Submitted by Christine Whelan
Oct 14th, 2021, VOL. 3 ISSUE 4
The plaque to commemorate the once hidden battle that took place June 2, 1866, right after the well-documented Fenian Raid in Ridgeway, at the docks along with the Niagara Region, can now be seen in the Niagara Parks area, along the trail, in the middle of where the battle took place.
June E. Chipp, historian, member of the Bertie Historical Society and author of Duty and Honour: The Stand Against the Fenians in Fort Erie had connected with family members of Walter T. Robb, the Captain of the W.T. Robb, the tugboat that brought the Dunnville area citizens, who stood up and learned to fight, to Fort Erie by Lake Erie, then up the Niagara River, and to the docks.
Kathy Robb of Orangeville, her sister Bev Bouwmeester and her husband Tony of Spruce Grove, Alberta were in Ontario visiting family. While here, they came to Fort Erie to visit the plaque. Kathy and Bev are the great, great-granddaughters of Captain Walter T. Robb, Captain of the boat.
Sharon Dell, June Chipp, and Rick Doan of the Bertie Historical Society made plans to meet with them Monday, October 4th to see the plaque and tell the story. I felt honoured, they invited me.
We met at the plaque. After introductions, we read the plaque.
Bev explained, “Kathy and I were both born in Orangeville and our grandfather was Judge Walter T. Robb. So, it would go back through his family line.”
Tony added, “We’ve been down to Dunnville quite a few times, to go through the cemetery,” where Judge Walter T. Robb was buried.
“It goes back a few generations.”
The group split off into smaller groups of two and three, all around the plaque. At times, there would be a turn and referral to the plaque, a finger pointed. Questions were asked. Descriptions were provided. There was discussion and sometimes calm debate on the different details that have been documented and told, gathering the dots and attempting to connect them.
“Robb’s orders from Dennis were, if it gets too hot, save the 57 prisoners and the boat. There was no order to stand by and save the men because he wanted those prisoners for a prize.”
June and Sharon were referring to Colonel Dennis, who had, according to the hidden documents, deserted the scene and the men who trusted him.
“Robb could have obeyed his orders and gone right back to Port Colborne,” but he did everything he could to get the men back on the boat.
June and Sharon shared details, painting a picture of the hero whose descendants traveled quite a distance to get to know through storytelling, pointing to the river, then down the Niagara Boulevard, pivoting around while describing the scene and gesturing up the hill where Murray Street is.
“He did everything right. He backed up when he couldn’t help anymore.”
“They shot from the boat.”
“It was like a gauntlet because they were being shot at as they were leaving down the river.”
“Robb was shot at, and grazed.”
A perfect example of history lives on.
The story was told, Captain Robb died two years after the battle. He was out fishing in Lake Erie off Long Point with his brother and they both drown. This sparked a recent revelation.
Kathy shared enthusiastically with the group, “Yes, I found out about the drowning recently, and you know what? When we were children, our grandfather made sure we all took swimming lessons, because, he said, someone, he knew had drowned. So now, this makes sense.”
Bev and Tony’s oldest son Jason is really interested in the family tree. Tony explained, Jason takes this genealogical research very seriously. He accepts no details unless it’s backed up with official documentation. “This way, he keeps it authentic.”
June led the group on a tour, from the docks on the other side of the marina to the empty space where the Ontario Bakery recently went down. At the time of the Fenian Raid, that building was the J.W. Lewis House.
A handful of topics arose during the tour, woven in with June’s storytelling.
So many ‘Walters’! This was an issue that was brought up. The group talked about how nice it is to name children after family members, especially when in memory. But then, later on, their descendants have such a difficult time keeping them separated in their records.
Sharon and June shared the lifeline of the W.T. Robb tugboat until its final resting place. The top was changed to make it an excursion boat in Toronto. Then it was used as a beach house on a beach in Toronto. When it sunk, it was dragged through the sand and made into a breakwater. It ended up just rotting right there.
As we approach Remembrance Day, we are reminded that among the memories of those who sacrificed for our freedom, are those we have yet to get to know. The story of the battle of the docks, swept under the rug from public knowledge, now for all to know and learn from, is just a tiny piece, a nugget of awareness, we all can benefit from these days.
Photos provided by Christine Whelan