New York historic site marks battle anniversary

Tourists visit Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, N.Y.David Duprey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fort Niagara still looks like a tough nut to crack.

The outer walls trace the same outline of the high earthworks that greeted a British-led army sent to conquer the fort 250 years ago this summer. The three-story "French Castle" looming over the western Lake Ontario shoreline is as imposing as when 3,500 redcoats, American colonials and Native American warriors laid siege to the fort in July 1759.

A significant part of the Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site 26 miles (42 kilometers) north of Buffalo remains much the same as it was in 1759, at the end of the French and Indian War, when the English finally captured the wilderness outpost after decades under French control. A powder magazine built in 1757 still stands, 250 years after surviving the British bombardment that led to the fort's surrender.

"Niagara probably gives us the best sense of an 18th-century fortification," said Brian Leigh Dunnigan, curator of the map division at the University of Michigan's William L. Clements Library and executive director of the fort from 1979-1996.

This summer, the fort is commemorating the 250th anniversary of the siege. During the July 4 weekend, more than 2,000 French and Indian War buffs from across the U.S. and Canada are expected to participate in the re-enactment of the 1759 siege of Fort Niagara, which actually lasted nearly three weeks.

The Old Fort Niagara re-enactment is this year's signature event of New York state tourism's commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the French and Indian War (1755-63).

Built to guard the portage between lakes Erie and Ontario, Fort Niagara was targeted by British military planners for years, but it wasn't until 1759 that a large force actually attacked it. Seizing the fort situated where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario would sever French Canada's communication and supply lines linking the colony with its outposts in the Ohio Valley, around the western Great Lakes and along the Mississippi River.

The British force headed westward from Albany in May and boarded boats at Oswego for the 130-mile (209-kilometer) voyage along the lake's southern shore. The redcoats landed a few miles (several kilometers) east of the fort on July 6 and started digging trenches toward its walls. On July 11, British mortars began pounding the fort, with cannon fire later added to the bombardment.

The survivors among the garrison's 600 defenders surrendered on July 25, 1759, a day after a French relief force was defeated by the redcoats just a mile (1.6 kilometers) south of the fort.

The British capture of Fort Niagara was one of the key events leading up to the French defeat outside the walls of Quebec City later that year in one of history's most important battles. In 1763, France signed the treaty that surrendered Canada to the English.

Standing on the fort's western ramparts facing Ontario just across the Niagara River, visitors can understand why this spot was the lynchpin in the string of French outposts that stretched from Illinois to Quebec. Any vessel trying to slip past the fort's river defenses would find itself well within cannon range. An enemy force approaching from the lake side could expect the same reception.

In clear weather, the skyline of Toronto, 33 miles (53 kilometers) to the north, is visible across the lake.

"One thing about forts and fort builders in the 18th century, they grabbed the best real estate with the best views," Dunnigan said.

The fort's centerpiece is the French Castle, a limestone structure that's the oldest building on the Great Lakes, said Robert Emerson, Old Fort Niagara's current executive director. Situated on high ground fronting the lake, the 282-year-old building has limestone walls 2 feet (0.6 meters) thick. It served as a barracks, trading post and storehouse.

"It was the most elaborate building west of Montreal when it was built," Emerson said.

During the July 3-5 weekend, some 2,300 re-enactors are expected to gather at the fort grounds and recreate events from the siege. Visitors can view artillery barrages, musket volleys and skirmishes from the fort's grass-covered walls, then stroll through the re-enactors' "living history camps" set up inside the fort. French and Indian War buffs well-versed in 18th-century military life will demonstrate how people lived, dressed and fought on the American frontier, said Tom Faith, a re-enactor from Elma, outside Buffalo.

"We try to do things as accurately as possible, to do it as they did it," said Faith, a 57-year-old health care management executive who portrays a frontiersman who served alongside the British.

Such public displays of history in action, conducted on the actual ground where the real events took place, often engage people who are easily turned off by museum exhibits, said Dunnigan, author of a book on the battle for Fort Niagara, "Siege: 1759."

"You're actually in a spot where something happened," he said. "You can sense that people were involved. There was hardship and suffering, and people today will identify with people of an earlier time when it's put in those terms."

The British later added two stone towers in the early 1770s, and they used the fort as a staging area for loyalist and Indian raids on the New York and Pennsylvania frontiers during the Revolutionary War. The fort wasn't handed over to the Americans until 1796. British forces captured the fort during the War of 1812, and the U.S. didn't get it back until 1815, after the war ended. Fort Niagara would serve as a U.S. Army garrison for most of the next 150 years, with the last military unit withdrawn in 1963.

Visitors enter the fort grounds through a building that houses a small museum and gift shop. On display in the museum is the huge American flag that flew over the fort when it was captured by the British in December 1813. The 24-foot (7.3-meter)-by-28-foot (8.5-meter) stars and stripes was acquired from Scotland in 1994 and returned to New York, where the state's specialists in fabric conservation restored the banner before it was placed in its own climate-controlled display room at the museum.