Fort York – Toronto’s Grandfather

An engraving of Fort York at the Royal York Ho...

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Never thought I’d be writing a piece on Fort York as I have been careful to avoid visiting since I arrived here. No logical explanation, just a general and unfounded scepticism about the place. Since we emigrated to this side of thr Atlantic, I’ve visited more Forts than I’ve had hot dinners. Forts here are the French and to a lesser degree the British equivalent of castles.

The first Fort we visited was Fort George in Kingston Ontario closely followed by a visit to Fort Halifax and the amazing Louisburg in Nova Scotia/Cape Breton respectively. Many more such visits – all over Canada and in various parts of ther US – have followed, all highly enjoyable and all taking me a step closer (especially those on the eastern seaboard of North America) to piecing together the colourful and rich tapestry of culture and historic spats that appear to underpin a patriotism and pride seldom seen in more venerable parts of the world.

So, on a blisteringly hot Sunday afternoon and downtown in the car with a couple of hours to spare we passed the sign for about the millionth time and decided to drop in.

Blow me down, nestled under the Gardner Expressway and shrouded by skyscrapers, occupying what must be a slice of prime real estate was the historic haven of Garrison Park and what is Canada’s largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings (six buildings and two massive Block Houses).

Entering through the time-tunnel of the massive fortified walls, the sounds of the city melted away to the haunting sound of a pipe and drums corps going about their exhaustive drilling in order to provide informative and authentic demonstrations to visitors. I felt I’d stepped straight into a “Sharp” novel

Founded in 1793 by John Graves Simcoe as a garrison to replace the highly vulnerable border capital of Niagara, it was followed by the inevitable settlement – a community servicing the needs of the fort, This was originally called York and renamed Toronto in 1834.

Fort York was the site of the famous “Battle of York” during the War of 1812, although it had been constructed some years earlier in anticipation of war following souring Anglo-Amercian relations.

In 1812 the US declared war and invaded York with 2,550 men; 14 naval vessels and 85 cannon. The incumbent force consisted of just 750 British soldiers and Canadian militiamen plus around 50 Ojibway and Mississauga warriors with only 12 large guns. No contest – the British retreated, blowing up the gunpowder magazine in their wake and killing scores of US soldiers. The native warriors fled one way and the British another (to Kingston) leaving the local militiamen to “hold down the fort” during the surrender. The Americans took over the fort for only 6 days, looting and destroying both homes and two public structures: Government House and the Parliament buildings. They left and then returned 3 months later, to the undefended fort to finished what they’d started and burn down the barracks and anything else still left standing. Rebuilding of Fort York began in 1814 and later that same year it managed to repel a naval attack through Toronto Harbour. The Fort was in constant use then until the 1880s, and used for training purposes until the 1930s. It was opened as a historic site and museum in 1934 and although industrial buildings encroached along the tracks of the railway line running along the shoreline, (reclaimed by then) and virtually on top of the fort, it seems to have survived in a time warp, One sepia photograph shows a slaughterhouse loading ramp virtually touching one of the Blockhouses.

Now this spot is an urban island amidst Garrison Park; an enduring reminder to the sparkling condos festooning the new shoreline of the reason they exist at all.

A word about the drum and pipe and other military corps that march around the fort during the summer. These guys are step perfect and their repertoire of typical pipe and drum music is astonishing. Wherever we visited on-site, we could hear individuals practising behind buildings, tucked into wall clefts wherever they could prior to their public ” sessions”.

I hadn’t realised the extent of the importance of these corps in what was essentially the only means of communication amidst raging chaotic battles and an enhancement to the flow of garrison life ie. different melodies for “The Reveille (The wake-up), meals times, bed-times etc. Not only did they have to march into battles with their non musical cohorts piping and drumming the appropriate calls for various military manoeuvres and morale building, but they did all this unarmed, that is to say with all but a largely decorative and often blunt sword. They always wore a reverse colour scheme to the foot soldiers so they could be easily spotted and the Drum Major was often recruited not for his musical prowess but mainly for his looks and height. The uniforms at the time for the whole garrison had a strong turkish theme because of the fascination of the time with all fashions east. The drum and pipe corps woollen uniforms tended to be lavishly emblazoned with gold braid, intricate and colourful embroidered and/or ermine sleeve caps, and often in hellishly impractical colours with white trousers. Bearing in mind that these were the pride of a particular garrison, it’s amazing they managed to brush up and look constantly splendid. Apparently the men used a white stone powder to rub into and disguise stains and dirt on their white trousers and apparently by the end of any given day, a soldier upon patting his pants down would be engulfed in a cloud of white dust which resulted in some of these guys succumbing to respiratory problems.

Something you don’t want when you make a living using your lungs.

Over & Out

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