LEWISTON – Cannon fire will thunder across the lower Niagara River against a background of dramatic martial music and fireworks in the world’s largest binational observance of the War of 1812, beginning at 7 p.m. Friday in the park on North Water Street in Lewiston.
The largest battery of 1812- period artillery ever assembled will “bombard” Canada in a nighttime cannonade commemorating the Oct. 13, 1812, Battle of Queenston Heights – one of the earliest and bloodiest battles of the War of 1812 between American troops and British troops, both sides with native allies.
Hundreds of re-enactors from across the United States and Canada will assemble at the launch site of the American assault on Queenston Heights and will participate in a variety of dramatic programs through the weekend.
The bombardment and weekend programs are free and open to the public, but strict no-parking rules will be in effect. Visitors are urged to use the Fourth Street parking lot at Artpark and take free shuttles back and forth to the re- enactment on the riverfront. Shuttle service begins at 5 p.m. Friday.
There will be no parking on Water Street or in the Water Street parking lots. Spectators, who should dress warmly, can bring their own lawn chairs and sit in the parking lots on North Water Street, across from the Silo restaurant.
“The Canadians have had Queenston re-enactments in the past, and will have them in the future, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime, binational event with American participation that won’t be replicated for another 100 years,” said Bruce Sutherland, president of the Historical Association of Lewiston.
Lee Simonson, volunteer director of the re-enactment on the U.S. side, said five cannons will be fired simultaneously Friday evening and again Saturday afternoon in an exhibition that will be coordinated with a similar display in Canada.
Friday’s half-hour program will conclude with the six-minute playing of the rousing 1812 Overture, often associated with the War of 1812 but actually composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to depict Napoleon’s retreat from Russia in 1812 – not America’s battles with the British.
The War of 1812, much of which played out along the Niagara Frontier, was a U.S. reaction to the British seizure of U.S. ships trading with France during the Napoleonic war. The British seized 4,000 naturalized U.S. sailors and armed Native Americans, who raided the western border of the relatively new nation.
Historians say the U.S. never intended to conquer any territory in neighboring Canada and that the attack on Queenston Heights was a defensive move to prevent the British from occupying the high ground overlooking the border there.
The attacking force, which embarked from Lewiston, was intended to consist of hundreds of soldiers from the regular Army and members of the New York militia, similar to today’s state National Guard. At the last minute, militia members refused to join the invaders, contending that their job was to defend the U.S., not to attack a foreign country.
Nevertheless, the Americans quickly occupied Queenston Heights, prompting the British to dispatch brilliant military leader Major Gen. Isaac Brock to dislodge the invaders. A young American sharpshooter killed the advancing Brock with two musket balls fired into his chest, and his body lies buried at the foot of the imposing Brock monument at Queenston Heights.
Brock’s successor, rallying a superior force, sent the Americans scurrying back across the river with staggering losses. Some reports say that more than 1,000 U.S. soldiers were taken prisoner in Queenston and hundreds of others were killed. Others say it was a strategic victory in which the United States came of age as a strong force determined to protect its interests on the world stage.
In the interest of safety, the cannon balls used in this weekend’s demonstrations will be non-explosive duds.
Friday evening’s cannonade will be preceded at 4 p.m. by an “Off to War” procession along Center Street as the cannons are manually conveyed from Academy Park to the riverfront. U.S. marines will escort re-enactors depicting then-President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, in a horse-drawn carriage.
The bombardment will be repeated at 3 p.m. Saturday from the upper parking lot and amphitheater at Artpark while a similar re-enactment takes place on the Canadian side of the river.
Among other events scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, viewers in Lewiston will be able to see fireworks set off at 7:15 p.m. Saturday in Queenston, Ont.