Hidden History
By Alun Hughes

We in Niagara live in one of the most historic parts of Canada. There are reminders all around us - historic sites like Fort George and Queenston Heights, the old buildings that grace our communities, and numerous commemorative plaques and monuments. But the evidence for much of Niagara's history lies concealed from view, sometimes neglected and forgotten, sometimes changed out of all recognition, and too often lost altogether.

How many motorists passing through the Thorold Tunnel under the Welland Canal know that the Battle of Beaverdams, a pivotal encounter in the War of 1812, raged right above their heads on June 24, 1813? How many cyclists leaving St. Catharines on Queenston Street visualize tall ships of the Third Welland Canal crossing their path as they approach Victoria Lawn Cemetery? How many tourists enjoying the trail between Niagara Falls and Queenston know about the passenger railway, the Great Gorge Route, that used to run beneath their feet ?

The Niagara Peninsula abounds with examples like these, and I never cease to be amazed at the wealth of history that is to be found in the most unexpected locations. Take, for example, the site of the Niagara This Week offices on St. David's Road near Brock University. Nowadays the area is thoroughly modern, but delve deeper and you find riches galore.

Just across the road once stood the Canadian Drive-in Theatre, built in the late 1940s (the curving rear fence of Brock's new Quarry View Residence is a relic of this). Not historic enough for you? Then go east on St. David's Road past Highway 406 and enter the Barbican Heights subdivision. You are now in the middle of what used to be an important Neutral Indian village from the early 17th century.

Go west instead and you come to Brock University, now 40 years old and practically historic in its own right. The university's lands have their own fascinating history, featuring characters like Thomas Lane, the landowner who turned traitor at the start of the War of 1812 - which is ironic indeed given the university's namesake.

Travel south from Brock along Merrittville Highway (so-called because it leads to Merrittville, an old name for Welland) and you cross a small wetland just before the lights at DeCew Road. This is a remnant of the "Klondike," an artificial channel dug in 1897 from the Third Canal at Allanburg to provide water power for the first phase of the DeCew Power Station.

Turn right on DeCew Road and you are surrounded by water - Lake Gibson and the DeCew Reservoirs on the left, and Lake Moodie hidden from view on the right. Some think these are natural features, but they are all artificial lakes created 100 or more years ago for power generation or water supply.

Along the way you pass the remains of the DeCew House, Laura Secord's destination on her storied trek from Queenston in 1813 to warn Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon of the impending American attack. Which brings us back to where we began - the Battle of Beaverdams.

All these things within a kilometre or so of the spot where this newspaper is published!

There's more - consider the former owners of land nearby. To the west, army officer William Johnston, who fought under Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars and was later knighted by King William IV. To the east, industrialist John Brown, who made Thorold Hydraulic Cement world-famous in the 19th century, winning international awards at Paris and London. To the south, politician Isaac Swayze, whose career of public service in Upper Canada was never free of suspicions of criminality.

The roads too are imbued with history. St. David's Road is a former main artery that ran all the way from Queenston via DeCew Falls to Ancaster. It formed the boundary between two early townships, Grantham and Thorold, and later between the counties of Lincoln and Welland. Merrittville Highway, opened as a turnpike road in the mid-19th century, and its extension Glenridge Avenue follow lines that were laid out by surveyors in the 1780s as they subdivided land for Loyalists and others after the American Revolutionary War.

Let me say a brief word now about these surveys, for they provide a framework for much of what I will talk about in future columns.

As the accompanying map shows, the Peninsula was divided into townships, and these in turn were broken down into lots of 100 acres. Usually the lots were rectangles, sometimes oriented east-west (as in Stamford) and sometimes north-south (as in Thorold). Grantham, where the lots are north-south parallelograms, is a noteworthy exception, a fact that motorists in St. Catharines rue to this day.

The lots were organized into rows called concessions, which typically ran parallel to the lake or river shoreline, and were identified by lot and concession number. Thus we speak of lot 5, concession 9 in Grantham. In some townships, however, lot and concession numbering was replaced by consecutive lot numbering, with no reference to concessions. And so in Stamford we speak simply of lot 27 or lot 146. End of lesson.

As I hope is abundantly clear, I have a passion for local history, and I want to share this passion with you through these columns. In my previous articles in the old Thorold News I concentrated on Thorold's past, but in these pages I shall adopt a broader regional view.

© Alun Hughes 2004

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