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Old Fort Henry – The Citadel of Upper Canada now a popular tourist attraction

August 2023

Fort Henry National Historic Site, located in Kingston, Ontario, is a historic fort that once played a big role in the defence of British North America, one of many that can still be found on the shore of Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

The original Fort Henry, named after Henry Hamilton, former Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Quebec from 1782-1785, was built in 1812 on Point Henry, a strategic, elevated point near the mouth of the Cataraqui River, where is meets the St. Lawrence River. In addition to guarding against possible attacks by American forces, Fort Henry protected the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard, located to the west on the opposite side of Navy Bay (then called Haldimand Cove) at Point Frederick, the current site of Royal Military college of Canada.

The high promontory of Point Henry was considered to be a good location for a defensive fortification in the years after the American Revolution, when the threat of hostilities still ran high, although it took the onset of the War of 1812 for the British to actually begin construction, beginning with the local militia erecting a blockhouse and battery at Point Henry. This would prove to be quite fortunate, as this battery was involved in repelling several American warships that were attacking the Provincial marine sloop Royal George.

This action brought about the need for a stronger fortification, and additional batteries and barracks were built in 1813, along with other fortifications. By 1820, Fort Henry consisted of earth and stone ramparts, demi-bastions, redans, ditches, magazines, barracks, signal towers and support batteries. Continued tensions between the Americans and British let to the original fort being demolished and re-built between 1832 and 1836, as part of the defence of the Lake Ontario end of the Rideau Canal, Kingston’s harbour and the Royal Naval Dockyard.

The Fort was used to hold prisoners captured during the Rebellions of 1837-38.

In 1843, the advanced battery overlooking the lake to the south was completed when the casemated commissariat stores and magazines were built. These stone buildings connected the advanced battery to the main redoubt.

The British Army remain garrisoned Fort Henry until 1870, when the Canadian Army officially assumed responsibility for the defence of Kingston. Soon after, “A” Battery, School of Gunnery, followed by “B” Battery, took up residence in the Fort and remained there until 1891.

Fort Henry saw little use until World War I, when it was superficially repaired and used as an internment camp for political prisoners. Following the war, the Fort once again fell into disrepair.

It wasn’t until 1936, when Fort Henry was restored over a two-year period, as a joint Federal / Provincial make work project costing over $1 million. Fort Henry was opened as a museum and historic site “in the name of all British soldiers who served there” by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, in August 1938.

During World War II, Fort Henry was once again, pressed into service as a Prisoner of War camp for enemy merchant seamen, soldiers, sailors and airmen, designated as POW Camp 31.

Fort Henry was re-opened as a tourist attraction in 1948. It has seen millions of visitors pass through its gates to tour the historic fort and watch the internationally acclaimed Fort Henry Guard perform. It’s administered by Parks Canada and operated by the St. Lawrence Parks Commission.

Uniformed military interpreters, known as the Fort Henry Guard, escort visitors around the Fort, as well as conducting military drills and demonstrations of British military life. A Sunset Ceremony is held every Wednesday in July and August, where a full program of historic drill, music and artillery is presented.

Fort Henry has been designated as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Sources: Fort Henry National Historic Site – Wikipedia, Fort Henry – Kingston Attractions Things To Do National Historic Site Fort Henry – St. Lawrence Parks Commission.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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