Once upon a time ...

From 1841 to 1844, Kingston was capital of the United Province of Canada, and the city’s still not ready to let go of its former glory

Fort Henry military interpreter, Greg Nonato, ArtSci ’08, shows a First Capital Days visitor drills done by soldiers in the 1840s.
Fort Henry military interpreter, Greg Nonato, ArtSci ’08, shows a First Capital Days visitor drills done by soldiers in the 1840s.

Before Ottawa took over the title, Kingston was Canada’s capital from 1841 to 1844—and Kingston’s still excited about it.

Those three years when Kingston was the centre of Canadian commerce and politics were unforgettable. Or they should be, according to members of Kingston’s First Capital Day Committee.

In 1999, some Kingston residents got together and formed the idea of First Capital Day: one day each year on which to celebrate Kingston’s time as Canada’s capital. They chose June 15 in honour of the opening of the first Canadian parliament.

To help Kingstonians remember the city’s important role in Canadian history, June 15 is officially known as First Capital Day.

“[Kingstonians] don’t necessarily realize that Kingston was one of the major communities in the province of Canada at the time,” said John Coleman, First Capital Day planning committee chair.

“It’s largely forgotten that Kingston once had this important role in the history of our country and it was the capital of what was called then the province of Canada.”

Before it became the Ghetto street where everyone is your neighbour, what’s now University Avenue marked the western border of Loyalist settler John Stuart’s farm land.

In the late 1830s, Stuart built a grand residence for his son, Reverend George Okill Stuart, on part of his land. Okill turned it into an unfortunately unsuccessful boarding house called Summerhill.

His fortunes turned with a little indirect help from Charles Poulett Thomson.

After the Union Act of 1840, Thomson—better known as Lord Sydenham—declared Kingston to be the capital of the newly united province of Canada.

Lord Sydenham chose Kingston as capital from five cities including York, which is now Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and Bytown, which is now Ottawa.

“With its location on the Rideau Canal on the St. Lawrence River, [Kingston] was a pretty major port of call. It was quite important in the whole range of commerce of the province of Canada,” Coleman said. “It had a lot going for it, a lot more than people might understand nowadays.” With the impressive Fort Henry guarding the Lake Ontario end of the Rideau Canal, Kingston also stood out as a strategic military location within young Canada.

Representatives from Upper and Lower Canada flocked to Kingston for the nation’s first parliamentary session on June 15, 1841.

At this time, however, Kingston was still a relatively small town, lacking sufficient boarding for visitors. The vacant Summerhill quickly filled with members of the legislative assembly.

The building was later used for parliamentary committee rooms. At the time, parliament was meeting regularly in renovated hospital buildings, now part of the Kingston General Hospital.

But the town lacked broad public support as a capital. Although Kingstonians were overjoyed to have their town named capital, the rest of Canada was not as enthusiastic.

In 1844, political pressure forced the capital to be moved to Montreal.

“Montreal really had a lot of political clout. … The Montreal influence outweighed the Kingston influence,” Coleman said.

Summerhill emptied—as did the rest of Kingston.

Now, Kingston’s trying to reclaim some of that former glory with First Capital Day.

The celebration began as an hour-long ceremony and has since grown into two weeks of festivities that continue until Canada Day on July 1.

As the event grows, organizers are also incorporating different groups within First Capital Days, said Donna Gillespie, First Capital Days co-ordinator for Festivals on the St. Lawrence.

“We partner with the Skeleton Park Music festival. They’re starting to attract more and more tourists,” she said.

This year, Gillespie said, they designed evening activities to take advantage of June 15 falling on a Friday, such as a concert in Market Square and a dinner theatre event called “Soldiers and Sailors.” In City Hall’s Memorial Hall, dinner guests were served roast beef and Yorkshire pudding—a meal fit for citizens of the 1840s—and watched vignettes about the lives of soldiers and sailors in capital-era Kingston, Gillespie said.

Many of the events during the day were designed with school groups in mind, she added.

