Click here to read part one of this story. In recent weeks, U.S. and Canadian officials have been fighting over a development issue at the Peace Bridge, but when I drove over the bridge, built to commemorate 100 years of peaceful relations between U.S. and Canada, one warm day late last summer, I had much older hostilities in mind. Two months before, I had taken a bike ride from Niagara Falls to Niagara-on-the-Lake. This time, I returned to cycle the Fort Erie to Niagara Falls section of the trail, with the goal of learning a bit more about the War of 1812, and to approach Niagara Falls from a direction I’d never seen before.
I ditched my car in Fort Erie, a town on the Canadian side of the border where the U.S. army withstood a six month long siege during that forgotten war. On the New York side of the border, Fort Erie is known more for its proliferation of gentleman’s clubs, know as the “Canadian ballet” in these parts. Ontario’s drinking age is 19 and Americans have long flocked to Fort Erie’s strip joints, which offer full bars and nude women, a combination that isn’t legal in New York.
I followed the road that paralleled the river until the dedicated bike path started just outside of town, next to a seedy looking campground across from the Frenchman’s Creek War of 1812 Memorial.
Right beside the trail there’s a plaque describing the Battle of Frenchman’s Creek, which was a failed American invasion described as a “fiasco” that took place on November 28, 1812, and some “War of 1812″ wreaths adorned with British and American flags. I rode on for miles with modest homes on my left and Buffalo’s oddly beautiful tableau of disused industrial plants and oil refineries just across the river on my right, until pulling over to check out the Willoughby Historical Museum, about 12 miles north of Fort Erie.
The one-room museum (see below) features displays and artifacts from the War of 1812, and since I was their only visitor, Jonathan Milner, a young man who serves as one of the museum’s historians, was thrilled to stop for a chat. I asked him if Canadians were as ignorant about the War of 1812 as Americans and he toed the line between honesty and diplomacy.
“For us, the War of 1812 is prominent in the school curriculum, and because it’s the bicentennial, the Canadian government has put out advertisements touting four Canadian heroes- General Isaac Brock, Laura Secord, Tecumseh, and Charles de Salaberry,” he said.
Given the fact that the war ended in an effective stalemate, I found it a bit surprising that Canadians are expending much effort to remember this conflict. But many consider the war to be a key moment in forging their national identity. Milner asserted that recollections of the conflict, whose conclusion marked the beginning of peaceful relations between the neighbors, are selective in Canada.
“People here often refer to it as a war of American aggression,” he said. “We talk about the American invasion of York but we don’t talk about the British invasion into Baltimore, the attack on the White House, things like that.”
The Canadian government has committed at least $28 million towards celebrating the bicentennial with more than 100 events, including several later this year, but there hasn’t been as much interest in marking the anniversary on this side of the border despite the fact that historians believe that the war helped consolidate the freedom we won in the revolution and helped unify the country.
I had a feeling that Milner would have been content to talk history all day but I had a mission to complete, so I continued north up to the site of the Battle of Chippawa, where on July 5, 1814, American forces routed an equal number of British troops for the first time.
The victory proved that American troops could hold their own against British and Canadian units, and just five months later, a peace treaty was signed in modern day Belgium. Word traveled slowly in those days, however, and the war’s most famous battle, a victory for the U.S. at the Battle of New Orleans, actually occurred two weeks after the treaty was signed. A fittingly bizarre conclusion to a war that is still difficult to understand.
Just minutes after leaving the battle site, I got my first glimpse of the mist rising from Niagara Falls off in the distance. Right after you catch a glimpse of the Skylon Tower in the distance, the path splits from the Niagara Parkway, and you begin to traverse a series of rickety wooden bridges. At this point, the roar of the Cascade rapids, where the water rushes through at up to 25 MPH, is louder than the nearby traffic and you get that giddy sense of excitement that comes from knowing that you’re approaching mighty Niagara, where some 6 million cubic feet of water go over the Falls every minute.
After crossing over a series of bridges and re-emerging on the path, protective fencing gives way to a lovely untrammeled view of the rapids and the midst rising above the Horseshoe Falls. The path is so close to the rapids that a suicidal or highly inexperienced rider could easily veer into the river, never to be heard from again.
Only four people have gone over Niagara Falls without any protective equipment and survived: the first was a 7 year old boy who fell in the river in 1960; the other incidents were apparent suicide attempts, most recently in May 2012 when an unidentified man suffered a collapsed lung and broken legs but survived. Numerous others have fallen into the river and died, including a 19-year-old Japanese student who was posing for a photo while straddling a railing with an umbrella in her hand in August 2011. She apparently lost her balance, fell into the river and went over the Horseshoe Falls. And just a few days ago, a 17-year-old boy died after saving his little sister, who fell into the Niagara River.
The trail runs right into the best view of the Horseshoe Falls and, though I’d seen them dozens of times before, approaching on a bike, riding along the rapids made the experience seem somehow novel. The beauty of the trail is that just an 1/8th of a mile away from the spot where a mass of humanity gathers right next to the Horseshoe Falls, there is complete tranquility and almost no tourists in sight. On the Niagara River Recreation Trail, you can almost have Niagara Falls all to yourself.
Click here to read part one of this story.