards in 1817. Disarmed under post-war treaty provisions, the boat was modified and saw decades of non-military use before being scuttled sometime in the 1870's.

   The HMS Radcliffe as restored

HMS Radcliffe restored and displayed in the visitor’s centre at Fort Wellington.

Parks Canada's Fort Wellington website describes this display in far greater detail. A concluding paragraph characterizes the recovered hull thusly:

“This craft’s exceptionally long career, first as a naval vessel intended for border defence, then as a commercial craft, attests to the changing nature of life along the frontier. The hostilities it was built to counter gave way to growing industry, trade and commerce. Its conversion from vessel of war to vessel of trade reinforces the growing significance of commerce and development on the St. Lawrence throughout the nineteenth century.”

Troops in the period dress of the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment at Fort Wellington

Costumed interpreters in the period dress of the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment at Fort Wellington

The historic fort itself remains a fine attraction. After being divided into two smaller groups, Fort Wellington interpreters Holly and JP took all of us through several distinct segments: the visitor centre and the new HMS Radcliffe display, a mock military encampment, a musket firing demonstration, the fort's timber-spiked outer earthworks, the inner bailey (if that is the right term?) with open space, separate officer's quarters, the cook house and latrines. Center ground is held by the fort's substantial blockhouse, three stories high. Though the fort's entire history is explained, the main displays are presently styled to reflect barracks life circa 1846.

After almost two centuries of relative domestic peace, it is an interesting exercise to consider a time when Canada faced potential attack from U.S. forces. Most of us have to really shift our outlook to study surroundings in terms of attack, defense and survival.

In the 1840's the fort had an array of artillery to defend itself, control river traffic and even bombard Ogdensburg, should that seem necessary. (Our guide may have revealed more, but she discovered an American was present – disguised as a dual-national RTHS newsletter correspondent. At which point the flow of Canadian security secrets dried up.)

The only entrance through the rampart embankment consists of double wooden gates that date from 1839. They open in opposite directions so that by knocking down the outer gate attackers have only made it more difficult to open the inner gate. The slow-burning wood is studded with metal to impede chopping from an axe. If the earthworks or gates were breeched, defenders would still be tucked away in the inner blockhouse, able to shoot through the stoutly protective walls - while awaiting relief from Kingston.

Archeological excavation of the latrine in 1990 revealed all sorts of details, including enough broken crockery to prove fort inhabitants ate off of fairly nice dinnerware - not pewter or crude trenchers. Holly explained that the displays of ordinary life at the fort strive for accuracy and were updated to reflect that added knowledge. Many of the recovered items are now on display.

In the 1840's Fort Wellington was staffed by members of the recently-formed Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment (RCRR). The RCRR had been granted special privileges to discourage desertion, including permission for a fair number of enlisted men at that time to live with wives and children within the fort.

The second floor of the blockhouse was arranged to portray the section where married men and their families would bunk. Father and mother got the wooden pallet, children and pets got the floor. (If you wonder that pets were permitted, bear in mind the value of a good ratter.) Unmarried men filled out the third floor. All this took place above the ground floor's powder magazine.

According to the fort's website, “...in 1846, at least 65 men, 26 women and 36 children lived on the second and third floors of the blockhouse.” Wives and offspring were entitled to partial rations, though that ceased at age 14 for the children. While living conditions must have been quite challenging, personnel in this fort seemed to enjoy a more varied diet and nicer social conditions than was often the case.

Fort Wellington offers much to see and consider, for anyone interested in regional history and ordinary life in times past.

The June Excursion to Fort Wellington and the Grenville County
Historical Society Archival Resource Centre

Article by Lucy Martin, pictures by Lucy Martin and Sandy Wilson