GROWING UP BENEATH THE HEIGHTS AND HISTORY
More than my name and birth
order marked me when growing up at
Today, to the many who are
drawn to it, the
As a young boy growing up within its
The power of geography and
history were part of my earliest memories. Queenston is seven miles down river
from the mighty Falls. The low escarpment above the village, called the
Heights, had been the first lakeshore of a larger ice age
Growing up at Queenston
I learned that Queenston had
been a strategic point on the inland waterways for the French and British
explorers who sought a passage through the
After the breakaway American
colonies became The United States, Queenston emerged as a strategic frontier
The treacherous river connecting
After peace was restored to the border in 1814, commerce on the river increased until twenty years later when the new Welland Canal was built ten miles to the west replacing the Queenston portage route between the lakes. Trade and travel moved to the canal leaving Queenston a quiet backwater. Yet, a century and a half later, after war and much of the commerce had vanished from the riverside, a proud history of a new nation continued to loom over those who still lived in the village beneath the heights.
Queenston in the nineteen-forties and fifties looked very much as it does at the beginning of the 21st century. It remains a quiet place where just over three hundred people live along a few short blocks of modest homes nestled beneath the Heights beside the Niagara River. Growing up in that magical time after the Second World War, I knew almost everyone in the village as I made the rounds on my trusty bicycle each afternoon with the Niagara Falls Evening Review and my faithful dog Rex trailing behind. The wondrous lower Niagara River beneath Queenston Heights was a welcome refuge for a boy who discovered early that he was very different from most of the other boys in the village.
One of my own earliest recollections of growing up in Queenston was dominated by the dramatic image of a stone column on which stood a proud general. Festooned with classical symbols of war and virtue, the monument had been built to commemorate General Sir Isaac Brock, the young bachelor hero of Mackinac, Detroit and Queenston Heights. He was a six-foot gentleman from the Island of Jersey who died below the Heights defending Canada from the Americans on that infamous day, October 13, 1812.
General Brock, the hero from another era, stood stoically above us. In all weather he was there for me, tall and erect on the southern horizon looking down over Queenston. With his arm outstretched in defiance of the elements, he guarded my village, my schoolyard, my home and me. To a young boy who loved to wander, my General was ever ready to lead me home or up to the Heights to share his view of Queenston beneath his column.
Many times with my brothers and our friends, we would climb a quiet footpath up to the Heights. In the summer, we would wade in the small pool built within the walls of tiny Fort Drummond, an old earthen rampart left behind after the War of 1812. Afterwards, we would buy hot dogs, ice cream and Orange Crush at the Park Pavilion and play in the grassy parkland surrounding the column.
Yet, as I grew older and more independent through my teenage years, I still liked to hike up to the heights alone in any season. From a vista point at the edge of the escarpment just in front of Brock's Monument, I could look out to see my whole little world beneath me. The broad gently curving Niagara, a solemn wide green-blue path that moved ever onwards toward the deep lake that merged into the sky along on the distant horizon.
Spreading out below me lay the lush colors of two very different countries sleeping peacefully side-by-side. In the spring, everything was fresh and translucent: new green leaves of elms and maples, darker stands of fragrant pine and cedar, and out on the farms beyond the village the brilliant whites and pinks of the cherry, apple and peach orchards. In the summer, my world turned deep green, rich with gardens and ripening fruit. In the fall, the maples and elms turned brilliant scarlet, orange and yellow. But in the winter, my world was the most peaceful. The tourists were long gone, the trees were bare, everything was coated with a layer of crisp white snow and I could see even more details in the vista before me.
Our little village lay just beneath those Heights. I would stand for hours and pick out familiar houses below. Three elegant houses of the Bright family stood in a compound on the riverbank just above the docks. Early industrialist, Robert Hamilton, the most powerful man in early Queenston history, built the most impressive village house in 1832. In my time it was the home of the fourth Bright family. Willowbank, with its Greek neo classic front with six solid Ionic columns, stood proudly on the crest of the hill at the north end of the village, just across a tree filled gully from our own simple brown shingled home. My older brother David played at Willowbank with the Bright's young son before Johnny was shipped off to Ridley College, a private military boarding school in nearby St. Catharines. I tagged along with them whenever I could, but more often I was left behind to find my own friends and amusements.
From my vantage point on the heights I would trace out my daily paper route searching for my regular stops at my clients' homes along the six blocks up the Queen Street hill towards the heights, across Kent Street at the top of the village, and then back down Front and Princess Streets above the riverís edge. Six days a week I made that arduous trip, not only for spending money, but also for escape. My paper route, thankfully, relieved me of the terror of having to compete in after school sports.
The center of my universe for eight long years sat nearly in the middle of the village. Laura Secord Public School had just two classrooms when I enrolled in the first grade in 1947, but it had grown to five by the time I graduated from the eighth grade in 1955. There I met my first teacher and first love, Miss McGinnis. Even after she married and broke my heart when she became Mrs. Murray, she taught and inspired me again in the third and fourth grades. From my perch above the village, I could see the new white stucco home she and her husband had just built up Princess Street on the hillside overlooking the river.
Along the river beyond the village to the north curved the Niagara Parkway with larger and more gracious homes interspersed with more simple farmhouses, all facing east to the New York State shore. Well beyond the village to the north and west of the river, I could make out the rigid grid of lines and concessions of Niagara Township cutting across farms and fields at precise right angles. Farms stretched across the flat plain until their features merged into a blur as they approached the Lake seven miles to the north. The Town of Niagara at the mouth of the river was just out of eyesight from my vantage point. No tower or spire stood above the deep green haze of trees and vegetation. But beyond it, I could make out the cold deep of Lake Ontario, a narrow blue-gray strip on the northern horizon.
