This is a momentous time in the Thousand Islands region: 2012 marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, a good portion of which was fought along the St. Lawrence River and eastern shore of Lake Ontario. While the war waged between the British and the young United States, Canada, serving as the main front, and the dynamic river that bisects the two nations provided a controlled aquatic assault.
Many of the tourist attractions in the region—especially on the Canadian side—are remnants of that war. Expect a number of commemorations of the War of 1812 throughout the summer, and into 1813, providing a historical reason to visit the Thousand Islands. If American history doesn’t float your boat, then put in your boat (or other watercraft) at hundreds of spots along the river, which flows from eastern Lake Ontario all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, at the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Summer doesn’t get much better.
Along the way, the river travels its 745 miles (1,197 kilometers for all you Canadians out there) from Kingston, through Montreal and past Quebec City on the Canadian side. Population centers on the American side include Sackets Harbor (along Lake Ontario), Cape Vincent (where the lake narrows into the river), Clayton, Alexandria Bay, Ogdensburg and Massena. It’s a huge area geographically, but one worth several visits during the fleeting summer season.
Historically, the border crossing between the nations has been easy and relatively quick, depending on vehicle traffic. However, in the 11 years since 9/11, travel between the United States and Canada has tightened considerably. If you plan on crossing either via the three bridges in the region—the Thousand Islands Bridge, the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge and the Three Nations Crossing—or by using Horne’s Ferry from Cape Vincent, be sure to have either a passport or an enhanced driver’s license. If you have children along, carry their birth certificates and be prepared to show the documents to the border guard.
Let’s take our tour of War of 1812 historic sites from west to east, beginning in Canada. So we start at Kingston, Ontario. Fort Henry National Historic Site of Canada ((800) 437-2233; forthenry.com) will be re-creating the attack on the city’s harbor, featuring tall ships and a musical concert in the evening. It takes place June 29 through July 1. Throughout the summer, Fort Henry will be open for regular business as well, including tours, live performances and sunset ceremonies, each Wednesday and Saturday in July and August.
Joel Stone Heritage Park will be unveiled in Gananoque (gananoque.ca) on June 18, the anniversary of the U.S. declaration of war against Britain 200 years ago. Located on Water Street, this park, named for a Canadian hero of the War of 1812, provides an excellent view of the St. Lawrence and some of its scenic islands. Bring your bathing suit and a picnic lunch and enjoy a dip in the river at Joel Stone Beach.
Later on in the summer in Gananoque, re-enactor encampments, two naval battles on the river and evening entertainment will keep the commemorations going from Aug. 24 to 26 on the Gananoque waterfront and the Arthur Child Heritage Museum of the 1000 Islands, 125 Water St. (1000islandsheritagemuseum.com).
The 1000 Islands Food & Wine Festival at the Brockville Memorial Centre, Magedoma Boulevard, Brockville (brockvilletourism.com.), will celebrate Sir Isaac Brock with period costumes, music and storytelling. British General Brock was a dashing and important figure to the British during the war. Those wearing 1812 attire will receive two-for-one admission to the festival, held June 22 and 23.
Also in Brockville, on the Courthouse Green on June 23, Brock will be celebrated with re-enactors and a rifle regiment.
Across from Ogdensburg sits Prescott, Ontario, home to Fort Wellington National Historic Site, 370 Vankoughnet St. ((613) 925-2896; pc.gc.ca/Wellington). Built during the war, the fort preserves original buildings and grounds, and staff dressed in period costumes will acquaint you with the daily life of a Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment soldier and his family.
Prescott also features the Heritage River Trail, perfect for a stroll, run or bike along the riverfront where invading American troops never showed up. And, especially for the bicentennial celebrations, the Kinsmen Amphitheatre, 1 Water St., presents the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival’s production of Othello, set in 1812.
Back in America, Independence Day is always a fun time, and the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, 504 W. Main St., next to Lake Ontario, celebrates with War of 1812 Songs & Stories and a fireworks display.
The battlefield has been designated by the National Park Service as one of the top 10 War of 1812 sites in the nation. The site features living history exhibits, historic home tours and a history trail. The adjacent Military Cemetery and Madison Barracks, both vital spots during the war, are open to history-minded visitors as well. Fort Volunteer, built in 1811, is where General Zebulon Pike fought the British in the war of 1812; it’s the only remaining and visible fortification left in Sackets Harbor. Renamed Fort Pike after Pike died in the 1813 attack of York (today known as Toronto), the village plans to create an interpretive park.
Until then, begin your tour at the Sackets Harbor Heritage Area Visitors’ Center, 301 W. Main St. (646-2321; sacketsharborny.com) in the 1803 home of community founder Augustus Sacket. While there you can watch a short video on the history of the community, pick up a village tour map and find information about the area.
