22 May 2008

Another Amusing Vignette From My City's History

I've been in a historical frame of mind lately. Monday was Victoria Day in Canada and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. We celebrate the Queen's birthday by throwing a hotdog on the barbecue and lighting off some gunpowder. I took the family out with the intention of taking them to Fort York and a few other places, but we got to a late start and only looked at the Fort as we passed it by. I took the opportunity to tell my children some of the history of our city. I'll pass a little on to you now. Let me get into my historical frame of mind.... ok, ready. Here goes:

Toronto begins with the harbour. Not many people today think of Toronto as a port city, even though the port is among the most active in Canada. But Toronto owes its existence to two things, both mostly ignored or forgotten today, and the first is the harbour. The second is the fort built to guard the harbour.

Fort York today is but a shadow of its former self. It is now about half a mile from the entrance to the harbour it was to guard. Declining levels of the lake, combined with landfill from excavations of basements and foundations saw to that. It's shadowy presence belies it importance to the city and it's impact on history.

The modern settlement of Toronto began with the garrison at Fort York. Toronto, or York as it was then called, became the capital of Upper Canada, now Ontario, after our first Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, moved the capital from Niagara. Niagara, he felt, was too vulnerable to American attack. The Harbour was intended to become a naval base from which Lake Ontario could be controlled. When the city was laid out, most of the land south of King Street was to be held by the garrison, to meet their needs. A town grew, beginning about a mile to the east. Parliament buildings were constructed.

The city grew in part to meet the demands of the garrison. The military had a constant need for tailors, smiths, food, carpenters, alcohol, taverns, bars, speakeasies, maids, servants, prostitutes and brothels. The garrison's main service to the city throughout the nineteenth century was mainly as an emergency police force, as they were often called out to bring an end to the riots that so frequently shook Toronto in that period. 'Toronto the Good' was decades into the future. At that time, our city could barely be called 'Toronto the So-so'.

The fort today is set up mainly as a living museum to remember the fort's part in the War of 1812. It was not exactly it's most glorious period, as it was captured by the Americans in the only battle to take place there.

The harbour turned out to be the fort's weakness. Originally, there were to be two forts, one on either side of the entrance of the harbour. That way, anyone trying to force an entrance into the harbour would be caught in a murderous crossfire. For whatever reason- lack of funds, perhaps- it was eventually deemed that one fort, the one guarding the north side of the harbour entrance, was enough. So the main defenses to the fort were pointing out into the lake, and the three sides facing land were left underprotected. On April 27, 1813, the American forces under General Zebulon Pike- the Pike of Pike's peak- took advantage of that weakness. Crossing the lake on fourteen ships, they landed several miles to the west of the fort, near the Humber River, and marched east, and commenced the Battle of York.

The Outnumbered British and Canadian militias fought bravely, but were driven back by superior numbers to the fort. They held the fort for a time, but were forced to withdraw and give the fort up for lost. Most of the damage done to the fort during the battle was done by the British themselves. As they left they set the Fort's powder magazine to explode. The blast killed or wounded about a hundred men on both sides- including Pike, who was mortally injured in the blast.

The Americans raided and looted the town for several days. They burned down several of the buildings, including the Parliament buildings, before they left on May 8.

Thus far, I have explained a little of the Fort's impact on local history. It's impact stems a little farther to the south.

Because of the capture and destruction of the capital of Upper Canada, the British regulars and Militias launched a retaliatory attack on the American capital, Washington DC, and burned it. The British gave strict orders that only Government buildings were to be burned, and among them was the White House. There is a legend surrounding the burning of the White House. The legend says that the British only scorched the outside, and that Americans covered over the damage by painting the house white- thus turning it into the White House. It makes a good story, and I wish it were true. Sadly, it isn't. The house was white from the beginning, and the British fire actually gutted the house. What they didn't destroy, the Americans pulled down to rebuild. The House itself was looted before the burning, and only a few of the items were ever located or returned. The White House as it now stands is a new White House, all in the name of revenge for the burning of York. Somehow, I prefer the legend.

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