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Jun. 15, 2019 | Saturday
Entertainment News
Niagara History Unveiled: Navy Hall Part 1 of 2
The Navy Hall. (Brittany Carter/Niagara Now)

What you see today is not what you think you are seeing. Today’s Navy Hall is not one of the four original structures built by the British before the War of 1812. In fact the first buildings constructed in the Niagara Peninsula were built before the American Revolution as part of the Fort Niagara complex when occupied by the British.

These first naval buildings were built in the late 1760s by the British Navy who constructed a collection of buildings and a wharf on the east side of the Niagara River opposite Fort Niagara.

These buildings were destroyed by red hot shots from the cannons of Fort Niagara on October 13, 1813. The building of today was built in 1814 as part of the reconstruction of Niagara (NOTL) after the Americans destroyed the town in December of 1813.

The naval yard or as it was later referred to as “Navy Hall” was ideal for over-wintering ships and was offices of the Provincial Marine, what in essence was a colonial Navy. Currents in the Niagara River and prevailing winds made it easier to dock ships on the west bank of the Niagara River than on the eastside near Fort Niagara.

The buildings consisted mostly of quarters for Navy officers and buildings to warehouse sails, ropes and netting. Each year as winter approached, sailors would securely tie ships at the Navy Hall dock then remove running rigging, sails, ship’s boats and cannons to store indoors. The crews would then return to their homes in Quebec while the Provincial Marine officers stayed in quarters at Navy Hall.

The buildings were no longer used by the Provincial Marine by the early 1780’s and they were not being maintained properly in the following years. By 1788 they were in desperate need of repair. When Lt. Gov. Simcoe (1792-96) arrived at Niagara (NOTL) in 1792, he ordered extensive repairs be made to all of the buildings in the Navy Hall area.

In the beginning one of the buildings of Navy Hall was to be considered as a residence for the Simcoe family. However Simcoe found them damp comparing them to an ale house hovel in England. The family instead decided to live under canvas adjacent to the buildings. Mrs. Simcoe much preferred living this way, noting in her diary that on hot summer nights the family would sit outside by the river enjoying the cooling breezes coming off of Lake Ontario. It is of interest to note that this tent had once belonged to the famous explorer Captain James Cook.

This peaceful setting for the family was disrupted, the first time with the arrival of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent in the latter part of 1792. It should be noted that this was the first visit of any British family member in Upper Canada. The Prince was given the dwellings under canvas and the Simcoe family had to move into one of the “hovels” at Navy Hall.

There has been great discussion about the first parliament of Upper Canada and just where official government business was conducted in Newark (NOTL). The Executive Council (appointed Members of the government, not elected) did meet in Navy Hall; however the first parliamentary sessions were conducted in the Masonic Temple at the corner of King and Prideaux Streets. Later after the Rangers Barracks (located on Byron Street) were retrofitted, parliament moved there.

On February 1, 1796 the capital of Upper Canada was moved across Lake Ontario to York (Toronto) and for the second time the Simcoe family had to leave their home under canvas at Navy Hall, permanently. The Simcoe family returned to England that same year.

At the time of the Simcoe’s departure, construction of Fort George was underway and the Navy Hall complex was used again as storehouses. The building that Simcoe had used became the Officers’ Mess for Fort George.

During the War of 1812, American forces, army and navy, attacked Niagara (NOTL) in May of 1813. On May 25 they opened up a terrific bombardment of red hot cannon balls and exploding mortar shells, burning all of the wooden buildings at Fort George and likely any structures remaining at Navy Hall. Two days later, the Americans landed from Lake Ontario, north of the town and fought their way to Fort George.

By 1814, the British had control over the town (NOTL) once more and constructed Navy Hall, the one which we see today. This building is smaller than the first ones originally built and its first use was that of a commissariat store for the garrison of Fort George. Later in the 1840s Navy Hall was converted to a barracks to house 72 men.

A new wharf was also constructed at the same time as the new Navy Hall and named “Kings Wharf”. King’s Wharf was a busy port for the cross-river ferry service between Upper Canada and the United States. A customs house, guard house and a tavern were also constructed in the area of King’s Wharf.

By the 1850s Navy Hall was used only as a warehouse. Later, for a short period during the American Civil War, married couples and their families of the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment were housed in the building.

The railroad industry started to expand which saw the Erie and Niagara Railway build a spur line to the dock in Niagara (NOTL). Space was needed for the trains to meet the steamships coming across Lake Ontario to King’s Wharf. The rail line came down what is now the Niagara Parkway along the river bank to the dock area. Navy Hall was in the way..

Part 2 will be published March 28.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Ascenzo is a regular Niagara Now contributor. Her full profile can be found here.

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