Later on in the summer, head back to the battlefield site on July 20 to 21 for a lawn party featuring historical guest speakers. Then on Aug. 4 to 5 the site will welcome a War of 1812 Weekend battle re-enactment (646-3634; sacketsharborbattlefield.org).
No special events are scheduled for the Cape Vincent Historical Museum, 175 N. James St. (654-3094), but it’s still worth a visit. The elegant stone building served as a barracks for soldiers during the War of 1812. Today it houses the history of sleepy but pretty Cape Vincent, where Lake Ontario narrows into the St. Lawrence.
For updated information throughout the summer, visit the website celebrate1812.com.
Calendar of Events
June 9. International Men’s Rugby Match. 2 p.m. It’ll be Canada vs. the States in this rough-and-tumble sport. Richardson Stadium, 948 Johnson St., Kingston, Ontario. (888) 855-4555.
June 9-11. Medieval Festival. Sat. & Sun. 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Mon. 9:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Period re-enactors, musicians, buskers, artisans, falconers, jousting knights and more. Upper Canada Village, Exit 758 off Highway 401, between Morrisburg and Cornwall, Ontario. (800) 437-2233.
June 15-17. Food & Wine Festival. Fri. 1-8 p.m.,
Sat. 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Sun. noon-5 p.m. Made in New York products are
featured. Recreation Park Arena, 615 E. Line Road, Clayton. $5/adults,
July 1. Canada Day at Confederation Park. Events begin at 9 a.m. Parade, one-mile run, ceremonies, live music and more. Confederation Park, downtown Kingston, Ontario. (613) 542-8677.
July 1. Canada Day at Fort Wellington. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Cannon firing, visitor center, children’s activities and historic demonstrations. Fort Wellington, 370 VanKoughnet St., Prescott, Ontario. (613) 925-2896.
July 4. Independence Day. Music and stories from the War of 1812. Cannon firing, tours and more. Sackets Harbor Battlefield, Main Street. 646-3634. Fireworks over Boldt Castle, Alexandria Bay. Watch from shore, dock or boat. 482-9531.
July 8. Strawberry Festival. Classic cars, food and music, and, naturally the sweet, red fruit. Stone Mills Museum, 34312 Route 180, LaFargeville.
July 10-15. Jefferson County Fair. Enjoy this old-fashioned county fair, the oldest-running fair of its type in the country, with midway rides, grandstand entertainment, contests, food, and agricultural displays and demonstrations. 650 William T. Field Drive, Watertown. 782-8612.
July 12-15. Buskers Rendezvous. Jugglers, acrobats, dancers, singers, musicians and more throughout downtown Kingston. (613) 542-8977.
July 13-Sept. 7. Ghost Walks. Discover this Canadian city’s haunted past by moonlight. Tours depart starting at 8:30 p.m. from Fulford Place Museum, 287 King St. E., Brockville. (613) 498-3005.
July 14. Cheddar Cheese Festival. Kid zone, agricultural displays and cheese-making demonstrations and tastings. Throughout Adams. 232-4215.
July 14-15. French Festival. Food, crafts, fireworks, tournaments and a parade with none other than Napoleon at the 44th annual version of this summer mainstay. Cape Vincent. 744-4773.
July 20-22. Plein Air Festival. Watch artists paint outdoors, beginning at 8 a.m., as they capture the beauty of the harbor and village. Sackets Harbor. 785-6850.
July 21. Old Thyme Fair. Join in a full day of old-fashioned games and crafts. Minna Anthony Common Nature Center, Wellesley Island State Park, Exit 51 off Interstate 81. 482-2479.
July 21. Vintage Boat Show. Watercraft of yore will be displayed at the village docks. Alexandria Bay. 482-9531.
July 21-22. Founder’s Day. Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Military and native re-enactors commemorate the city’s French colonial history, including the last battle of the French and Indian War, the Battle of the Thousand Islands, in 1760. Lighthouse Point, Ogdensburg. fort1749.org.
Aug. 3-5. Antique Boat Show & Auction. Now in its 48th year, this show provides a chance to relax and admire the beauty of the watercraft. Auction is scheduled for Aug. 4 at 1 p.m. Antique Boat Museum, 750 Mary St., Clayton. 686-4104.
Aug. 10-19. Pirate Days. One of pirate Bill Johnston’s more daring exploits has become an annual re-enactment in Alexandria Bay. (800) 541-2110.
Sept. 8-9. Akwesasne Powwow. Traditional native drumming, singing and dances, authentic arts and crafts, and traditional Native food vendors. A’nowara’ko:wa Arena, 325 Island Road, Cornwall Island, Ontario. akwesasnepowwow.com.