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NIAGARA’S MAGNIFICENT MONUMENT
It is one of the most recognizable heritage landmarks not only in Niagara but in all Canada.
By Sherman Zavitz
Soaring 185 feet (56 metres) above Queenston Heights, Brock’s Monument commemorates Major General Sir Isaac Brock, commander of the British and Canadian Forces at the Battle of Queenston Heights, one of the major land battles of the War of 1812 and a defining event in Canada’s history.
The battle began during the early hours of Tuesday, October 13, 1812. Brock was killed during the opening stages of the action, brought down by an American sharpshooter as he boldly led a charge up the side of the Heights in an attempt to dislodge an American force that had captured the Redan Battery, a key field fortification the British had erected two-thirds of the way up the Niagara Escarpment.
By mid-morning the Americans had control of the Heights. However, they were driven back and defeated that afternoon by British and Canadian soldiers now under the command of Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe. Significant help was provided by some 160 Warriors from the Grand River Six Nations led by John Norton.
Brock’s death, seen as an heroic sacrifice, brought about widespread shock, disbelief and sorrow. A greatly admired man, the charismatic Brock and his aide-de-camp, John Macdonell, who died of wounds received during the battle, were first buried at Fort George in what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake.
On October 13, 1824, their bodies were reinterred in a tomb under a 41 metre (134 foot ) high monument that had been built on Queenston Heights. This original Brock’s Monument, which stood where the Laura Secord Monument on the Heights is now, was badly damaged by a terrorist bomb on April 17, 1840.
Deciding not to try and repair the monument, it was knocked down in July 1853. The remains of the fallen hero and his aide-de-camp were removed to the cemetery on the grounds of Willowbank, the Hamilton family mansion in Queenston.
Work then began on the present Brock’s Monument, to be located a short distance west of the first one. Under the direction of the architect William Thomas, a foundation was built that contained a tomb with two vaults. On October 13, 1853, with a crowd of some 12,000 solemnly looking on, the pall bearers brought the twin caskets up to the newly-constructed vaults and slid them into place. The vaults were then sealed.
This was followed by a ceremony that featured William Hamilton Merritt of St. Catharines as the principal speaker. One of Niagara’s best known citizens, Merritt was a War of 1812 veteran and who had later been the driving force behind the building of the first Welland Ship Canal. During his talk that memorable day, Merritt, who was also the chairman of the monument committee, spoke about the importance of honouring those who had fought for Canada in the War of 1812 as well as the need to erect monuments like the one being built on the Heights. He noted: “If Canada is worth preserving, we owe it to them. If it is asked why take this trouble (to build a monument), what object is to be gained, my reply is this – it will … keep up a feeling of patriotism, a love of country, which every right-minded man should cherish.”
When the monument, crowned with a 16 foot (4.8 metre) high statue of Brock, was completed three years later, it was the second highest structure of its kind in the world. Stone steps, 235 in number, had been constructed inside the column to take visitors to the top just under the statue where a number of portholes offered a spectacular view.
The dedication ceremony for the monument was held on October 13, 1859, the 47th anniversary of the battle. Looking over the scene, the Hamilton Spectator reporter wrote: “The weather was fine and the gathering immense, not fewer than 10,000 persons being on the ground, among whom were numerous militia companies, nearly every district in the province having representatives there.
“Not the least interesting feature was the array of veterans who had fought in the War of 1812. Their curious uniforms attracted much attention and many a gaze was directed to the spot where the time-worn veterans stood.”
Sir Allan MacNab of Hamilton, a past Premier of pre-Confederation Canada from 1854 to 1856, delivered the inaugural address. Following the ceremony, he also presided over “a sumptuous dinner” for some 200 people, which was held in a large tent that had been set up nearby.
Two years after this ceremony the author of a Niagara Falls guide book summed up the view from atop Brock’s Monument as “most gorgeous.” Those same words are still appropriate.