New York is filled with many historic forts and battlefields, but few, if any, have as long a history as the amazing Old Fort Niagara.
Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site is located within Fort Niagara State Park in Niagara County, New York. The land it occupies is the northwesternmost corner of the state at the confluence of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario.
The site’s European roots date back to 1679 when the French built a small fort on the land dubbed Fort Conti. This fort quickly was abandoned, as was Fort Denonville, which was built in 1687.
Finally, in 1726, the French built a two-story building at the mouth of the Niagara River, dubbing it “Maison a Machicoulis”. This building still stands within the grounds of Old Fort Niagara and is now known as the French Castle.
The fort was taken over by the British in 1759 after a 19-day siege during the French and Indian War. Despite being in the United States today, the fort was held by the British throughout the Revolutionary War and only given up 13 years after the war ended when the Jay Treaty was signed.
Fort Niagara again saw action in the War of 1812 when it was attacked and captured by the British in December 1813 and held until the end of the war in 1815.
While there were no more battles at the fort, it stayed an active United States military outpost until 1963. This means that the land has a nearly 300-year military history.
Today, Old Fort Niagara has been amazingly restored and offers a fantastic look at the history of this important piece of land and the military conflicts that shaped the early years of the United States.
Visits start in a modern museum located a short walk from the fort itself. There is an excellent 15-minute film that tells the story of Fort Niagara and this heavily contested parcel of land at the mouth of the Niagara River that is shown once an hour.
Within the museum, there is another great overview of the events that occurred at the fort (if you are looking for something to read or don’t catch the movie), as well as many interesting artifacts from the land’s history from its use by Native Americans through its many different military occupiers.
Probably the highlight of the museum, however, is the very large Fort Niagara flag. This was captured by the British when they defeated the American forces here in December 1813. While the flag is in kind of rough shape, it’s an amazing artifact that everyone who visits should take a few minutes to see.
Once you’ve finished seeing the museum, take the short walk over to Old Fort Niagara. There’s a lot to see in the fort itself, so make sure you save plenty of time to explore its expansive grounds.
The main focal point of the fort is the French Castle. Dating back to 1726, it’s the oldest, still-standing building on the Great Lakes. Somewhat amazingly, you can still tour this building.
Inside, many of the rooms have been set up to show visitors what they would have looked like in the past. The site has done a great job decorating the space, and while a bit of signage would have been nice, it’s really a lot of fun to explore this old building.
While in the French Castle, don’t miss the fantastic views of Lake Ontario from the windows. If you look carefully on a clear day, you can even see the skyline of Toronto across the lake.
Throughout the grounds of Old Fort Niagara, there are several other buildings and structures that you can explore. The most impressive to me were the guard towers which each had cannons on the third floor of the buildings.
In addition to static displays, there are also costumed reenactors and live demonstrations offered inside Old Fort Niagara.
Every day that the fort is open, they offer hourly musket firing demonstrations. Done by reenactors, these talks also include information on the soldier’s uniform and what life was like inside the fort.
During the summer months, there are many other activities and demonstrations that happen at Old Fort Niagara including military music performances, Native American demonstrations, guided tours of the fort, and talks and demonstrations highlighting various aspects of fort life.
Since Old Fort Niagara is located in quite literally the northwestern corner of New York, it’s a bit of a drive from just about anywhere else in the state. However, if you love history, the fort is definitely worth the hour drive from downtown Buffalo or the 20-minute drive from Niagara Falls.
In fact, after exploring the fort, my wife, who I wouldn’t call a history buff, commented that Old Fort Niagara had a lot more to do in it than most other forts she had visited and that she had enjoyed her time at the fort. My young children also had a ton of fun exploring the grounds.
So, definitely don’t miss the chance to explore the impressive and historic Old Fort Niagara the next time you are visiting the Greater Niagara Region.
Note: My visit to Old Fort Niagara was hosted by the site. However, the opinions expressed are my own.