During an early autumn motorcycle trip out to the Niagara Parkway I stumbled onto the Ridgeway Battlefield Site.
Today, it’s a National Historic Site of Canada and one of the more unique military attractions near Niagara Falls.
Personally, I’m a fan of the War of 1812 and all of the history surrounding that. Of course I was interested in the Battle of Ridgeway Park when I passed by.
At first I was surprised by the quality and detail put into the signage and facilities here at the park.
In this post we’ll take a look at what you can expect visiting the Ridgeway Battlefield Site and a quick primer on the Fenian history here in Ontario.
Who Are the Fenians?
The Fenians were members of different Irish nationalist organizations in the UK, Canada, and the United States.
The group became popular with the rise of the push for Irish independence from the British.
They didn’t hold any grudges against Canadians personally and their aim was to push Britain into granting Ireland their own independence.
The name “Fenian” was coined by their own founder, John O’Mahony, after the ancient Irish warriors known as the “Fianna Eirionn”.
For the most part, the Fenian’s were made up of veterans and young Irishman with an intense sense of nationalist pride.
The outcome of the Fenian raids in Canada lead to the provinces joining together in a confederation. This would lead to forming the Dominion of Canada in 1867.
What Happened at the Battle of Ridgeway?
The Battle of Ridgeway is an interesting and important part of Canadian history.
On June 1st 1866, a group of Fenian raiders crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo.
These were mostly Irish-American veterans of the U.S. Civil War and had the experience to launch a small-scale attack on Canada.
Their goal was to force Britain to give Ireland its independence. The Fenians weren’t interested in capturing Canada.
Instead they were hoping to succeed by inciting violence and scaring the local population.
There was no resistance as they crossed the Niagara River with more than 1,300 men landing near Fort Erie.
At this point the Canadians were aware of the invasion. A few militias were quickly put together to defend against the Fenians.
On the morning of June 2nd the Fenians assumed a defensive position on a Limestone Ridge, close to the small town of Ridgeway.
Nearly nine hundred Canadian militia from Toronto, Hamilton, Caledonia, and York marched against the Fenians to start the battle.
Throughout the day skirmishes were fought in the area with cavalry charges, riflemen attacks, and hand-to-hand guerrilla combat taking place.
Unfortunately, the Canadian militia was poorly trained. Key mistakes were made that lead to the Fenians capturing the small town of Ridgeway.
Expecting British reinforcements to arrive shortly, the Fenians gave up Ridgeway after a few hours and retreated back to Fort Erie.
Another battle took place, the Battle of Fort Erie, with the small group of Canadian militiamen holding the town against the Fenians.
Despite their quick victories and overwhelming force at the beginning of the battles, the Fenian’s were left with no choice but to return back to the United States. A larger force of British and Canadian’s were quickly approaching.
Upon arriving back in the US more than 850 Fenians were arrested by the American authorities.
The Canadians and British Army were prevented by American gunboats from retaliating.
The Outcome of the Battle of Ridgeway
If it weren’t for the Fenians it’s doubtful that Canada would have become a confederation just over a year later.
Politicians and local newspapers greatly exaggerated the Canadian defeat at Ridgeway.
There were countless claims that Canadians or unable to defend themselves without relying heavily on the British army for support.
The easy Canadian defeat at Ridgeway added a great amount of shame to Canadian national military heritage. It took almost 25 years for the Canadian government to recognize the veterans of the battle and praise them for so graciously defending the country.
The immediate need for local defense and increased Canadian nationalism lead to the Confederation be negotiated.
The results? The Dominion of Canada being created on July 1st, 1867 – unity among all of the provinces for the first time in Canadian history.
The Battle of Ridgeway is one of the most important parts of Canadian history. This event truly defined the path for Canada to take moving forward in the future.
Ridgeway Park and the Ridgeway Battlefield National Historical Site
You can find the Ridgeway Battlefield Site on Highway 3 just outside of Fort Erie.
The park is located in Ridgeway, Ontario on Garrison Road.
Visiting the park you’ll find a number of outdoor interpretive panels that share the history of the Fenian Raids.
These panels explain the reasons of the raids, the different government responses, and the final outcome that these raids had on Canada.
To be honest, I had not even heard about the Fenian’s until I happened on this park.
It’s incredible to me that such a key piece of Canadian history can go unnoticed and unheard of by so many Canadians.
Some of the other highlights of the park include:
- A commemorative cairn with information about the raids and a plaque dedicated to the soldiers that perished during the attack
- A series of period paintings that give a visual account of the battle
- Interpretive signs and a covered gazebo for picnics and relaxing
Tips for Visiting + More Information
Those of you interested in learning more about the Battle of Ridgeway will want to pay a visit to the local historical Museum.
The museum is located at 402 Ridge Road and provides a lot more insight into the Fenian Raids.
The impressive historic Fort Erie is located nearby – definitely worth a visit as well if you’re interested in War of 1812 history.
Parking at the site is free although you will want to be careful turning off of the highway into the park (there is high-speed traffic going by).
Don’t forget to check out the large mausoleum next door. This mausoleum is dedicated to the soldiers and veterans from the battle.
There aren’t any facilities nearby although Fort Erie and Niagara Falls are a short drive away.