Visit Kingston (Ontario)
Early Capital of Canada
THE OLD CITY OF KINGSTON HAS A LOT FOR THOSE INTERESTED in the history of Canada. After all, it was one of the first European settlements set up for commerce.
When the French were expanding their colonies in eastern Canada, their explorers, trappers and traders were searching for riches north and west. Samuel de Champlain travelled to the Kingston region in 1615. His report caused the Governor of New France to set up a trading post called Ft. Cataraqui. Later this would be renamed Ft. Frontenac, after the governor’s name.
The British arrived during the Seven Year’s War in Europe and took over the fort. Moving into the 1800’s there were threatening moves from the united colonies south of the border, whose fleet during the War of 1812 chased the Canadian war ship, the Royal George, into the protection of the Kingston harbour where cannon fire drove the enemy away. Canada quickly erected Fort Henry to protect the dockyard, where in 1814, the HMS St. Lawrence sailed out into Lake Ontario, to become, with 112 guns, the most dreaded ship on Lake Ontario.
To ensure that the foreign power to the south could not block the St. Lawrence River and prevent Canadians from accessing towns along Lake Ontario, engineers completed building the Rideau Canal from Kingston to the Ottawa River in 1832. This would guarantee the passage of goods and troops in the event of a St. Lawrence River blockade.
In 1840, combining Upper and Lower Canada created the United Province of Canada. In 1841, Governor General Lord Sydenham declared Kingston as the new capital. That was one hundred and seventy-five years ago. The Capital only remained in Kingston until 1844 and wandered through six different locations until Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the Capital’s final location.
In 1846, there began a flurry of military building in Kingston. The completion of four Martello towers in Lake Ontario, plus improvements to Fort Henry, reinforced protection of the city. The atmosphere became edgy again. The Hudson’s Bay Company had established a region of British territory south of the Columbia River on the west coast, but during the tense times that followed gave up the territory to expanding American interests.
As a result Canada forever lost a wide band of country extending southward all across the continent to the Great Lakes. This was partially due to the erroneous belief of some American’s
in ‘Manifest Destiny’. A political and philosophical ideology that it was America’s divinely assigned right to expand across the North American continent and to establish democratic and Protestant ideals.
The threat of American invasion during those years resulted in the construction of fortifications of early day Kingston, now enjoyed by so many visitors.
For those who want to visit the original Kingston, you will want to work your way along the shores of Lake Ontario. This is where the massive protective works will be, and also the beautiful limestone buildings of early years.
The massive walls of Fort Henry will impress a visitor to Kingston arriving from the east on Hwy 2. Perched high on a hill, the fort is in a strategic position to guard the entrance to the St. Lawrence River, the entrance to the Rideau Canal, and the harbour.
The present fort offers many tours of the facilities and sets certain days aside for Sunset Ceremonies where the visitor will enjoy 1860’s military music and drills showing artillery manoeuvres and a fierce battle.
If you proceed west you will pass the Royal Military College (RMC), which is a university that trains military officers and offers degrees. From here you cross the Rideau Canal entrance. Many visitors like to book a trip on a boat through the canal’s 45 locks and the many lakes on the way to Ottawa. You will see lock gates operated by personnel hand-cranking them open and shut in the original way.
Downtown Old Kingston is next. The Tourist Information Office near City Hall is a useful stop for brochures and information on the sites of the old buildings. Many people like to book a water tour of the harbour for great views back into the city, or even down the St. Lawrence River into the Thousand Island section of this beautiful waterway.
If you don’t want to walk, buy a ticket for Kingston Trolley Tours, which covers many historic destinations. You can step off, stop a while, and hop on when the next trolley arrives. It has quite a wide coverage of the old city including a stop at Bellevue House, home of our first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald.
There are written guides available of walks that take you past old stately homes, as well as the locations of the industrial part of Kingston at that early time. Nearby is the city’s most beautiful building, the Frontenac County Court House, with a great fountain out front. Its roof is adorned with a domed cupola resting on several arched windows. This building faces down across large parkland where you can stroll to see a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, the man who became our first Prime Minister. Elected first as councillor on the Kingston Town Council in 1843, he was then later elected in 1844 to represent Kingston in government.
This is a busy area of town. It’s close to the Kingston General Hospital, and to Queen’s University, also mostly limestone structures. The older buildings of Queen’s still remain a light grey colour, but newer ones use limestone from out of town and look dingy brown. If you are interested in rocks and minerals, Miller Museum at Queen’s has a large selection of local and far away rocks.
Farther west are prison facilities where you can pass the fairy-like castle of Collins Bay Institution or if tours are available, stop in at the rugged facilities of a now closed Kingston Penitentiary.
A visit to the Cataraqui Cemetery will show you a resting place filled with natural beauty among the rolling terrain. It is the final home of Sir John A. Macdonald, which is visited by many people from across the nation.
Clockwise from top left: Sir John A. MacDonald, Stately Home and Frontenac County Courthouse