Memories of Niagara

A joint Oral History Project from the Niagara Historical Society & Museum and the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library

The Villages of Niagara-on-the-Lake

The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake was amalgamated in 1970, encompassing the villages of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston, Virgil, St. Davids, Glendale, McNab and Homer; each with their own unique identities and histories.

Gerald Whittaker – The Village Fire Halls

Pat and Fred Connolly – Amalgamation (Audio Only)

Niagara-on-the-Lake – Old Town

Site of the Neutral village of Onghiara, the area was settled at the end of the American Revolution by United Empire Loyalists.

In 1781 the British Government purchased land along the Niagara River from the Mississaugas, and settlers began to clear the land.  In 1792, the town was named Newark and became the first capital of Upper Canada. The legislature met here for five sessions until Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe moved the capital to York in 1796. The town flourished as the economic and judicial hub for the Niagara Region until it was destroyed during the War of 1812.  Rebuilt, Niagara became an active commercial centre, with a bustling shipping and ship-building industry.

Today, Niagara-on-the-Lake attracts visitors from across Canada, the United States and the world.  Its many attractions include Fort George, the Niagara Historical Society Museum, the Shaw Festival, the marina, the heritage business district, golf courses, beautiful farmland, agricultural markets and world famous Niagara wineries

Sigmund Smith – Changes to Niagara-on-the-Lake (Audio Only)

Pat and Fred Connolly – Fixing Up Niagara-on-the-Lake (Audio Only)

Norm Howe – First Impressions of Niagara-on-the-Lake (Audio Only)

Henry Wiens – Attitudes About Niagara-on-the-Lake part 1 (Audio Only)

Henry Wiens – Attitudes About Niagara-on-the-Lake part 2 (Audio Only)

Gary Burroughs – First Impressions of Niagara-on-the-Lake (Audio Only)

Evelyn Campbell – Children in Niagara-on-the-Lake (Audio Only)

Virgil

Known as the Crossroads, Virgil is situated at the junction of Creek Road and Black Swamp Road (Highway 55). The roads were originally trails that were used by the Aboriginal People who lived and in the area. It was later established as a coach stop that connected it to the town of Newark and Homer. When the notoriously muddy road was graded and gravelled to be used by horse and buggy it became known as the Stone Road.

Once settled by United Empire Loyalists, The Crossroads was named Lawrenceville after George Lawrence, a prominent settler, in 1844. It was given the name of Virgil between 1862 and 1876.

Until the 20th century Virgil remained a very small community.  In the 1930s Peter Wall, a Mennonite developer, purchased several hundred acres, subdivided the land into 10-acre parcels, and resold it to Mennonite families looking for a place to settle. With hard work and frugal living they contributed to the blossoming fruit industry of the area.

The end of World War II brought an influx of immigrants from war torn Europe to   Virgil and the surrounding area. In the last few decades, new housing developments have brought young families. Today it is the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s centre of commerce and administration, providing many services and offices, two arenas, a sports park, three baseball diamonds, a skate park, as well as stores, garden centres and other amenities for its residents. It is well known for its fruit production and numerous wineries.

Klaus Reimers – Virgil in the 1950s (Audio Only)

Klaus Reimers – The Virgil Stampede (Audio Only)

John Wiens – Childhood in Virgil (Audio Only)

Henry Wiens – The Town of Virgil in the 1950s (Audio Only)

St. David’s

 St. David’s is located at the junction of two trails used by Aboriginal Peoples. One trail ran from Lake Ontario to the top of the Niagara Escarpment following the course of the Four Mile Creek. The other trail followed the base of the Escarpment that ran from Queenston to Burlington Bay. Four Mile Creek, with its steady supply of water from the Escarpment, made an ideal site for many Aboriginal communities.

Due to this valuable source of water Ontario’s first mill was built in St. David’s. Other mills, factories and breweries followed. Limestone, from the escarpment above St. David’s, was another important resource that was quarried and used to build some of Ontario’s fine civic buildings.

During the War of 1812 many battles were fought in the St. David’s area. It was taken by the Americans six times but regained by the British seven times. On July 19, 1814, the U.S. forces burned down the village, destroying some forty houses as well as other buildings before they were driven out. St. David’s was quickly rebuilt after the war. It grew to include a plough works, a saddlery and harness shop, three blacksmith shops, and a shoe factory.

Toward the end of the 19th century fruit farming, and the canning factory built to process the fruit from the surrounding orchards, became the important economic activity.

Today vineyards and wineries have replaced some of the orchards and the tourist industry has expanded.

