Fort Erie Museums (Railroad, Historical, Battlefield and Mewinzha Gallery) Ridgeway, Ontario

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, General, Issue 1(Jan/Feb 2013), Reviews, Volume 21

One of the romanticised colour prints of the battle of Ridgeway produced after the fact (this one in 1869). The twenty watercolours of the unfolding battle in the Historical Museum’s collection—by Fenian sympathiser Alexander Von Erichsen, who accompanied the invaders—are far more accurate. (National Museum of Ireland)

One of the romanticised colour prints of the battle of Ridgeway produced after the fact (this one in 1869). The twenty watercolours of the unfolding battle in the Historical Museum’s collection—by Fenian sympathiser Alexander Von Erichsen, who accompanied the invaders—are far more accurate. (National Museum of Ireland)

In the middle of the night, on 1 June 1866, nearly 1,000 Fenians crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York. The vanguard, Colonel Owen Starr’s Seventeenth Regiment from Louisville, Kentucky, seized control of the village of Fort Erie, cut the telegraph wires and established a bridgehead. On the following day the Fenian army, commanded by Monaghan-born John O’Neill, defeated a battalion of Canadian militiamen just north of the village of Ridgeway. Facing the prospect of an engagement with a greatly superior force of British regulars, with cavalry and artillery, O’Neill retired to Fort Erie, overcame another force of Canadian militia and, realising that his supply line across the river had been closed by the US military, cut his losses and retreated back to the American side.

 

Rather than freeing Ireland, the Fenian invasions consolidated Canadian nationalism, made confederation a certainty and marked a sea change in Canadian military organisation.
All this and more is commemorated in three of the four museum sites in the town of Fort Erie, at the western end of Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula. The Railroad and Historical Museums are conventional—housing displays, artefacts and archives. The Battlefield site consists of a cairn, erected in the 1920s, in memory of the Canadian militiamen who died at the battle of Ridgeway, and a log cabin that was in the middle of the battle—bullet holes can still be seen—and was pressed into service as a field hospital. Finally, the Mewinzha Gallery honours the First Peoples who lived, traded and created a flint-knapping industry on this site. ‘Mewinzha’ is a native word meaning ‘a long time ago’. This gallery features tools and weapons dating back 11,000 years, as well as contemporary native artwork.

The battlefield site is curiously anonymous. The distinguishing feature is the stone cairn dedicated to the Canadian dead of June 1866.

The battlefield site is curiously anonymous. The distinguishing feature is the stone cairn dedicated to the Canadian dead of June 1866.

For Irish readers the principal interest will be found in the three sites with links to the Fenian raid. The battle may be said to have begun when O’Neill’s Fenian army, dug in behind barricades in three lines, heard the train whistle as the Canadian militia arrived at the station serving the hamlet of Ridgeway. When rail service was discontinued in 1975, the 1856 Ridgeway station was removed to the museum site in Fort Erie, and it now houses the main exhibits, including historic furnishings, stoves, telegraph and teletype equipment and tools.

The Fort Erie Historical Museum and the Ridgeway Battlefield Museum were both founded in 1972 by the Bertie Historical Society (Bertie being the original name of the township, which included the village of Ridgeway). The former, in the original 1874 town hall, houses a small exhibition area on the main floor—the current displays include a topical centenary show on the war of 1812. The permanent exhibit showcases the villages, towns and hamlets that have amalgamated over time to become Greater Fort Erie. The founding, location and history of each village is depicted with photographs and maps. These villages include Stevensville, Black Creek, Ridgeway, Amigari, Bridgeburg, Snyder, Crystal Beach and more.
Visitors interested in the Fenian raid will find a display case with a map and some battlefield trophies, but the real gem is a collection of about twenty period paintings that give a visual account of the battle of Ridgeway. These original watercolours were painted by Fenian sympathiser Alexander Von Erichsen, who accompanied the invaders. They depict the events from planning stages to subsequent court trials. Notably, they are certainly more accurate depictions of events than the romanticised illustrations produced after the fact in the US.

Visitors to the Historical Museum interested in the Fenian raid will find a display case with a map and some battlefield trophies.

Visitors to the Historical Museum interested in the Fenian raid will find a display case with a map and some battlefield trophies.

The museum preserves the original, and handsome, stone-built Bertie town hall and maintains the collection, preservation, research, exhibition and interpretation of historically significant artefacts that represent the history of the area from the beginning of native occupation to the present, including an impressive number of stone arrow- and spearheads and handaxes. The upper floor is a well-lit archival and documentary library. Its primary clients, unsurprisingly, are genealogists, but the archive also includes copies of most of the published accounts of the Fenian raid.

The battlefield site, a couple of kilometres north of the village, which was designated a national historic site in 1921, is curiously anonymous. On four hectares of partly wooded land, the distinguishing feature is the stone cairn dedicated to the Canadian dead of June 1866. Further back from the road is the log house (the Teal-Roadhouse cabin), which was moved a few hundred yards from its original location in the late 1970s. The cabin is currently not open to the public but the museum’s administrator says that it is their intention to instal illustrative and explanatory material about the battle later this year.

The log cabin, which in 1866 was in the middle of the battle (bullet holes can still be seen), was moved a few hundred yards from its original location in the late 1970s.

The log cabin, which in 1866 was in the middle of the battle (bullet holes can still be seen), was moved a few hundred yards from its original location in the late 1970s.

The Fort Erie Museum’s holdings include an immense, 1.2 million-piece collection of artefacts dating from 4000 BC, unearthed by archaeological excavations at different times along the shores of Lake Erie and the Niagara River. Documentation of this rich resource began in 1887, when Canada’s first full-time archaeologist, David Boyle, noted interesting finds. An ossuary (mass grave) was discovered in the 1960s beneath the streets and buildings, and work has continued since then. Most notable are finds related to construction at the Peace Bridge, linking Canada and the US, in the 1990s.  HI

Michael Quigley is editor of the newsletter of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies.
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