Thursday, July 2, 2015

Celebrating Canada Day - a different way

I'm taking a bit of a departure from my arts reporting duties for a few words about this interesting part of the world we live in.  With Canada Day now done, I thought I'd write about what we did yesterday on both sides of the border to celebrate this great country we call home.

In past years, my far better half and I have gone to Niagara-on-the-Lake to window shop, relax in Simcoe Park and just hang out until the parade comes along with the annual Canada Day cake created by Willow Cakes & Pastries.  As enjoyable as that experience is every year, we decided to do something a little different this year.

About mid-afternoon we drove down to Fort Erie for a wander around the Niagara Parkway, and stopped at Old Fort Erie to take the tour.  This is the first time either of us had actually taken the time to see what the fort was all about, and it was time well spent.

Once you get past the grand new visitor's centre and gift shop in the lobby, uniformed staff take you on a guided tour of the Fort, restored back in 1937 after lying in ruins for years.  It was both fun and heartbreaking to hear how soldiers lived back during the war of 1812 and just how many never made it to the end of the war.

A lot of this is well-known now, of course, thanks to the fine work of historians and the 1812 Bicentennial Committee, but you really have to see and experience it for yourself to really appreciate what life was like back then.  Life was not easy, let me tell you.

The guided tour takes about an hour and is very informative.  Adult admission is $12 and worth every penny.

Even though the weather was sketchy down in Fort Erie late in the afternoon, we stayed at the Fort for a picnic in the enclosed area near the Niagara River Parkway, enjoying the view across the way with the fascinating Buffalo skyline beckoning.

Buffalo didn't have to beckon for long, though.  We have fallen in love with the Queen City the last few years, and in fact I plan to write about the Buffalo renaissance later this summer in this space.  But for now, let's talk about the reason for our visit yesterday evening.

Worry about the traffic on the Peace Bridge was quickly eradicated with about a 30-second wait to clear customs on the U.S. side, which amazed me for a public holiday in Canada.  Once over, we headed down I-90 South, taking the Smith Street exit and landing in a part of Buffalo that has clearly seen better days.  But there was a reason we were there.

Sophie had heard about a talk being given by Port Colborne historian and former teacher Erno Rossi on the history of Crystal Beach Amusement Park, which everyone in Niagara knows was THE place to be in the summer months until it closed after the 1989 season.

The talk, oddly enough, was at the Buffalo Steel Plant Museum at 100 Lee Street.  To get to Lee Street you take Elk over a long line of railway tracks and drive past the sad remains of the Bethlehem Steel plant, which closed for good in 1982.  The vacant building epitomizes all that went wrong in Buffalo over the many decades of the 20th Century when industrial plants moved out of the Buffalo area.

But once you enter the back entrance at the museum, you are greeted by friendly staff proud to show off their steel and railway heritage.  The museum houses a steel plant exhibition in one half and a railway exhibition in the other.  Also tucked away in the corner is a nod to the Wurlitzer plant that used to operate in Buffalo years ago as well.

We were ushered into the meeting room and there, Erno spoke at length about the long-lamented Crystal Beach Amusement Park, with slides and stories of the iconic playground familiar to generations of Canadians and Americans alike.  We also got to view a film that puts you in the front seat of a car on the Comet rollercoaster.  I don't know if I would have survived a ride on the real thing, though...

Erno worked at the park years ago and had many colourful recollections to offer, as did many of the audience members in attendance.  No matter how much you know about Crystal Beach, someone else has a nugget of information you probably didn't know before.

I never visited the park, sadly.  I moved to Niagara in 1981 and always said I would go down one summer but didn't make it until I was in Ridgeway on a business appointment in the summer of 1989, and decided afterwards to take the drive down through Crystal Beach.  The park was in full swing that afternoon, but I decided I would come back some other time for a proper visit.  That of course never came, as the park was closed for good at the end of the 1989 season.

Now all that's left are the memories, but what great memories they are!

Erno wrote a book on the park and has a DVD available as well, and you can find him on Facebook if you want more information on getting a copy of either.

After the talk, we made the drive back over the Peace Bridge, again encountering not a bit of traffic, and drove around some of the more interesting parts of Fort Erie.  I always marvel at the sight of both countries separated by the Niagara River, and think of the battles waged so many years ago.

The evening ended with a visit to lovely Ridgeway, one of our favourite destinations in south Niagara, and a late-evening dinner at Ridgeways on the main street.  This is one of the best-kept secrets in Niagara:  the food is good and well-priced, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, and you just feel good when you go there.  Give them a try if you have not been yet!

All in all, it was an interesting Canada Day, but one I will long remember.  We live in such a great part of the country here, steeped in history and full of natural beauty everywhere you turn.  It's so nice to stop working for a bit and just take it all in.

Hope you had a great Canada Day!

July 2nd, 2015.

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