YOUNGSTOWN, N.Y. (WIVB) — When you step foot into Old Fort Niagara, you’re taking a step back in time.
“You can come into this site and you can see the sights and hear the sounds and, sometimes, even smell the smells that would have been here in the 18th century, early 19th century,” said Robert Emerson, Executive Director.
First constructed by the French in 1726, the fort sits at the mouth of the Niagara River, allowing access to the Great Lakes. The British eventually took control roughly 30 years later.
“The best way to travel was by the water, and the Great Lakes are this water super highway to the interior of the continent,” Emerson said. “That’s why the French and the British, who were great superpowers of the era, that’s why they fought over this place.”
In 1796, the Jay Treaty transferred power over to the United States. After a brief back and forth during the War of 1812, U.S. soldiers officially called the fort their home.
“The U.S. Army billeted people in these old buildings until about World War I — into the 20th century. Then they decided without running water and electricity, it was not an ideal place to live,” Emerson said.
For about five years, starting in 1929, the fort was restored thanks to funding from the U.S. War Department — known today as the Department of Defense.
“It’s amazing to think about the fact that we have the oldest still-standing structure on the Great Lakes, and that people have been walking in and out of that building for almost 300 years now which is really humbling in a lot of ways,” said Hanae Weber, lead civilian interpreter.
Today, it’s a place where people can immerse themselves in history through educational programming and demonstrations to learn what it was like to live and work on a fort in the 18th and 19th century.
Typically, summer is Old Fort Niagara’s busy season. But events, including re-enactments, are held year-round.
“A large part of what historic interpretation is is not just reciting facts about the past, but finding a way to connect those in a meaningful way to the people of the 21st century,” Weber said.
People come from all over the world to explore the fort, which sees tens of thousands of visitors each year. Emerson said they saw a decrease as a result of the pandemic, but their numbers are going back up.
“It is very important that you can come to a place like this, because I think it gives you some perspective. We like to think that people who come here may not have even opened a book, but they’ve come here and they’ve had a good time and they’ve taken part in some interactive activities,” he said. “Maybe they’re going to go home and read more about it and learn more about it. We like to think of this place as a catalyst for delving a little bit deeper into the story of America’s past.”
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