Usually when we think of Niagara, we think of the Falls and its major tourist attractions. Yet there are a whole many more layers, so many in fact that even locals have not found them all yet!
Off the Queen Elizabeth Way
On the drive there, it is too easy to drive through ignoring either side of the QEW once past the Burlington Skyway.
Few have heard of the “Painted Ladies” in Grimsby, at historic Grimsby Beach, for instance. Park your car near Auditorium Circle where the majority of these homes are to be found, put on your walking shoes and proceed on foot, and just breathe in the atmosphere. The homes are brightly painted, gingerbread Victorian cottages dating back to about 1875, or over 150 years. Watch for other `Painted Ladies` on surrounding streets as you walk. The whimsy is guaranteed to quickly cheer anyone up!
Why is it called “Auditorium Circle”? Grimsby Beach was once the overnight campsite for Methodist families and their friends, for revival meetings of prayer and worship, starting in 1859. In 1875 tents started to be replaced by cottages, and in 1888 a large impressive auditorium for up to 7000 people in the middle of a park was built, referred to as “The Temple”. This open air building was demolished by 1922, but a stone marker in the grassy middle of Auditorium Circle marks its location. The large Park House Hotel stood nearby too. After 1909 when the Methodist owners went bankrupt, the area became an amusement park and eventually the QEW took up a large portion of the lands.
A short walk down a footpath to Bell Park, you will still find the bell which was meant to top the Temple cupola. The bell, made in Troy N. Y. in 1884, was too heavy and was mounted on a stand in the park instead. More peaceful footpaths will take you down to the beach, and a nice shaded park awaits you for a rest and possible picnic by the calming waters of the lake.
On the south side of the QEW, any of the roads which parallel the QEW will reveal charming little towns, roadside stands and peaceful country drives. One stop we made was the roadside Puddicombe Farms run by the same family since 1791, and proclaimed proudly on their ancient barn. They offer fruit, pies, their own wine and hard cider, and gift items, along with a friendly rabbit to pet. On the property, a refurbished passenger train car is available for events, and cabooses can be rented for overnight stays. United Empire Loyalists, from whom they are descended, settled all through this area after the American Revolution and were key to the founding of Ontario. In fact, Ontario’s official motto is “Loyal she began, loyal she remains”. Many military Loyalist families, who can still use the initials U.E. after their names, were often settled by regiment and local names are traceable to this day.
One point in the immense depth of Niagara’s history is Battlefield House in Stoney Creek. This was the site of the Battle of Stoney Creek on June 6, 1813, considered a pivotal turning point in the War of 1812. The home itself was built in 1796, and was commandeered as the American head- quarters. The Gage family, including their 10 children, took refuge in the basement throughout the battle. The British, while greatly outnumbered, undertook a night attack and captured both American commanders, leaving US troops leaderless and demoralized. This battle started the US retreat from Canada. The battle is re-enacted yearly and is a sight to see. Do not forget Smith’s Knoll Cemetery, across King Street from the park, to get a better idea of the scale and terrain they were up against.
Battlefield Monument, up the hill from the house, was built as a centennial project in 1913 commemorating that battle. Celebrating the bicentennial in 2014, the City of Hamilton installed a work by Oneida First Nations artist David M. General on the site, entitled “The Eagles Among Us”. Four, nine-foot-high granite eagle figures engraved with symbols address the theme of healing and reconciliation. The area was traditionally the lands of the Erie, Neutral, Huron- Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas.
Accommodation and restaurants are not to be overlooked in this corridor. We were able to get a hotel and lovely meals within striking distance of Niagara at a fraction of the price, complete with a big breakfast included and a great front row view of the sunset over Lake Ontario and Toronto from the hotel’s restaurant and patio.
St. Catharines Treasures
Who does not like merry-go-rounds? A treat for adults and children alike, Lakeside Park Carousel in Port Dalhousie is still running since 1905! Started in 1898 by Charles I.D. Looff in Brooklyn, New York, it has 350 animals by workers such as Marcus Charles Illions, who later went on to become a famed carousel-maker himself. The lion is only one of five existing ones in North America, and is also the only one facing outwards. Relocated in 1921, the carousel came to St. Catharines from an amusement park in Scarborough, in the days when people crossed the lake by steamship to visit Port Dalhousie on weekends. An antique Frati band organ still uses paper rolls for the music. The horses maintain real horsehair tails! The ride used to cost a nickel until recently, and is now by donation. Beside it is a spacious park providing access to beaches and facilities for a real family day out. Do not forget old Port Dalhousie right beside the park.
Harriet Tubman has a whole history in St. Catharines, where she lived for 8 years after escaping slavery via the Underground Railway in 1851, as part of a group of 11 persons. St. Catharines was used by her as a safe base to build a network of supporters in Canada and the US northeast. From here she made numerous trips back to the US bringing around 300 people to freedom and safety in Canada. A remarkably courageous woman, she was extremely well connected to many of the most eminent figures involved in the American Civil War. John Brown, the leader of the famous 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry federal armoury in Virginia, asked her to recruit escaped slaves in Canada to join the expected slave revolt in the American South. Brown, who came to Ontario to drum up support for his revolt, respected her and referred to her as “General Tubman”. The Salem British Methodist Episcopal Chapel built in 1853 by the Black community in St. Catharines, where she worshipped, still exists and holds regular Sunday services. It is also being restored.
It is easy to take the Welland Canal for granted. Few know that there were four iterations of it, going as far back as 1824! The man considered the “founding father” was a young entrepreneur named William Hamilton Merritt. In those days labour, horses and oxen were used to tow the ships from one lock to another. Today, streets using the name “towpath” still mark the paths followed! Twice around 1842 and 1847, the canal was rebuilt and deepened. The current canal was built between 1913 and 1932, and the bypass between 1967 and 1973. Google Maps has a great site, Exploring The Old Welland Canals, to find the remnants. The St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre documents this amazing history and also has an “up close” viewing platform for visitors to watch the ships going through the canal.
Another 115-year-old engineering marvel, is the Canadian Niagara Power Company generating station. Finished in 1905, it made hydroelectricity harnessing the power of the Niagara River. Restored and interactive, it is now open for public tours by Niagara Parks.
This does not even touch the surface of what there is to do in Niagara. Further exploration awaits, no matter what your interest!
Written by: Diana Janosik-Wronski