Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site

Location: Youngstown, New York

Webpage: New York State Park

General Description: The history of Old Fort Niagara spans more than 300 years, all of which are represented in the restored fort.  Old Fort Niagara is situated where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario and is the northern terminus of the portage road that bypassed Niagara Falls south to Lake Erie.  This portage had been in use for thousands of years by the Iroquois Nation.  In 1678, the first structure at the site, named Fort Conti, was built by Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle to provide protection along this important trade route.  Indians and the local weather soon destroyed this structure and in 1687, the Governor of New France, the Marquis de Denonville, constructed a new fort at the former site of Fort Conti, named Fort Denonville.  He posted a hundred men at the fort under the command of Captain Pierre de Troyes.  However, the winter weather was so severe that only 12 survived until the spring when a relief force arrived.  It was decided to abandon the fort and the stockade was pulled down.  In 1726, a two story “Maison a Machicoulis” or “Machicolated House” was constructed on the same site by French engineer Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry.  It was called the “House of Peace” to appease the Iroquois, since it include no outside fortification.  However, the structure was built with massive walls and overhanging dormers on the third floor that were used for defensive purposes.  The fort was expanded to its present size in 1755 due to increased tensions between French and British colonial interests.  The fort played a significant part in the French and Indian War and fell to the British in a nineteen-day siege in July 1759, called the Battle of Fort Niagara.  After the French relief force was ambushed at the Battle of La-Belle Famille, the French had no choice but to surrender the fort.  The British retained control of the fort for the next 37 years.  During the Revolutionary War, Fort Niagara was the base for American loyalists, who along with their Iroquois allies raided the farms and towns in New York and Pennsylvania.  Although Fort Niagara was ceded to the US in 1783 after the Treaty of Paris, the British retained control of this and other forts on Lake Ontario until the Jay Treaty in 1796, 13 years later.  During the War of 1812, the fort’s guns sunk the Provincial Marine Schooner, Seneca, on November 21, 1812.  The British countered the strategic posisiton of Fort Niagara by building Fort George on the other side of the Niagara River.  Fort George held a distinct advantage in the exchange of cannon fire since it was positioned at a higher elevation, until the US removed the roof from The French Castle and placed cannons on the third floor.  However, it was captured by the British on December 19, 1813, during a night time sneak attack when the Americans were caught partying while their commander was out of the fort.  This attack was in retaliation to the burning of Niagara nine days earlier.  The British retained control of the fort until the end of the war with the Treaty of Ghent.  While remaining an important fort for training purposes, the defenses of Fort Niagara were not upgraded until the Civil War when the largely wooden structure was replaced by a brick and mortar bastions due to the threat of British invasion from Canada, as they were allied with the Confederacy.  Since the fort remained a military establishment until the 1960s, it was been well protected and even extensively restored over the years.  Consequently, the fort, which is now a New York State Historical Site, is still in excellent condition and retains features from all of its long history.

Brochure

Impressions:

1) While there is no charge for parking in the state park, there is a charge to visit the Fort itself since it is completely enclosed by a fence.  The only entrance is through the Visitor Center which includes a very extensive museum.  There is a nice short film about the restoration efforts and there are exhibits about each of the major time periods over the past 300 years.  We were fortunate to join a tour led by a volunteer that added a lot to the information in the film and pointed out each of the main structures to be found in the fort.

2) Your first impression of the fort are the massive Outer Works of the fort which includes a large triangular ravelin and a dry ditch.  These defenses were laid out by the French in 1755 and had been added to over the years.  You can also see the brick and mortar main walls of the fort that replaced the wooden fortifications in the 1860s following the lines of the French.  It is interesting to see that these fortifications were pierced by a sally port, even though the main entrance to the fort was on the river side of the fort.  These multiple entrances are due to the changing threat.  The major threat during the 1600 and early 1700s to the French was from the Iroquois Indians attacking from the land, so the entrance was towards the river.  However, by the time of the French and Indian War and Revolutionary War, the main threat was from ships in Lake Ontario, so the entrance or sally port was towards the land and they had to build some interesting fortifications to protect the river side entrance.

SallyPort

3) In 1756, the Gate of the Five Nations was built by the French on the river side of the fort and so named to honor the original Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

FiveTribesGate

4) The North and South Redoubts were built in 1771 and 1770, respectively to be, in essence, forts within the fort.  They were built in two styles in 18th century Britain – classical Roman arches and doorways and topped by Chinese style “pagoda” roofs, which makes for an interesting combination!!

SouthBastion

5) Fort Niagara earthen walls were reinforced with concrete and brisk between 1863 to 1872 due to tensions with British Canada over the Civil War, although cannon were never mounted.

CivilWarBrickAndMortar

6) The most impressive feature in Fort Niagara is the original French Castle that is the oldest building in the fort and originally the only structure back in 1726 when it was built as the “House of Peace”.  Although it looked like a large trading house, it was in fact,  a strong citadel capable of resisting any Indian attack.  The Castle has been restored to its pre-1775 appearance including the roof on the third floor that had been removed during the War of 1812.  Within the French Castle are reconstructed Trade Room, which was the main original purpose, a vestibule with a 25 foot deep well, a chapel, barracks room, and officers quarters.  Although the roof has been restored to the third floor, you can still see remnants of the cannon positions when this floor was opened to fire at Fort George during the War of 1812.

7) There are also monuments to the two earlier forts at this location, Fort Conti in 1679 by the famous French explorer Rene-Robert Cavalier de LaSalle and Fort Denonville by Governor of New France, Marquis de Denonville in 1687 when the fort’s garrison of 100 soldiers left only 12 survivors after the harsh winter.

FatherMilletCross