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Canada's tower of strength.

* Most people think of the Martello tower as a European invention from the Napoleonic era, designed to beat back the 'little corporal's' invading armies. But they also exist as far afield as Canada. Four were built between 1845-51 as defences against a perceived American invasion threat to Kingston, which occupied an important and vulnerable position at the lower end of the Great Lakes and the mouth of the St Lawrence River.

Recent excavations at the largest and most strategically important tower, Fort Frederick (just east of Kingston), have thrown up fascinating evidence of what life was really like for the few troops and their families who were Canada's first tine of defence against an expanding America.

The event that precipitated the building of the Martello towers was known at the 'Oregon crisis', which began in that state but soon spread to other parts of America as well. American immigrants in Oregon, which bordered onto Canada, loudly clamoured for the assertion of United States sovereignty in that territory, which meant pushing the boundaries of the United States north past the forty-ninth parallel. Their ultimate ambition was to extend the border north to meet the Russian boundary of Alaska, thus eliminating the British presence on the Pacific coast. Similar ideas were expressed on the Atlantic coast.

To protect Canada four Martello towers, Murney, Victoria, Cathcart (Cedar island tower) and Fort Frederick were built. Each was intended to be self-contained and capable of all-round defence.

The Fort Frederick tower is built on one of the oldest military sites in Kingston. Not long after the founding of the city by Michael Grass and his band of Empire Loyalists, two batteries were erected to defend Kingston's Harbour (one was in the harbour area with the other located at Point Frederick).

In 1846, the present Martello tower was built behind the earthworks at Point Frederick. Its position was strengthened with a stone curtain and redan.

Fort Frederick redoubt has stone walls up to fifteen feet thick. The thinnest part of the wall faces Fort Henry, situated on a hill overlooking Point Frederick, Navy Bay and the dockyard. This meant that the Martello tower of Fort Frederick was captured, then Fort Henry could bombard it. Originally, th tower also had a wooden `snow' roof to protect it from the rigours of the Canadian winter. When under attack the roof was easily removed and the battery made ready for action.

The tower is now a museum. Last summer, excavating a trench around the tower to put in electric cables to light up the museum at night, over 100 artefacts were found. Pieces of pottery, keys, scissors and decorative tops of china had been thrown down by the men and their families. Yesterday's refuse has now become today's historical artefact. For J.R. McKenzie, the museum's curator, the most exciting find was a shako badge for the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment dating back to the 1870s. `We hope to have the money and time eventually to do a thorough site excavation,' he says.

The museum's upper storey is the battery/gun platform where the three thirty-two pounders overlooked Lake Ontario.

On the first floor is Captain Addison's Hot Shot Furnace to heat shot. After the fire had burned for twenty minutes, fifteen thirty-two pounder shot were placed very carefully inside the stove. Seventy five minutes later, the shot was red hot and ready to be loaded into the cannon, a smooth bore, which was loaded from the front with help of a ramrod.

After the gun had been fired, its recoil was such that the platform had to be constructed at over eighteen feet long to accommodate it.

Descend a narrow staircase to the second floor. This is where the soldiers - twenty-four men, or four families, lived.

`They were confined to such a small space. They slept here and ate here. They lived under very primitive conditions', says McKenzie.

Today, the second floor houses a famous gun display, one of the best in North America, the Douglas Collection. The late General Porfirio Diaz, for many years the president of Mexico, died in exile in 1914. His family managed to reclaim his estate and his fabulous gun collection, the latter of which was sold to a graduate of the Royal Military College, Walter Douglas.

In a special glass case are the Naval Pattern Presentation Flintlock Pistols, made by Nicholas Noel Boutet, a gunsmith to Louis XVI and to Napoleon who awarded them to his senior naval officers. On a less exalted level the museum also has Jesse James' brother's gun.

Behind the tower and the walls of Fort Frederick is the oldest military college in the Commonwealth outside of Great Britain, established in 1876. In 1870, British troops left Canada and turned over military facilities to the Canadian government. In 1874, through an act of the Canadian parliament, a new military college was established for the training of officers, the Royal Military College of Canada.

Ironically, despite all the preparations, the building of the Martello towers, Fort Frederick, Fort Henry and the Rideau Canal, the Americans never invaded. The tower's guns were never put to use. Today the border between Canada and, United States is one of the most peaceful boundaries in the world.
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Title Annotation:Martello Tower, Fort Frederick, Ontario
Author:Johnston, Penelope
Publication:History Today
Date:Jan 1, 1996
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