History of Kingston, Ontario



There is an enduring Canadian folk song from the 1960s,
written by Gordon Lightfoot, titled The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.

The refrain captures the natural essence of our country,
less than 300 years ago:

There was a time in this fair land,
When the railroad did not run…
When the wild majestic mountains
Stood alone before the sun,
Long before the white man
And long before the wheel…
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real.

The green dark forest truly was too silent to be real, once upon a time.
While sitting in traffic gridlock on the causeway on a Friday afternoon during Kingston’s rush hour, it  is difficult for anyone to imagine that this was all aboriginal land, not very long ago. When British soldiers first came here in the 1700s, the ancient forests just north of us, along where the Rideau Canal is situated now, had hickory trees about 18 feet in diameter, as well as giant cedars, bur oak , and American wild plums, eaten as a delicacy by aboriginals as late as 1780. There was a canopy of lichen moss floating in the wind above the trees. It was so thick that the forest was dark at mid-day. There were porcupines as large as dogs… quite a shock for the redcoats used to seeing little hedgehogs scampering for cover in England. The grass was about 14 feet tall. Songbirds darkened the sky as they settled in the evening. If the truth be told, the British soldiers were sometimes afraid to go into the forests, fearing that they might not come out again. With good reason. This was wilderness in the 18th century.

