Whether you’re just starting at Queen’s or you’ve lived in Kingston for years, there’s probably lots of interesting history about this city that you’ve never learned. In my experience as a tour guide with Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises last summer, my perspective on Kingston changed completely. Where I once saw it as primarily a university town, now I recognize a city that holds great political and military significance for Canada.
To help pique your interest in the city we currently call home, I’ve compiled a few important points of Kingston’s history, from its origins as a trading post to the Second World War.
Fort Frontenac was founded in 1673 by the first French settlers to arrive in Kingston, in the hopes of gaining control of the fur trade in the Great Lakes basin and establishing a trade deal with the Iroquois peoples who lived in the area. At the time, Kingston was little more than a trading post named Cataraqui—the name Kingston appeared in the late 1700s, an abbreviation of “King’s Town.”
The Seven Years War (1756-1763) was a fight for control of the fur trade between the British and French. The Iroquois peoples sided with the French to help protect their hunting grounds; the British intended to clear many of the forests in the area, removing the Indigenous groups’ sources of game and shelter. However, the Iroquois-French relationship began to deteriorate when the Iroquois realized that many French soldiers held contempt for them.
The British overtook the Fort and destroyed it in 1758, forcing the French to retreat to Montréal. The remains of the Fort still exist next to the Leon’s Centre. Across the street from the old Fort lies the new Fort Frontenac, whose construction began in 1783 by the British and which is still being used by the Canadian military today.
On April 17, 1840, embers from the Telegraph, an American steamship leaving Kingston’s harbour, were blown into the waterfront area, causing a massive fire that destroyed most of Kingston’s downtown core. Many of the wooden structures by the water, including warehouses containing gunpowder, caught fire quickly and couldn’t be extinguished due to the high winds that night.
The fire resulted in the loss of most of Kingston’s buildings built prior to 1840. Afterward, the city passed a bylaw banning the construction of wooden buildings. Limestone was mainly used in the city’s reconstruction due to its local availability, giving Kingston the nickname it still has today: the Limestone City.
Canada’s First Capital
During the years 1841 to 1844, Kingston was the first capital of the Province of Canada, which was still a British colony at the time. Despite only having approximately 6,100 residents, the large and impressive City Hall was built to show off Kingston’s status as the capital city. City Park was also a piece of land put aside for the construction of the federal parliament buildings.
However, the province’s capital was moved to Montréal after only three years due to Kingston’s vulnerable location in case of a war with the United States, and its relatively small size. The capital then alternated between Québec City and Toronto, until Ottawa was finally selected as Canada’s permanent capital.
The Oregon Crisis (1845-1846) was a dispute between the British and Americans over the Oregon territory, which spans the American west coast from Oregon up to Alaska. Fearing that a war would break out over possession of the territory, Britain fortified Kingston’s waterfront against a potential American attack—being so close to the New York border, Kingston was an easy target for American war ships.
The fortifications included the construction of four Martello towers: round stone towers in which British soldiers could watch for incoming American ships along Kingston’s harbour. The towers have flat roofs with a large artillery on top that can fire in all directions, although red snow roofs have been placed over the artilleries today.
Most students have likely seen Murney Tower, today a military museum, at Barrie and King Streets, and Shoal Tower, across the street from City Hall. The towers were never used in battle, however, as the Oregon Crisis was resolved when the British and the Americans were able to settle on a location for the border.
Queen’s and the World Wars
The First World War had a significant impact on Queen’s. Military training became mandatory for male students, Grant and Kingston Halls were transformed into military hospitals, and female students were elected to the AMS and The Queen’s Journal for the first time. The University also saw the appearance of its first female faculty during this period. Unfortunately, enrollment declined so far that Queen’s was on the verge of bankruptcy during the war.
During the Second World War, the Canadian government paid researchers at Queen’s to conduct top-secret research on anthrax and botulism for biological warfare in Kathleen Ryan Hall, which was then the medical building.
The Memorial Room in the JDUC commemorates all 351 Queen’s students and alumni who lost their lives in both world wars.
City of Kingston, downtown Kingston, History
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