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Jun. 21, 2018 | Thursday
Entertainment News
Niagara's History Unveiled: The John Breakenridge homes
240 Centre St. in Niagara-on-the-Lake. (Niagara Now)

John Breakenridge, once thought to be a traitor to Upper Canada and to have buried six slaves on his property.

Just who is this man?

In this article, I plan to dispel several rumours about Breakenridge and explore his connection to three wonderful heritage homes in Niagara-on-the-Lake, one of which is purported to have the most photographed doorway in town.

Breakenridge was born on a family farm outside of Prescott Ontario in 1789 and worked hard his entire but short life.

He was the son of David Breakenridge, an United Empire Loyalist who fled the upper New York State area after the American Revolution (1775-1783) and settled on land granted to him by King George III of England.

David was an educated man and a staunch Tory who was appointed to several important government positions such as the Justice of the Peace by the Government of Lower Canada (Quebec) and then by the Government of Upper Canada (Ontario). His children were afforded a good education and a strict Presbyterian upbringing.

Little is known of John Breakenridge’s early life but it can be expected that he attended grammar school in Cornwall run by Bishop Strachan (later the first Bishop of the Anglican Church in Toronto) from 1803-1811.

After grammar school, he studied law and was on the Law Society of Upper Canada register in 1812. 

A formal approval of a candidate was conducted by the “Benchers of the Law Society of Upper Canada” to ensure that a candidate had an acceptable background which included education and family history.

With a father who was an Empire Loyalist and with his schooling under Bishop Strachan, Breakenridge was a successful candidate.

By 1815, Breakenridge was reading law (internship) at a law office in York under the direction of his future brother-in-law, William Warren Baldwin.

Breakenridge was called before the Upper Canada Kings Bench in 1817 as a barrister.

Often the terms barrister and lawyer (attorney) are confused to be one and the same, however there is a significant difference.

A lawyer was permitted to only practice law limited in non-litigious matters while a barrister could do what a lawyer did plus appear in court to plead or argue criminal or civil cases.


The Lawyer from Virginia Rumour:

This rumour actually is just a confusion of facts.

After the American Civil war (1861-1865), a lawyer from Virginia sot refuge in NOTL waiting to receive amnesty, from President Johnson of the United States, for his part in the confederacy.

The lawyer’s name was John C. Breckenridge (1821-1875).

Note the different spelling.


The Traitor Rumour:

In 1823, the name John Breakenridge appeared with 330 other names as a traitor to the Crown during the war of 1812.

Breakenridge was charged with leaving the province and not supporting the Crown during the war years.

Why his name is on the traitors list is a mystery because at the time of the war, Breakenridge was studying law in York and is clearly registered with the Law Society of Upper Canada.

No reasons was ever found for his name to be on the list. He was not sent to trial and none of his properties were seized.

Breakenridge was not a traitor to Upper Canada.
 

Marriage:

In 1816, Breakenridge married Mary Warren Baldwin, the sister of William Warren Baldwin (whose firm Breakenridge did his internship with) a barrister and also Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

In 1817, Breakenridge decided to practice law in Niagara (NOTL) and moved his family into their first home that he had built on Simcoe Street.
 

363 Simcoe Street:

The first Breakenridge house was a one-and-half-storey clapboard building built on a half-acre of land at 363 Simcoe St.

An interesting construction design was the placement of the bricks.

After the war of 1812, bricks were in short supply so most homes were built of wood. However, this house has a single layer of bricks, which were inserted between the outside clapboard and inside walls.

This was to stop any muskets balls that might be fired into the home should there be another war.

The original house was designed with a centre doorway and two windows on each side of the door. 

The house had a formal living room, two fireplaces, an informal sitting room, a formal dining room and a “keeping room”  adjacent to the kitchen where family would gather but would be out of the way of the cook and staff.
 

392 Mississauga Street:

By 1818 Breakenridge was looking for a larger property to build an even grander home.

He purchased a property on Mississauga St. for 27 pounds and 10 shillings from a Captain in Butler’s Rangers Lot 227, named Arendt Bradt.

There is thought to have been nothing but a log cabin on the property at the time.
 

The Slave Burial Plot Rumour:

Bradt, who came from the Mohawk Valley after the American Revolution is said to have brought his slaves with him.

They would not have been freed when Governor John Graves Simcoe put through the act to abolish slavery in Upper Canada (1793).