Until the mid fifties, the river trade at the docks at Queenston was tourists, fruit and sand. From Victoria Day in May until Labor Day in September, our childhood days were timed by the arrival of the boat from Toronto. Twice a day, the turn of the century day steamer, the S.S. Cayuga, would chug up the lower Niagara to Queenston, loaded with happy tourists. By eleven o'clock they arrived on the first boat to picnic at the Heights, or to bus on up to the Falls or Buffalo. The return voyage to Toronto left by noon with those few locals who wished to shop or adventure in the big city across the lake.
Then late each afternoon when we heard the shrill blast of the boat's whistle, we boys would were drawn to the docks just below our house again. We liked to watch the buses return from up river full of day-trippers and we eagerly tallied the number of buses and number of travelers. As the Cayuga arrived they disgorged and climbed back on board the crisply painted white steamer for the return voyage. About a dozen cars could also make the passage. Each was driven carefully aboard by a dockhand through the narrow opening onto the lower deck.
On both morning and afternoon return trips, the steamer would take on loads of fresh Niagara fruit destined for the markets and kitchens of Toronto. Baskets of cherries, peaches, pears, apples or strawberries from surrounding farms were loaded, three shelves high, onto rustic old green wooden baggage carts. Porters pushed the carts noisily across the gangplank onto the worn steel decks where the metal-rimmed wheels clattered and echoed until they were stowed safely below.
Only one other steamer made regular trips to Queenston. Every month, the tiny black-hulled S.S. Caldwell crept slowly up the river, laden with sand dredged from the lake at the mouth of the Niagara and docked just beyond the passenger dock. The "sand sucker's" rusty boom rose up over its side and deposited fresh wet sand in three giant cones. After the Caldwell had returned to its dredging, we loved to play in the piles, just out of sight of the steam shovel operators. Slowly, these ancient machines ate up our playground, shoveling the sand into tired old dump trucks that crept back up the steep bank toward unknown construction sites.
Life was far different for those who lived in Queenston at the opening of the nineteenth century. By the third grade and over the years, I learned much more about the story of my General on the column above us. In the years after the American Revolution, fear and suspicion had festered along both the New York and Upper Canada sides of the river. The youthful United States mistrusted the British, not only on the sea, but also along its vulnerable northern and western borders. The British did not want to desert their loyal, though somewhat ambivalent, subjects or their Indian allies.
The Battle of Queenston Heights was one of the more significant battles of the War between the new United States and the yet to be defined Canadian nation. Not because of what was gained by the Canadians in that first battle, for within a few months the Americans had retaken the Heights and marched inland fifty miles. After General Brock died in the first futile charge up the Heights, his men were at first distraught. Then, challenged by his courage, they regrouped and tried again. With their Indian allies they found a secret path to the west, gained the Heights and threw the surprised Americans back over the rocky cliffs into the river. Brock's loyalty and sacrifice rallied young Canadians who gradually over the next two years grew determined not to let their young rebellious neighbours absorb their own hard won land. His heroic spirit has lived on in Canadian pride many years after his untimely death.
Many generations later, I grew up beneath Canada's Monument to its beloved national hero. My school, my home, my village all respected the glory of the British Commonwealth as seen in its faithful straight and narrow dutiful son, Isaac Brock. Out of his sacrifice and that of others emerged our separate country, an independent Dominion of Canada. Our country had won its own freedom slowly over the years primarily through more gradual means, employing reason and new laws. Canada was dutiful to the Crown, but somehow dull compared to our boisterous southern neighbour, just across the Niagara.
Over my early years, I was fiercely proud of my villageís role in Canadian history. Living beneath those historic Heights, every day I was reminded of the differences between these two separate countries, still divided by a river that flows to the sea just as impassively as it has done for centuries. Yet, like many of new settlers who found themselves on the west side of the river in 1812, by my teens, I too began to grown more ambivalent and somewhat curious about where I belonged.
As a kid, every evening I listened to the great old American radio programs, from Jack Benny to Lux Radio Theater, beamed from Buffalo New York just 30 miles away. I read American magazines like Life and Look and Time. Then television began an even more overpowering homogenization of our culture through more humour and escape. This new technology fed my growing fascination with the wonder of new and strange worlds far away from my frontier village of another age.
We Canadians all seemed to assume that Americans were brasher, more boastful, and not quite as brainy as we. Yet, living so close to the border, I had met already the enemy. Some of our favorite friends and relatives were Americans. I began to notice that many seemed to enjoy life more robustly than we did in our own peaceful and self-satisfied world apart.
Every morning I would look across the river through the trees and see another peaceful town. Were we so very different? This foreign town in another country seemed from my side of the river as peaceful as my own village here in Canada. We shared the river and the same broad plains below the escarpment. Their Heights were the same elevation as our own, although the edge was lined with huge private estates and no solemn monument commemorated their heroes. Yet I was somehow drawn to some innate difference that I sensed as I stared from our front porch across the rushing green of the Niagara.
Despite growing up beneath our own proud history and the heights, life was somehow intriguingly different on the other side of this mysterious river. At first, I continued to contemplate that far shore safely from the Queenston side. Then, when I gained more courage, I ventured on my old bicycle across the rickety Queenston suspension bridge to study the other side up close. But it kept its secrets well from an impressionable young boy.
I tried hard to dismiss my curiosity and stubbornly resolved never to desert my history or my General on our heights for the myth of an easier, more glamorous and more fascinating life elsewhere.
Yet as I grew older, the lure of some other life, though unspoken and unknown, grew slowly more powerful. The other side of the river remained a strange and somewhat frightening place that lay just within my view, but just beyond my understanding.