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Old Fort Niagara

Old Fort Niagara

History of the Fort
Fort Niagara is the oldest continuously-occupied military installation in North America. Built by the French to protect their interests in what was then New France, it became a crucial installation in the northern reaches of British North America and since the War of 1812 has been home to detachments of the United States Army and later the Coast Guard. The site today is a National Historical Landmark, part of the National Register of Historic Places, the central attraction of both a New York state park and a federal National Historic Area and a functioning fortress that preserves the military methods and lifestyle of the 18th and 19th century. It may also be haunted, and is a site of great interest to students of the paranormal.

The first fort on the site, Fort Conti, was erected in 1678 by the explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, known in American and Canadian history as La Salle. The governor of New France, the Marquis de Denonville, replaced Fort Conti with another fort in 1687, and named it after himself. One hundred men were stationed there under the command of the Chevalier de Troyes, but all but 12 died of disease or starvation over the following winter. The site was abandoned and the fort pulled down thereafter.

The French returned to the site in 1726, and built a two-story stone structure with a machicolation, an ancient French military device involving an opening in a tower or battlement through which stones or other objects could be dropped on besieging forces. Although intended to withstand attack by the fierce native tribes living nearby, it was used as a trading post and called to “House of Peace” so as not to arouse the suspicion of the Iroquois, who often used French traders and missionaries very harshly. The fort was expanded to about its present dimensions in 1755, as the Seven Years’ War in Europe spread to North America, where the British and Americans called it the French and Indian War and the French named it The War of Conquest.

The Battle of Fort Niagara, in July of 1759, was a 19-day siege of the French, who had holed up in the fort after being ambushed in the Battle of La Belle-Famille, by the colonial militia of New York under Sir William Johnson. Johnson had been second-in-command to General John Prideaux, who lost his head literally when a mortar exploded and decapitated him. The French surrendered, and Fort Niagara remained a British bastion until 1796, serving during the Revolutionary War as the headquarters of Butler’s Rangers, a fierce militia of loyalist Americans under British command.

The Treaty of Paris, which established American independence in 1783, ceded Fort Niagara and the area around it to the United States, but that corner of New York had largely remained loyal to Britain and the Crown had given land grants to many United Empire Loyalists who had been displaced from their homes and businesses elsewhere in America. The issues remaining after the ratification of the Treaty of Paris were settled by the Treaty of London in 1794, generally named today after John Jay, who negotiated for the United States, and the fort became American in fact. It was seized again by Britain in 1813, after American forces crossed into Canada and burned the settlement of Niagara, but returned permanently to American custody under the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812.

“Old Fort Niagara” is actually the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 encampment that was used by the U.S. Army until the Civil War. A new military camp was constructed after that conflict, and was used for training for Indian conflicts in the West and in the Spanish-American and First World Wars. The camp housed 1,200 German prisoners from Rommel’s AfrikaKorps during World War II, and thereafter was used for short-term housing for returning veterans. An anti-aircraft battery was stationed there at the beginning of the Korean War, and Nike ballistic missiles were installed for air defense at its end. Air defense installations protecting Niagara Falls were moved to Lockport Air Force Station near Buffalo in 1958, and the “new” fort was decommissioned by the Army in 1963. Since that time, the U.S. Coast Guard has operated there, making Fort Niagara the oldest continuously-operating United States military facility.

The Fort Niagara Museum
Residents of the Niagara Falls area began to lobby the government for repair and preservation of the old fort in the 1920s, and in 1931 the War Department granted the Old Fort Niagara Association a license to operate the fort. The old fort was transferred to the state of New York in 1949 and became a state park, and in 1960 the fort became one of the first National Historic Landmarks. Visitors today can see 18th century buildings restored to their original state as well as spectacular views of Lake Ontario from the mouth of the Niagara River. A 16-minute orientation film introduces the fort and summarizes its history, and the flag that flew over the fort during the War of 1812 is on display in the Visitor Center.

Musket and artillery firing are demonstrated during the summer months, and there are often re-enactments in period dress then. A guided tour is available daily, with performances of military music and demonstrations of native American life and the military cooking, laundering and blacksmithing of the time during the summer. The fort’s Log Cabin has also been converted into a seasonal restaurant, and there is a museum shop in the Visitor Center

Directions, Hours and Costs
Old Fort Niagara is in Youngstown, New York, located on Lake Ontario north of the twin American and Canadian cities of Niagara Falls. It can be reached from Niagara Falls, New York on the Robert Moses Parkway, and from Niagara Falls, Ontario over the Lewiston-Queenston or Rainbow Bridges. Crossing from New York into Canada or vice versa will require a passport. From other cities, exit 50 of the New York State Thruway will lead to I-290 and then I-190 to Niagara Falls, and thence to the Robert Moses Parkway.

The fort is open every day but New Year’s Day, U.S. Thanksgiving and Christmas. Winter, spring and fall hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. in July and August. The last tickets are sold 30 minutes before closing, and admission is US$12 for adults and US$8 for children over 6. Seniors, those with New York State Park passes and members of the American and Canadian Automobile Associations receive a discount, as do groups of 12 or more. Americans, Canadians and visitors from other countries will find Old Fort Niagara to be beautiful and scenic, as well as a carefully-preserved look back in time to life and military traditions of 17th, 18th and 19th century France, Britain and America.