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The Battle at Fort Erie Docks: A Story Almost Lost

Submitted by Christine Whelan

Sept 16th, 2021, VOL. 3 ISSUE 2

They had come over the river, to a dock at the end of what is now Bowen Road, along what is now called the Niagara Boulevard the night before the infamous Battle of Ridgeway. They slept, got up, headed south to the village of Fort Erie, and made the townspeople make them breakfast before they took the back way, through the Black Creek area, to Ridgeway.

It was after that morning, the morning of June 2, 1866, that the Fenians returned to Fort Erie and the battle at the docks. The Fenians were retreating and were surprised to be faced with a line of ready and waiting, everyday citizens — standing up and ready to fight.

June Chipp, author, historian, and member of the Bertie Historical Society worked with Niagara Parks to obtain a plaque describing The Battle at Fort Erie Docks. This plaque will be placed on Niagara Parks property, in the location of the battle. It was unveiled on Saturday, August 28th at Historic Fort Erie with a ceremony. 

Sharon Dell, President of the Bertie Historical Society and member of the Plaque Committee recited the incredible story behind the plaque with wonderful detail. It’s a story that was almost buried forever.

The Building of the Brigade

Sharon began with, “I wanted to first tell you about the boat that came to the Fort Erie docks. The boat that came from Dunnville. It’s called the W.T. Robb. It was, reportedly, the strongest, the most serviceable, and one of the swiftest boats on the Upper Great Lakes.

“Now, this boat was owned by a Dunnville businessman by the name of Lachlan McCollum. He owned a fleet of tugboats for towing grain and lumber on the Feeder Canal and on Lake Erie. The Feeder Canal goes from the Welland Canal to Dunnville.”

She explained, he had a business towing the grains and lumber. “There were marauders and pirates at that time, in the 1860s. He worried about protecting his tug and all that was on those tugs. So in 1863, he formed the Dunnville Naval Brigade to protect his shipments from these pirates and marauders. This brigade was made up of his friends and his neighbours. They were farmers, merchants, foundry owners, customs officers and more. He equipped them on the W.T. Robb with arms and ammunition.”

The Fenian Raid and the W.T. Robb

In 1866, there were rumours of the Fenian Invasion. McCollum offered his tug. He wrote to the military and offered himself, his tug, and his men in defense of the country.

“In June, they were called. They were to serve. So, the W.T. Robb left Dunnville early in the morning and arrived in Port Colborne at dawn. They were joined with another group of volunteers, the Welland Canal Field Battery, under Captain King, who was a respected physician from Port Robinson. And all of those men were citizens, soldiers, local farmers, friends of Captain King, and neighbours all around Port Robinson. They were trained, drilled, and given guns.”

Sharon continued, “To Port Colborne, also on the boat, came Colonel Akers and Colonel Dennis. They heard about the plans that the boat was going to patrol the Niagara River, securing the shoreline. So, they both boarded on the boat and Colonel Dennis decided to take command.” In total, onboard, there were 98 men.

“They arrived in Fort Erie. It was a beautiful, quiet village (what we now call the south end); a quiet morning. Many of the citizens had left town.”

When asked why many of the citizens had left town, Dell explained, “When the Fenians started going back to Fort Erie (after the battle in Ridgeway), walking down Garrison Road, there was an old soldier from the War of 1812 who lived on Garrison Road. When he saw all these soldiers walk by — and there were hundreds — he went across country, getting to the village before the Fenians like Paul Revere yelling, ‘The Fenians are coming! The Fenians are coming!’ So there was some warning.” And the townspeople got outta Dodge, so to speak.

“The group on the tugboat disembarked and patrolled the shoreline. Along the way, they arrested some Fenian stragglers and they took them aboard as prisoners. They were Fenians who had been drinking the night before and never woke up in time to keep up with the others.”

“When Colonel Dennis heard the Fenians were coming he, taking the lead, lined the men up in formation, along the Niagara River. Captain McCollum didn’t like this. He argued that it would be best if they went back on the boat. It would be safer. Colonel Dennis then allowed them to get back on the tugboat. Then he changed his mind, once again, and made them disembark.” Sharon added that he was mixed up, confused.

“Between the river and the hill was a very dangerous position for the men to be in and they knew it. Captain King told his men, ‘It’s gonna be tough, but it’s our duty’.

“Suddenly, they were being flanked by, I’ve seen anywhere from 400 to 800 Fenians in documentation, some from along the river and others from down the hill.” The Fenians were retreating. They were heading back, over the river because they weren’t getting the shipment of more supplies they needed in Ridgeway. That was being blocked from coming over the river.

