Magazine article History Today

Canada's Tower of Strength

Magazine article History Today

Canada's Tower of Strength

Article excerpt

* Most people think of the Martello tower as a European invention from the Napoleonic era, designed to beat back the 'little corporal's' invading armies. But they also exist as far afield as Canada. Four were built between 1845-51 as defences against a perceived American invasion threat to Kingston, which occupied an important and vulnerable position at the lower end of the Great Lakes and the mouth of the St Lawrence River.

Recent excavations at the largest and most strategically important tower, Fort Frederick (just east of Kingston), have thrown up fascinating evidence of what life was really like for the few troops and their families who were Canada's first tine of defence against an expanding America.

The event that precipitated the building of the Martello towers was known at the 'Oregon crisis', which began in that state but soon spread to other parts of America as well. American immigrants in Oregon, which bordered onto Canada, loudly clamoured for the assertion of United States sovereignty in that territory, which meant pushing the boundaries of the United States north past the forty-ninth parallel. Their ultimate ambition was to extend the border north to meet the Russian boundary of Alaska, thus eliminating the British presence on the Pacific coast. Similar ideas were expressed on the Atlantic coast.

To protect Canada four Martello towers, Murney, Victoria, Cathcart (Cedar island tower) and Fort Frederick were built. Each was intended to be self-contained and capable of all-round defence.

The Fort Frederick tower is built on one of the oldest military sites in Kingston. Not long after the founding of the city by Michael Grass and his band of Empire Loyalists, two batteries were erected to defend Kingston's Harbour (one was in the harbour area with the other located at Point Frederick).

In 1846, the present Martello tower was built behind the earthworks at Point Frederick. Its position was strengthened with a stone curtain and redan.

Fort Frederick redoubt has stone walls up to fifteen feet thick. The thinnest part of the wall faces Fort Henry, situated on a hill overlooking Point Frederick, Navy Bay and the dockyard. This meant that the Martello tower of Fort Frederick was captured, then Fort Henry could bombard it. Originally, th tower also had a wooden `snow' roof to protect it from the rigours of the Canadian winter. When under attack the roof was easily removed and the battery made ready for action.

The tower is now a museum. Last summer, excavating a trench around the tower to put in electric cables to light up the museum at night, over 100 artefacts were found. Pieces of pottery, keys, scissors and decorative tops of china had been thrown down by the men and their families. …

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