Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/A night on the Niagara


Twenty-five years ago, a roving disposition placed me in the pleasant little town of Buffalo, which lies at the foot of Lake Erie, and at the head of its outlet, the famous Niagara river. The great cataract is twenty miles below. Buffalo had then about twenty thousand inhabitants: now it has three or four times that population. Situated at the lower terminus of the navigation of the great lakes, and at the opening of the Erie Canal, which connects the lakes with the Atlantic, it was a busy, thriving, and important town, seven or eight months in the year.

But in that region, though several degrees below our latitude, all internal navigation is closed, as a rule, by the 1st of December, and the great inland seas are sometimes covered with solid ice on May-day. The winter puts a period to all labours connected with navigation, and Buffalo, in winter, was full of lake sailors, steamboat men, canallers, and hundreds more, connected with trade and navigation, spending their summer wages, with nothing to do, and ready, as idle hands, for Satan’s work of mischief.

It was about this time that the late William Lyon Mackenzie took it upon himself to become a reforming patriot in Upper Canada; and, being driven out of the province, he came for sympathy to Buffalo. He got plenty of it. Buffalo had been burnt by the “bloody British” in the war of 1812. Right opposite, in plain sight, were the ruined walls of Fort Erie, taken, and then blown up and abandoned, by the Americans. A few miles below were the sanguinary battle fields of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, where General Scott won the laurels of courage, if not of victory; while just below the monument of the British Gen. Brock towers above the heights of Queenstown, where he died in the hour of triumph, after hurling an invading army of Yankees into the gulf below the cataract.

So, the Buffalonians welcomed Mackenzie, cheered his speeches, passed resolutions to sustain him, and even raised a good many men and some money for a Canadian invasion. Rochester sent a large number—one entire company of State militia going with its officers. The son of a New York general, who had been defeated at Queenstown, offered his services, and was appointed Commander-in-Chief by Mackenzie, who assumed to be at the head of the provisional government. The hastily raised forces took possession of Navy Island, a small British island in the Niagara river, just above the Falls of Niagara. With the help of a Westpoint engineer, batteries were erected, trees felled, and the island placed in a defensible position.

Upon this island fortress gathered some hundreds—perhaps a thousand—Canadian patriots, as they called themselves, or rebels, as they were termed by the Colonial authorities. Nine-tenths of them had never been in Canada in their lives. They were American sympathisers. Their cannon were stolen from American arsenals, or were the field-pieces of the neighbouring militia. Their ammunition and supplies came from the towns of the American frontier. Farmers came with their teams, hauling contributions of flour, bacon, and other provisions. A steamboat, the Caroline, was cut out of the ice at Buffalo, and sent down the still open river, to ply between the rebel island and the American shore, to carry men, arms, and supplies to the rebels. The position was a remarkable one. Between Navy Island and the Canadian shore flows the main current of the Niagara, a deep and rapid river, which a short distance below turns to foaming rapids; while the roar of the great cataract fills the air, the ground trembles with its shock, and the cloud that rises above it is plainly visible.

While the forces of Mackenzie and his Yankee military commander, Van Renssellaer, were gathering upon this small, wood-covered island, Colonel (now Sir Allan) McNab, aided by some resident half-pay British officers, was collecting a force upon the opposite bank, to oppose the threatened invasion, and also to dislodge the soi-disant patriots from their island fastness. For two miles batteries were planted along the river. I ought to know the distance, for I passed down by all the batteries one day, in a boat, under a dropping fire of rifle shots from the island. It was proposed to take it by assault and dislodge the Yankee invaders, but this was a difficult enterprise. A boat crippled would be lost, and there was a fair chance that the whole expedition would follow the steamer Caroline over the falls. A small party came over one night, cut her out from the American dock where she was moored, towed her into the stream, set her on fire, and sent her blazing down the rapids, and over the great cataract. Preparations were therefore made to drive out the enemy by a bombardment, which came off one moonlight night, as I stood upon a point of Grand Island, just above, and between, though mostly out of the range of the belligerent batteries.

It was a magnificent spectacle. The snow covered the ground. The moon rode high in the heavens. Around were the dark waters of the rushing river, and below the world’s grandest waterfall. I could see the whole line of batteries on either side. Boats with muffled oars were moving on the river. Murmuring sounds came through the stillness from the British shore. Suddenly, in the calm stillness of the deep night, the whole line of batteries opened a rapid and continuous fire. Cannon sent their iron hail crashing among the trees, rockets went blazing and roaring across the dark river, and shells went hissing high into the air, their track made distinctly visible by the blazing fuze, until they burst above, or in the forest. The rebel batteries were not silent. They had neither mortars nor rockets, but their guns flashed out of their forest fastness, and replied defiantly, if not effectively, to the roar of the loyal artillery. It was a magnificent spectacle, flashing, roaring, crashing, lighting up the scene with a fitful glare, while clouds of sulphurous smoke rose heavily and were borne away by the gentle breeze; and at intervals, in the pauses of this storm of war, the roar of the great cataract could be heard, and its cloud of spray went up like incense to heaven; and the holy moon looked down upon the scene, and the opposing forces, who were doing their best to dye the white robe of the earth with each other’s blood.

The rebels, finding the force of loyal Canadians too strong for a successful invasion, tired out and starved out, withdrew from Navy Island, under the mild persuasions of General Scott, and Governor Marcy. The shells, shot, and rockets were expended upon a dense forest. The rebellion failed, and a wise clemency made Canada the most loyal of provinces; but the American border has not forgotten Navy Island, or the Caroline. The older volunteers who flocked around the standard of Mackenzie, had fought in the war of 1812. There are thousands of men now along the Canadian frontier, who were engaged, more or less actively, in the rebellion. Secret societies were formed in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan, forming an order of “Hunters,” with oaths and passwords, organised to aid the Canadian patriots. From the expeditions of Montgomery and Arnold, in 1775, up to this hour, the great mass of the Northern Americans have never renounced the hope and expectation of making Canada their own. They will never be satisfied until they command both shores of the great lakes, and their flag floats in triumph from the head of Lake Superior to the mouth of the St. Lawrence.