About 500 CE to 1600
The First Nations settlements existed here from the late middle Woodland Era to first European contact.
The French were the first European explorers into this area. Samuel de Champlain travelled along the Ottawa River and named the Rideau Falls, “rideau” meaning “curtain” en francais.
Count Frontenac established a presence in Cataraqui. Fort Frontenac was built in 1680, with some of the foundation stones still visible adjacent to the Rogers KRock Centre. This served as a fur trading depot for the Mississauga and Mohawk Indians
Madeleine de Roybon D’Allone (1646 – 1718), from royal ancestry in France, was the first woman to own land in Ontario. She arrived at Fort Frontenac and acquired property from Rene Robert Cavelier de La Salle, the governor, extending westward from Collin’s Bay. Angry Iroquios destroyed her home and took her captive in 1687. After her release, she lived in Montreal until her death.
The British captured Fort Frontenac, and the Mississauga Chief Mynas transferred the title for 11 townships in Leeds to the British in exchange for clothing for his family for life. The British started surveying the land.
The American Colonies waged their War of Independence from the British and won. But this displaced many people still holding loyal allegiance to the British crown, mostly well-established farmers, mercantiles and tradespeople. These were the United Empire Loyalists, many of whom arrived in the Kingston region, over land and river, as refugees, in 1783 and 1784. They were Americans with solid British ancestry.
The United Empire loyalists were the first settlers of European origin to come to this area and stay. Kingston Mill was built by the British government to serve the UEL to meet grist and sawing needs. The establishing families included the Calvins, the Richardsons, the Crothers, the Livingstons, the Mowats, the Campbells and the Macdonalds.
The Kingston Royal Navy Dockyard was established on Point Frederick , the nearly 50 acre peninsula that stretches just to the east of Kingston.
The first St. George’s Anglican Church was built of wood,  later replaced by a cathedral.
The first Kingston Market was established to serve local farmers. The land around Picton was good for farming. The land north of Kingston was very poor, which was very disappointing. The hinterland for trade did not materialize as expected.
War broke out between the British and Americans. The Canadian colonies were at war with their neighbours south of the border … just across the lake and river from Kingston.  Kingston was seen as a strategic location to control the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario. Fort Henry was built as a wooden blockade and stockade. British troops would be in residence there until 1870, making Kingston a very military town. The fort became obsolete in 1867, the year that Canada became an independent dominion.
The first steamboat, the Steam Ship Frontenac was built in Kingston. Tenders were called for the building of the Rideau Canal to connect Kingston to Ottawa, so that supplies would not have to go down the St. Lawrence River along the American Border. Garden Island, just off of Kingston became a ship building centre because of the good lumber that was available there.
The Stone Frigate building was erected by The Royal Navy for storage purposes close to Fort Henry at Point Frederick. This was where the Royal Navy Dockyards were constructed. 11 ships were built here. It was later used as a barracks during the Rebellion of 1837 when citizens of Upper Canada, the first name for Ontario, protested against colonial authority and moved toward self-governance.  This building later housed the first classroom of the Royal Military College when it opened in 1876.
The stone construction of St. George’s Anglican Church was started.
1826 to 1832
Over 1,000 people died building the Rideau Canal, mostly Irish immigrants. This is because of malaria which was a disease imported by the British soldiers who carried the disease in their blood from previous postings in India and Africa.  There were also accidents, parasites, frostbite, drownings, small pox and workers being kicked to death by malnourished and unruly horses.
Morton’s distillery, at the waterfront site of the Tett Centre on King Street, was the largest in Upper Canada.
Kingston had 3,500 residents. A cholera epidemic that lasted 2 years took 10% of the population
The first penitentiary in Kingston was begun to be built by its own prisoners.
Kingston was incorporated as a town. Many pioneering settlers from Europe travelled up the St. Lawrence and stopped in Kingston before heading to the wilderness properties given to them for farming by the government of the day. Kingston was a travel hub.
There was a great fire in Kingston that destroyed much of the wooden town.  This spurred the city to rebuild with stone (limestone) and several monuments, including our City Hall, built in 1843-1844, were designed by George Browne
Kingston was declared the First Capital of the United Provinces of Canada and was so until 1844. Parliament met at the Kingston General Hospital building. Queen’s University was founded as a theological college. The stone building (later known as the S&R department store) was constructed on Store Street, later called Princess Street. The building was also designed by the architect George Browne and became a piano factory.
Charles Dickens, the famous English writer stayed for 3 days in May and wrote in an American newspaper: “Kingston, now the seat of government in Canada, is a very poor town, rendered still poorer in appearance of its marketplace by the ravages of a recent fire. In deed, it may be said of Kingston, that one half of it appears to be burnt down, and the other half not to be built up”.
A trip from Kingston to Ottawa along the Rideau Canal could take up to 8 days because of sludge in the water, hidden tree stumps and floating logs. St. Mary’s Catholic cathedral was started, leading to some sectarian violence in the streets of Kingston by the anti-papists.
St. Paul’s Anglican Church was built in the memory of Rev. Robert Cartwright at the corner of Queen and Montreal Streets. The cemetery became the burial ground for UEL settlers, as well as the final resting place for the Mohawk matriarch, Molly Brant.
A typhus epidemic took thousands of people in Kingston who had emigrated to  Canada to flee the potato famine in Ireland. Modern medicine for treating infections was not known.