McNab

McNab, also known as the Eight, was named after Colin and John McNab, who were granted 1800 acres along Eight Mile Creek by the Crown. It was originally referred to as McNab Point, most likely because of a large sand outcrop believed to have existed on the bank of Lake Ontario. The McNab home was often used as a stop – over for travelers who travelled from Newark to St. Catharines along the Lakeshore Road.

In 1853 the community built a church on land donated by William B. Servos. In the cemetery located beside the church many notable early citizens of Niagara are buried, and many roads nearby are named after them. The church, built from bricks made in the area, is still in good repair and serves as the centre of the community and is known for its summertime teas.

The Village had a public school that taught pupils in its vicinity until 1958. It also had a blacksmith shop, a grocery store, a hotel, and a post office.  From 1913 until 1931, McNab residents were able to take the electric streetcar to St. Catharines or to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

McNab was located in Grantham Township until 1961 when it became part of the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, while the land from Read Road to the Welland Canal became part of the City of St. Catharines.

The area surrounding the village of McNab consisted of farmland that slowly changed from mixed farming to fruit growing and viticulture.

Queenston

 Situated beneath the Niagara Escarpment along the Niagara River, the area was first settled in the 1770’s by United Empire Loyalists. Originally known as the “Lower Landing” it was named “Queenstown” by Lieut. Governor Simcoe. When a new portage around Niagara Falls was established in the 1780’s, with Queenston as its northern terminus, wharves, storehouses and a blockhouse were built. Robert Hamilton, a prominent merchant who operated a thriving trans-shipping business, is considered the founder of the village.

During the War of 1812, British, Mohawk and Canadian militia troops repelled an American invasion force at the Battle of Queenston Heights, one of the most important battles of the war.  American attackers crossed the river and scaled the cliffs to Queenston Heights, catching the British by surprise. British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock was killed in the battle. Overlooking the village of Queenston, an impressive stone monument was built atop the Niagara Escarpment to commemorate the victory and his death. The village was badly damaged during the war but was rebuilt afterwards and by the 1800’s it boasted thirteen inns and taverns.

Today, Queenston’s elegant, historic homes are a fine example of early 19th century architecture. The Laura Secord homestead, the Mackenzie Heritage Printery, the Riverbrink Art Museum as well as the monument to Sir Isaac Brock are places of historic interest to visit.

Ruth Boulton – Queenston (Audio Only)

Jonathan Kormos – Queenston Library and Community Association (Audio Only)

Jonathan Kormos – Queenston (Audio Only)

Earl Muir – Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake (Audio Only)

Homer

The village of Homer was originally known as Upper Ten Mile. It was located about a mile east and west of Ten Mile Creek along Queenston Road.

Homer was first settled by United Empire Loyalist William Read, who donated the land for a church and a cemetery in 1795. The village became an important coach stop in the 1800’s. In 1831 a school was built at Homer, and Richard Secord was its first teacher. By 1848 the village had a Post Office which named the village Homer in 1859.

Tom Brown, the owner of Brown’s Hotel, one of several hotels in the village, built a small, dirt racetrack just east of the village to pursue his interest in horse racing. The area became well known among horsemen, and eventually this small track was replaced with a modern racetrack named the Garden City Racetrack. Large stables lined either side of Glendale Avenue. The racetrack became the centre of nightlife in the area, where patrons could have dinner and watch a horse race.

The construction of the fourth Welland Canal in the 1920s divided the village in half. When the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) was constructed in 1939 business picked up once more but the building of the Garden City Skyway in 1963 to facilitate the movement of traffic along the QEW, sealed the fate of Homer. All that remains of the village today are St. George’s Anglican Church, now in its fourth location, the original cemetery, and the Homer Bridge over the Welland Canal.

Butch Grimwood – Homer (Audio Only)

4 thoughts on “The Villages of Niagara-on-the-Lake

  1. Looking for information on Railroad School in Niagara on the lake, around the early 1940’s Mr Fisher was the Principal and Mrs Laydman was the teacher of grades 1-3, apparently there was a newspaper article about Mr Fisher in Niagara on the lake paper several years ago.

  2. We live at Railroad School. Contact us at cam@cvlplan.ca

  3. Looking for the names of fruit canning factories near St. Catherines, Ontario, which were in operation in 1963

    • Hello Robyn,

      A book that may be helpful is the “The Way it was: My life story including a 40 year cannery career” by Joseph C. Rider.
      He speaks about several canning factories in the area. Unfortunately, we don’t have St. Catharines area information but we do have stuff for Niagara-on-the-Lake. I would contact the St. Catharines Museum for information on that community. For information on Niagara-on-the-Lake, please email contact@niagarahistorical.museum

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