Modern-day Toronto traces its origins to Fort York, a colonial stockade built in 1793 on the shores of Lake Ontario to bolster British control of the Great Lakes. Since then, landfill has pushed the lakeshore southwards and marooned the fort, which was reconstructed in the 1930s, under the shadow of the (elevated) Gardiner Expressway just to the west of Bathurst Street. Fort York was initially a half-hearted, poorly fortified affair, partly because of a lack of funds, but mainly because it was too remote to command much attention – never mind that the township of York was the capital of Upper Canada. Yet in 1811 a deterioration in Anglo-American relations put it on full alert. There was a sudden flurry of activity as the fort’s ramparts and gun emplacements were strengthened, but the British realized it was still too weak to rebuff the American army that marched on York in 1813 and they decided to withdraw. In a desperate hurry, the British blew up the gunpowder magazine to stop its contents falling into enemy hands, but they underestimated the force of the explosion, killing or wounding ten of their own men in addition to 260 of the advancing enemy, the fatalities including the splendidly named American general Zebulon Montgomery Pike.
After the war, the fort was rebuilt and its garrison made a considerable contribution to the development of Toronto, as York was renamed in 1834. The British army moved out in 1870 and their Canadian replacements stayed for another sixty years; the fort was opened as a museum in 1934. Throughout the year, costumed guides give the low-down on colonial life and free plans of the fort are issued at reception.
The fort’s carefully restored, thick, earth-and-stone ramparts are low-lying and constructed in a zigzag pattern, both to mitigate against enemy artillery and to provide complementary lines of fire. They enclose a haphazard sequence of log, stone and brick buildings, most notably a couple of well-preserved blockhouses, complete with heavy timbers and snipers’ loopholes. There are also reconstructions of the stone and brick powder magazine, which has 2m-thick walls and spark-proof copper and brass fixtures; the Blue Barracks, the former junior officers’ quarters; and the old officers’ quarters and mess, which hold two original money vaults, hidden away in the cellar. Of the several buildings featuring exhibitions on the fort and its history, the most diverting is the archeological display exhibiting various bits and pieces unearthed at the fort, including buckles, brooches, plates, clay pipes and tunic buttons, and a substantial collection of colonial armaments. The latter includes a rare, cumbersome Gatling gun like the one used against the Métis and a furnace for heating up cannon balls – hence the term “hot shot”.