The Battle At the Docks

The Fenians were not expecting this group of people at the river. And the guys at the river were not expecting this either. They were just down there picking up some stragglers and patrolling up and down the river.

“Colonel Dennis was just standing there and everyone else was waiting for him to take charge, to order them to start shooting. But, Colonel Dennis was so nervous and confused, seeing what was happening, he was not giving the orders.” He froze.

“So, Captain McCollum took over and gave them the order.” That’s when everybody started fighting.

“Colonel Dennis ran away before the first shot was fired. He hid in a barn. He shaved off his muttonchops and mustache, which was distinct, changed into a farmer’s clothes, and made his escape. He had befriended that farmer somehow to help him pull this off.”

She added, “According to June’s notes, several Fenians were killed. Six Canadians in total were wounded, three lost their legs.”

A Story Lost in History

“The story was totally forgotten, lost in history.” There’s a reason for this.

“At the battle, this Colonel Dennis, a militiaman from Toronto, was charged by the two Captains with desertion in the face of the enemy. So, there was an inquiry, like a court-martial, and it was held in Fort Erie. It went on for three months. There were fifty witnesses. The enquiry was in a closed session and afterward, the testimony was not allowed to be published. The whole thing was kept quiet.

“But these two Captains didn’t give up fighting this because they felt it just wasn’t right. This should be known. The one captain from Dunnville, Captain McCollum, who owned the boat, became an MPP. John A. MacDonald was the Prime Minister for the very first government. MacDonald believed it was not good for the public to know about this embarrassment. However, a lot of the local MPPs wanted it known and they fought for it, but it was just swept under and never seen again.”

Years later, “But the documents were in the archives, and they’ve been there for 150 years. Peter Vronsky who was researching for his book on the Battle of Ridgeway and found the documents, made copies of it with a camera, taking photos of each page.

“When June Chipp was doing her research for her book, she found Peter’s pictures of the documents, transcribed everything, and included it all in her book, Duty and Honour: The Stand Against the Fenians in Fort Erie. Now people can read all about the court case that was closed away.”

The Plaque

In 2015, a retired Colonel Smyfrom Fort Erie wrote to the Ministry of Defense and the Minister of Heritage. He wanted a cairn to be erected on the Niagara Parkway to mark the site of the battle. He noted that there is a cairn at Ridgeway for the Battle of Ridgeway but there was nothing at Fort Erie and he asked that it could be unveiled for the 150th anniversary of the battle, which would have been in 2016. His request was ignored. He passed away not long after that without being able to see his wish for the marker fulfilled.

“June has continued this with the Bertie Historical Society. We started tours on the Niagara River, walking tours, in 2019 to raise awareness. The Niagara Parks agreed to do an interpretive panel and we (BHS) designed it in collaboration with the Niagara Parks. We planned to unveil in June of 2020 but COVID stopped it, so the project was resurrected in 2021.

“We unveiled the plaque at the Old Fort on August 28th. Niagara Parks has it now. It will be placed along the Niagara River, at the spot where the docks were. The fighting took place on the street, on the Niagara Boulevard at Murray Street, at the Catharine Street dock, and the old hotel, which later became the Ontario Bakery. The dock is just north of the south end, after the restaurants. Where there is a boat launch area today, that’s where the dock was located.”

This connects to the historical story around the building that became the Ontario Bakery. At the time of the Fenian Invasion, this building was the J.W. Lewis House.

Sharon ended the story with, “The Battle of Ridgeway was the beginning of Canada. We realized we needed to have our own government. So, this battle was one of the bricks that led to the formation of Canada.”

About the Bertie Historical Society

“One of our objectives is to tell the story of the town.”

They meet once a month at the Crystal Ridge Library. “Every meeting, we try to have something historical so whoever attends is always learning.”

The society has been around for 51 years. “When they started, there were over 200 members. So many people were interested. It has gradually gone down and I think we have about 40 members now.”

The Bertie Historical Society started the Fort Erie Museum (on Ridge Rd. N), which is now run by the Town.

When asked if they are looking for new members, “We haven’t been for two years because of the pandemic but yes, we welcome new people.”

If you are interested, you can contact Sharon by email: sdell@becon.org

Provided by Rick Doan, photographer of the Bertie Historical Society

1 – Unveiling Ceremony – In this photo, the persons shown are, from left to right, April Jeffs – vice-chair Niagara Parks Commission, Tony Baldinelli – MP, June Chipp – member Bertie Historical Society, Mayor Wayne Redekop (partially hidden), Peter Cotton – Legion bagpiper, Sharon Dell – president Bertie Historical Society, Wayne Gates – MPP.

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