I recently traveled back in time 300 years to a place where history happened. A trip to Old Fort Niagara in Youngstown, NY makes you feel like you’ve stepped back into the early 18th Century.
The fort, which dates back to 1726, is located in Fort Niagara State Park, about 12 miles north of Niagara Falls. A designated National Historic Landmark, the site has been restored and preserved as it stood in the 1700’s, when the French and the British were fighting for control of this strategic region.
While my family had visited the fort on numerous occasions in the past, it had always been during the summer. However, since the fort is open year-round, we decided to find out what it’s like during the off-season. We also wanted to check out the new visitor’s center, which opened in June.
The visitor’s center, installed in an existing 1939 Army warehouse, has a variety of exhibits that give an overview of the timeline and history of the fort. These exhibits, which use visual displays, artifacts, and hand held speakers, explain the importance of the Niagara Region and why both Britain and France wanted to control it. The exhibits focus on the French and Indian War, which was fought 1754-1763, as well as the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
From the mid-1800’s to WWI, the fort was used as a military training area; after WWI, the fort was abandoned. Fortunately, in the mid-1920’s a group of people interested in preserving this landmark, got involved and began the restoration process.
We watched the 16 minute film, The Struggle for a Continent, which explained additional details about the fort’s history. My four-year old deemed the movie “scary”; little ones may find the battle scenes a bit too intense.
The centerpiece of the visitor’s center is the 28’ x 25’ 15-star American flag that flew over the fort during the War of 1812. The flag was captured during that conflict and taken back to England as a trophy. It was located in the mid-1990’s and purchased by the Old Fort Niagara Association. It has been conserved and mounted on a background of similar color and it is now on displayed under low lights.
We made our way to the old fort and found that we pretty much had the old fort to ourselves, a far cry from previous visits when we had wait in lines to tour the various structures.
A self-guided walking tour brochure outlines the 16 points of interest located throughout the fort. The most notable structure is the “French Castle,” which was built in 1726, making it the oldest building in the Great Lakes Region. The French intentionally built it to look like a large house or trading post, rather than a fortification, to calm the suspicions of the Native Americans.
As we explored the mammoth building by ourselves, I didn’t tell the children about the legend of the well under the first floor that is suppose to be haunted by the headless ghost of a murdered French officer. When the moon is full, he purportedly arises to search for his head.
We climbed the winding wooden stairs to the third floor. On this level, the windows are designed so that muskets or cannons could be shot out of them. The chapel on the second floor was the earliest permanent church in Western New York.
We finished up our tour by watching a musket demonstration, which is held on the hour. A costumed interpreter explained and demonstrated how soldiers loaded and fired their muskets during colonial wars.
Of course no visit is complete without stopping at the gift shop on the way out. The shop is stocked with numerous items, including books about colonial wars and area history, old-time toys, sweatshirts, hats and the usual gift shop items.
If you are looking for other things to do nearby, Niagara USA has a touch screen information kiosk located in the foyer of the visitor’s center, where you can find out about attractions, lodging, dining, shopping and more.
If you go:
Old Fort Niagara, PO Box 169, Youngstown. 716-745-7611, www.oldfortniagara.org
Lower Niagara River Region Chamber of Commerce (covers Lewiston, Youngstown, Ransomville, Porter and Sanborn) 716-754-9500, www.northofthefalls.com.
Niagara County Tourism 800-338-7890, www.niagara-usa.com
Upcoming events at Old Fort Niagara in April and May (Note: Unless otherwise noted, programs take place Saturdays from 10-4, Sundays 10-12)
April 14-15. 18th Century Skills Various skills will be demonstrated by members of the American Long Rifle Association.
April 21. Patriots Day. Living history programs will take place from 10am-4pm.
April 28-29. Ecole du Soldat. Living history demonstrators will depict French soldiers and traders from the early 1700’s.
May 5-6. Civil War Artillery School. Union and Confederate re-enactors will demonstrate drills.
May 18, 19, June 1, 2 Murder Mystery Dinner Fundraiser. Tickets are $50 per person, by advance sale only. The event, which begins at 7 pm, includes a cash bar, catered dinner and a murder mystery theater production.
May 26-27 Niagara’s Soldiers Through the Ages. Living history demonstrators will present information on the history of military personnel, from the 18th Century to WWII. Programs takes place from 10am-4pm each day.
Directions from Rochester Take the New York State Thruway to Exit 50, follow I-290 west to I-190. Take the I-190 north to Exit 25B and follow the Robert Moses Parkway North to Fort Niagara State Park. Scenic routes: From Rochester take either Route 104 west to Lewiston, to Route 18F to Youngstown; or Route 31 west to Route 104 to Route18F; or The Lake Ontario State Parkway to Route 18.