“The whole day is programmed to be educating and as educational as possible,” she said.

The planning committee picked events for the day of June 15 that would appeal to children while offering them a chance to learn.

For most of the morning and early afternoon, Market Square was filled with demonstrations from a blacksmith, a rope-maker, some soldiers and a medicine man, as well as old-time and contemporary vendors.

Chris McMullan, ArtSci ’07, and Greg Nonato, ArtSci ’08, work at Fort Henry as military interpreters during the summer and came to Market Square to show visitors what military life was like in the 1840s.

“We work at Fort Henry and this is such a historical event so they want historical representatives,” McMullan said.

Nonato said demonstrations like his are important to remind people of the city’s past.

“It definitely benefits Kingston because it’s a very historical city. This was an important place,” he said.

Kids could try on miniature soldier uniforms and the Fort Henry Guard members put them through drills using wooden muskets.

“We try to incorporate as many historical things as possible,” Nonato said. “It shows them an important part of town life.” Although it can be tough to give a quick history lesson to young children, he said, they try to impart some understanding of Kingston’s heritage. “The wooden rifles draw them in and hopefully they come away with something.” First Capital Days also includes different tours around Kingston, such as the Old Stones Loyalist Day Walking Tour, St. George’s Cathedral Tours and the Museum of Health Care’s First Parliament Walking Tour, which is new this year.

The museum normally gives tours around Kingston General Hospital and added a special tour for First Capital Days to teach visitors about the role the hospital played during Kingston’s capital era.

Originally built during the cholera epidemics in Kingston in the early 1830s, the hospital lacked sufficient funds to continue operating when Kingston became capital, the tour explains.

Lord Sydenham and the members of the assembly and legislative council needed a place to meet and so rooms in the main hospital building were renovated to suit their legislative needs.

For £300 a year, Canada’s government worked out of the hospital buildings.

When the government left Kingston several years later, the hospital had gathered enough money in rent to renovate the hospital and begin serving the public once again.

Many visitors and Kingston citizens are surprised to find that the hospital, not City Hall, was the provincial legislative building at the time, Coleman said. City Hall wasn’t completed until 1843, just before legislators decided to move the capital away from Kingston.

“It’s hard to get rid of the myth,” Coleman said. “People still can’t believe it was built as a City Hall only.” However, the building does owe its grandeur to Kingston’s former title of capital. “A building like that wouldn’t have even been thought of if it weren’t the capital,” Coleman said.

City officials did offer the building to the newly formed provincial government on numerous occasions, partly because the building was indeed too grandiose for a town the size of Kingston. The building was too large to house the small municipal government and for a time housed merchants and taverns. The hall was designed by George Brown, a prominent architect of the time, Coleman said.

Among other properties in Kingston, Brown also designed renovations to Alwington House—Lord Sydenham’s residence, which burned down in the 1950s—and an addition to what is now S&R Department Store.

“[Brown] was a pretty major figure but he left, of course, when the capital moved,” Coleman said.

Kingston property lost much of its value to the point that some people eventually went bankrupt, he added.

The town was still growing during the three years it was capital, trying to fit into the prestigious role Sydenham had bestowed upon it.

Kingston stumbled temporarily when it lost its capital status before it could fully assert itself as a leader among Canadian cities. The growth of Queen’s, the introduction of the Royal Military College in 1874 and the city’s importance as a port along the St. Lawrence, however, helped the city grow.

Except for a few buildings still standing, Kingston today is nothing like Kingston, the capital of the newly united province of Canada. But with the annual tradition of First Capital Days, Coleman said, Kingston residents can remember and honour the brief time their city spent as the focal point of a nation.

Join in on First Capital Days activities

First Parliament Walking Tours depart daily at 12:30 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. from the Museum of Health Care. Admission: $3

On Thursday, free horse-drawn wagon rides are available from Market Square from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and stick around after the sun sets when a showing of Ghostbusters kicks off the summer movie night series in Market Square.

For more events, visit firstcapitaldays.ca.

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