Think last winter was tough? Good thing you weren’t here for the winter of 1687.
That winter was so bad that the garrison that became Old Fort Niagara in 1726 was mostly wiped out. Thankful for the dozen who survived, a Jesuit priest put up a cross by the water. Standing there now, all you can think is: How lucky we are.
Where else in Western New York would you find yourself thinking about the winter of 1687?
Old Fort Niagara, in Youngstown, is more than a beautiful, first-class historic site. It is a time machine. Cars are tucked in a back lot, invisible. The visitors center, too, is out of sight. Also absent are those velvet ropes that tell you “Don’t go here” and wrench you back to the present. Vintage Bausch and Lomb coin binoculars, practically historic in their own right, allow you to peer at Toronto across the lake. Otherwise, it’s just the 18th century, as far as the eye can see.
That is a very rare thing, and it can be disorienting. Like the last of the Mohicans, you pore over your map. Redoubts, you realize, are watchtowers. The Dauphin Battery, built the year Mozart was born, refers to an arsenal of cannons. That building with the massive arched ceiling – ah, that must be the Powder Magazine.
Crack! A musket startles you. Yes, you are officially back in the French and Indian War.
Fort Niagara often plays host to re-enactors and other groups. On a recent Monday, the fort welcomed four fife-and-drum corps – from New York State, France, Belgium and Italy. All in uniform, they marched to the center of the square. The Americans played “Yankee Doodle.” The French played the PBS “Masterpiece Theatre” theme. The drums’ sound bounced off the buildings, doubling the barrage.
In the Dauphin Battery, the multigenerational Fisher family was snapping pictures.
“This is the kids’ favorite part about coming here, getting their pictures taken on the cannons,” said their mom, Rachel.
Lydia Fisher, the children’s grandmother, grew emotional contemplating the fort’s lessons of history.
“You learn the truth,” she declared.
And sometimes you get a funny feeling.
Looking out the slitted windows of the French Castle, built in 1726, you can’t help picturing the soldiers who stood where you are standing. The altar in the castle’s Jesuit Chapel – the oldest lasting church in Western New York – is set with six candles, as if a High Mass is about to begin. There is a kneeler in case you want to say a prayer.
Such drama this building has seen. The roof was fitted with ramparts in the War of 1812 in order to battle Canada’s newly built Fort George. Since 1839 it has been whispered that a headless French officer haunts the first floor well. He appears when the moon is full.
Now, on a Monday afternoon, Fort Niagara snoozed peacefully across the water from its old nemesis, the similarly sleepy Fort George. As the musicians dispersed, the French Castle fell silent. The fort’s fat orange tabbie, Leopold, rolled over on a wooden table and purred.
Outside, the sunlight was startling. The visitors milling about the lovely landscape seemed oddly dreamlike: children, veterans, Indians in saris, Muslims in headscarves, Italian musicians in red and green uniforms. We fed quarters into the binoculars. We smiled at each other.
O’er the ramparts we watched, together.