Rumour has it six slaves were buried on the Bradt property. 

Records state that upon Bradt's arrival in Niagara, amongst his possessions, he came with "one Negro and wenches.”

We have no actual count of how many slaves he owned and there is no record of their deaths.

It is speculated that one of the owners in later years started this rumour to create an interest (or mystique) about the property.

The new home Breakenridge built was a magnificent colonial Greek Revival house.

The kitchen was located in a separate building away from the house but in 1840 an addition was added to the back of the home to accommodate a huge kitchen with its own fireplace and baking ovens.

In 1954, the house was purchased by the Hawley family who made the commitment to restore the home to as much of its origins as possible.

With the help of Peter Stokes, a famous Canadian restoration expert, and over a period of 12 years, the renovations were completed.

The Hawley family moved into their masterpiece in 1967.

Many interesting items were uncovered during the renovations.

There is no basement under the house, just two foot support walls made of stone (burnt limestone) with binder made from water, lake sand and eggs.

The front windows were originally from England so during the Hawley restoration, a factory was sourced from England to have the correct replacement windows installed.

Upon renovating the stairs, on the back of a riser the name “G.S. Kemsley, Newark, 1816” was discovered.

1816 was a year before Breakenridge took title of the property, so it is unknown if Kemsley was the builder of the house or just the stairs.

The date does not fit with the building time line, so it is another mystery that cannot be solved.

Upstairs, off of the master bedroom was the “wig room.”

During the period Breakenridge was practicing law he would have worn wigs into the courtroom.

A Victorian porch on the front of the house was removed which exposed the exquisite front door we see today — said to be the most photographed doorway in town.

The window above the door is a spectacular fanlight of intricate design made of hand blown glass in an embroidered design of ornamental cast lead with rosettes used at the joints.

There is a story about this property that has circulated for many years.

It is said that the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII), while being entertained in the home in 1876, used his diamond ring to etch his initials on to a pane of glass which was part of a china cupboard during his visit to NOTL.

However, this is not possible because in 1876 the Prince of Wales was touring India.

In fact, in 1876 the home was owned by William Thomas Avery (from 1872-1899) a retired Confederate army officer from Virginia. 

Avery was also a Grand master of the Ku Klux Klan. No royalty would have accepted an invitation should it have been offered; the story is a hoax.

During the time that the Breakenridge family lived in the house, they had three children.

With more on the way, it was time to move once more.

The house was sold for 425 Pounds.
 

240 Centre Street:

In 1825, Breakenridge purchased Lot 202 (now 240 Centre St.) for 75 pounds.

A house was constructed and the family moved in, adding two more children.

The building is a pink brick, regular centre hall plan Georgian house.

The house was built raised so the kitchen and servant’s quarters (the Breakenridge’s had two indentured servants) could be in the basement.

The rooms on the main floor would have included a living room, sitting room, dining room and library. The upper floor was for all the bedrooms.

There was no plumbing.

John Breakenridge died in 1828 at the age of 39, with many debts and his wife Mary and their five children experienced severe hardships.

With five children to raise, Mary, in 1829, opened the “Seminary for Young Ladies” in her home to have a source of income.

Through the sale of other properties her late husband had owned, and the income from the school, Mary was able to stay at 240 Centre Street until the mid 1850’s.

This particular house has one more story to tell:

Many locals know it as the abandoned, boarded up house at the corner of Centre and Mississauga Street. No one lives there now and it doesn’t seem to have had anyone live there for years.

In 1978, Robert and Dorothy Ure purchased the home for $30,000.

Their plan was to restore the house similarly to how the Hawley family had with the house on Mississauga.

Mrs. Ure oversaw every detail of the renovations.

When all construction was completed, the furniture — a bequest from family in Scotland — was moved in.

However before the Ure family could move in there was a horrible incident.

The home was broken into and vandalized and the furniture was stolen.

Mrs. Ure was so distraught that the house was boarded up and has remained so to this day.

With Breakenridge’s ambitious plans to build grand home for his family and with the foresight of home owners after him, we are able to enjoy three wonderful heritage buildings in our town.
 

I wish to thank Doug Phibbs for the detailed research he has done on these homes and on the life of John Breakenridge.

_________________

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 Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.

Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

Denise's profile can be found here, niagaranow.com/profile.phtml/13