A work house was opened for widows, orphans and the elderly disabled.
“Unchaste women with fatherless children” were not allowed to enter.
The women of Kingston, led by Harriet Dobbs Cartwright, formally opened a hospital, and laid the cornerstone of the Kingston General Hospital. The building was actually completed in 1835 and so there was a stone portion of the hospital ready for use of the Parliament.  Patient care started in 1838 as there was no money to run the hospital  for the first three years.  The first patients were 20 wounded in the Battle of the Windmill during the Rebellion in 1837.
The Royal Navy Dockyard was closed
The Grand Trunk Railway connected Toronto, Kingston and Montreal.
Lord Sydenham, the Governor General of the United Canadas, fell from his horse while visiting a lady of leisure along Front Street, close to the present day Tett Centre, and was buried under the nave of St. George’s Anglican Church, in spite of the fact that he left church one day after a particularly boring sermon, and said he would never return.
The County Courthouse was built.
Kingston had 37 taverns on Ontario street, 9 on Wellington, 14 on King, 20 on Princess Street, 12 on Johnson, and 19 around the market square. There were another 61 throughout the town, including two inside of City Hall. This was a “well lubricated” military, academic and political town in mid-Victorian times. There were many houses of questionable repute offering frequent hospitality, across the street from the Bishop’s home, and a stone’s throw from St. George’s Anglican Church. Queen Victoria would not have been amused. Opportunities to enjoy “wine, women and song” were more than plentiful in this rugged colonial town. However, in another part of the community, around the present day corner of Clergy and Princess Streets, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church stood as a firm stone bastion of proper Scottish industriousness, service, obedience, order and temperance.
The Prince of Wales tried to visit Kingston, which had been decorated for the occasion, but was unsuccessful. His ship could not dock because of a parade of unruly Irish protesters. People came to the waterfront to see the Prince amid a flotilla of boats.
1861 to 1865
Americans were engaged in their great civil war, with slavery being a major issue between the industrial North and plantation-based South. Upper Canadians, including Kingstonians, were nervous about what was happening south of the border. Many displaced persons from the conflict in the southern states escaped to Canada, often finding refuge with descendants of the United Empire Loyalists. Slavery had been abolished here by the UEL settlers in the 1790s.
St. George’s Anglican Curch became a Cathedral.  The Right Reverend John Travers Lewis became the first bishop of the newly established Diocese of Ontario.
Canada was confederated as an independent Dominion, with John A. Macdonald, a feisty Scottish lawyer and skilled orator from Kingston as its first Prime Minister. He was also known to enjoy a drink, as did many Victorian gentlemen. His favourite haunt was the hotel owned by Mrs. Eliza Grimason, an ardent political supporter and friend. This famous estalishment now exists as the Royal Tavern.
The Kingston and Pembroke Railway (K&PR) was incorporated to run north to gain access to logging and mining resources.  It took many years to complete to Renfrew.
Kingston acquired a modern firehall near City Hall… now the Lone Star restaurant.
By Act of Parliament a Military College of Canada was established, and in 1876 the Military College of Canada opened its doors in Kingston at the sight of the old Navy Dockyard on Point Frederick.
The Military College grew and this year Queen Victoria granted the right to use the prefix “Royal” in its name. The Stone Frigate building became a dormitory.
Kingston’s first opera house opened, with entertainers in the future such as Sarah Bernhardt, Harry Houdini, Al Jolson, and Oscar Wilde. It was later to be called the Grand Theatre after a devastating fire in 1898 required reconstruction. The owner disappeared mysteriously the day after the theatre was sold in 1902 for $1,700,000, and was never seen again. His ghost is said to haunt the upper balcony of the theatre.
The K& P railway  was extended south to the Kingston waterfront, sharing track with the Grand Trunk Railway.  The station was built along with other terminal buildings.
Sir John A. Macdonald died in Ottawa. The funeral train brought him to Kingston to lie in state in Memorial Hall at City Hall before burial in the Cataraqui Cemetery.
The modern Whig newspaper building, an architectural masterpiece of red brick construction was built near Market Square and close to CIty Hall, lending a new ambience of urban sophistication, importance and purpose to the downtown area.
A statue in City Park was erected in the memory of Sir John A. Macdonald.
A disastrous fire gutted St. George’s Cathedral. It was rebuilt by 1901.
Queen Victoria passed away, ending the end of an era. The Edwardian era began, and the 20th century, with many dramatic advances in technology to come.
A grand hotel was proposed to enhance tourism in Kingston, The Chateau Rideau.
The celebrated Chicago architect, J. Palmer Graves, was to design an opulent chateau with all modern conveniences, similar to the Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC,  including facilities for motor cars. The chosen site would have required the dismantling of the Murney Tower, an historic military landmark.  After much protest by citizens and politicians, interest in the project waned. It was never built.
The Frontenac opened as a “gentleman’s club” on 225 King Street East.
The Gaskin Lion was moved to Macdonald Park.
The Calvin Company closed its shipbuilding activities on Garden Island.
The First World War commenced in Europe. Canada supported mother England. 399 Kingstonians immediately enlisted. Many fell in the major battles of this war. Beautiful stained glass windows would grace Kingston’s City Hall in 1921 in commemoration of their sacrifice. The windows are a special attraction to this day.
Grant Hall was converted into a military hospital on the Queen’s campus.
The La Salle Causeway was opened to replace the original  Penny Bridge.
End of the First World War, and the beginning of the modern age in Kingston.

To be continued…