Kingston is strategically located where the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario meet, and was once an important Indian trading center a long time ago before the French fur traders arrived in the early 17th century. The French immediately coveted the location and wanted to establish a trading post. However, the constant fighting between the Hurons and the Iroquois prevented such plans until 1673 when a momentary pause in the hostilities gave Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac the opportunity to set up a fortified settlement. Fort Frontenac was the name of the trading post and survived for almost a hundred years until it was captured by a band of British-American troops. In any case, the 1763 Treaty of Paris a few years later ceded all of Canada to Britain anyway.
Like many other towns and cities near the United States border, Kingston was resettled by self-exiled Loyalists in the 1780s following the American Revolutionary War. During this period, Fort Frontenac was renamed Kingston. The town soon became an important British naval base and hosted a large shipyard. Kingston managed to survive the War of 1812 unscathed and went onto prosper in the 1830s and 1840s when it became the southern terminus of the newly-constructed Rideau Canal and when it was briefly named the capital of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841. When Queen’s University was founded that same year, Kingston became not just a thriving military center, but an important education center, too.
In the last 165 years, Kingston has stayed much the same in many respects. As in the past, few buildings are more than two or three stories high; Kingston’s Brock Street is still the main commercial thoroughfare with a few of the same stores as it had 200 years ago; the city still has a strong military presence with the National Defense College, Royal Military College, and the Canadian Army Staff College all located there; and its Victorian homes and its gray limestone buildings dating back to the 19th century have been preserved remarkably. Perhaps the most significant constant about Kingston is its strategic importance. While it is no longer a key naval base, it is still a key travel base. Conveniently located half-way between Toronto and Montreal, many tourists must pass by this city in their travels, stopping for food, fuel, and much-needed rest. But they get much more than a pit stop. The city has an attractive waterfront, beautiful parks, colorful open-air markets, and some delightful holiday spots within reach – Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands, both destinations where many vacationers have visited by launching boat excursions from Kingston.
Fort Henry, with its stout and intimidating façade, peers over Kingston from atop a high hill. Completed in 1836, the massive fort was built to protect the naval dockyard at Point Frederick against an American attack. A section of the fort has been reconstructed with the barracks, officers’ quarters, and kitchens restored to look like their former 19th century selves, revealing what life was like for guardsmen back in the day. Every day, Fort Henry Guards perform military drills. In the summer, the Ceremonial Retreat puts on a spectacular show of color and music three times a week at night. The Fort can be reached by taking Route 2, headed east from the city.
Royal Military College
The Royal Military College sits on Point Frederick across the Navy Bay from Fort Henry. It occupies a Martello tower. The college has displays that trace its history and includes a small arms collection of General Porfirio Diaz, who was Mexico’s President from 1886 to 1912. No one knows why it’s there.
City Hall is located at 264 Ontario Street and was completed in 1843 at a time when the city was the capital of the United Province of Canada, a merger of Upper and Lower Canada. This domed building is a grand example of classical architecture – in fact the country’s finest for the category. In the summers, guided tours are provided everyday, except on Sundays.
Confederation Park faces City Hall and spreads all the way to the water’s edge. In the summer, many concerts and open-air events are held at this park. Nearby on King Street, behind City Hall, an open-air market takes place three times a week while an antiques market is held every Sunday.
Marine Museum of the Great Lakes
Marine Museum of the Great Lakes is located at 55 Ontario Street along the waterfront. The museum focuses on the history of shipping and shipbuilding in the Great Lakes from the 1800s to the present. The highlight of the exhibits and collections is the Alexander Henry, a 3,000 ton icebreaker. The museum is open daily from April to December.
Pump House Steam Museum
The Pump House Steam Museum is located at 23 Ontario Street inside a restored Kingston Pumping Station. The museum features exhibits of large steam pumps, steam engines, and models. Many of the items, tools, and equipments on display have been restored to working condition.
The Murney Tower is another Martello tower. It is located in Macdonald Park near the Pump House Steam Museum. The Murney Tower was built in 1846 as part of the town’s fortification of defenses. Today, it is used as a museum that traces the history of the region. The tower also houses a reconstructed soldiers’ quarters. The tower is open everyday in the summer.
Agnes Etherington Art Centre
The Agnes Etherington Art Centre occupies a lovely 19th century house located on University Avenue right by Queen’s University. The house is accessorized with period furniture. The Art Centre has an extensive collection of art work and objects, mainly of Canadian, European, and African art and antiques.
The Bellevue House is located at 35 Centre Street. This extravagant white and green Tuscan-style villa was built by a wealthy merchant in 1840. Set in attractive grounds, the Bellevue House’s elaborate façade earned it the nicknames of “Ted Caddy Castle” and “Pekoe Pagoda”. From 1848 to 1849, it was the home of John A. Macdonald, who became the first Prime Minister of Canada two decades later. Today, the house exhibits some memorabilia of Macdonald. The interior has been restored with period furniture. The Bellevue House is open daily.
The Thousand Islands are a bunch of islands in the St. Lawrence River east of Kingston. There are actually more than 1,000 islands, despite the name. Some are huge while others do not measure more than a few square meters in area. Some are verdantly forested, while others are on the barren side. The houses on the islands also vary from modest to palatial.
The St. Lawrence River, stretching a beautiful 50 miles, has been a popular holiday spot for years. Several boat cruises and tours of the Thousand Islands are provided. The largest of the islands is Wolfe Island, which is best reached by taking the ferry from Kingston – mainly for the good views you get of the other islands while aboard. Most visitors of the islands spend their time swimming, boating, fishing, and in the summer sunbathing on the island beaches.
St. Lawrence Islands National Park
The St. Lawrence Islands National Park contains 17 of the Thousand Islands, as well as a section of the mainland at Mallorytown Landing. This latter portion of the park is where the Visitors Centre is located. Mallorytown Landing also offers a campground and a water-taxi service that takes passengers to the other islands and other campsites in the park. The Visitors Centre, meanwhile, houses an Interpretive Centre. Nearby in a shelter is where the HMS Radcliffe is stored. This gunboat was used in the 1812 war and remains in its wrecked state.
Frontenac Provincial Park
Frontenac Provincial Park gives visitors another option for experiencing the outdoor life. It is an unspoiled wilderness within the Canadian Shield country. Activities that can be enjoyed include cross-country skiing, hiking, and canoeing. The Trail Centre is but a few miles along County Road, headed north from Sydenham.
Kingston is the southern terminus of the Rideau Canal. This historic waterway is a popular boating and canoeing strip during the summer, but becomes the world’s longest skating rink during the winter. In the warmer days, you can take your own boat or hire a houseboat. Several towns and parks are found throughout the route.
How to Get There
Most people reach Kingston by car. If you are driving from Montreal, take Route 401 westbound, whereas you head eastbound if you are driving from Toronto. From either city, the drive takes a mere morning or afternoon to complete. Kingston is even more accessible from Ottawa or Syracuse, New York – both cities being closer. Many buses also run services to Kingston multiple times a day from Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
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