Suddenly, the suffering seemed real.
For observers standing on Squaw Island on Saturday evening, watching the lighting of a massive bonfire meant to commemorate the burning of the communities of Black Rock and Buffalo 199 years ago, the biting cold and sharp wind, coupled with the mist and light drizzle, made tangible some of the sufferings endured by the region’s forebears during the War of 1812.
“It’s raining out, and they were freezing,” said Karen Chiavetta of Orchard Park, who had brought her 17-year-old daughter Kate to the bonfire. “If you are standing in someone else’s shoes, you get a better idea of what they went through.”
“Can you imagine if you had an infant – and you went through something like this?”
The event, a third annual commemoration known as “Flames Across Niagara,” was held to mark the occasion of the burnings of Buffalo, Black Rock and Lewiston during the War of 1812, as well as the peace that has existed for two centuries between the nations.
The burning of Buffalo took place Dec. 30, 1813, but organizers of the event said they held the memorial earlier in the month to avoid the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and also to avoid even more bitter temperatures.
Some 100 people turned out to witness the bonfire on the American side, and large crowds were also expected in Fort Erie, Ont.
“We have to remember their sacrifices,” said Warren Glover, an organizer of the American portion of the event in his role as chairman of the historic preservation committee of the Black Rock/Riverside Good Neighbors Planning Alliance. “A lot of personal sacrifice [occurred] in those days.”
The goal of the “Flames Across Niagara” commemoration is not only to mourn the loss of a fledgling city – an estimated 143 buildings were lost in Buffalo and Black Rock, the crowd was told, and some 400 to 500 people fled – but to instill in modern-day Western New Yorkers an appreciation for what the citizenry of those days suffered, organizers said.
“We want people to understand the sacrifices in personal wealth and liberty that were given by our soldiers and civilians on the Niagara Frontier,” said Glover.
The proceedings got off to a dramatic start.
“Fire the village!” cried a re-enactor dressed in British officer’s uniform, giving the command for the pile of wood to be lit.
At that, a large pile of wooden pallets and timbers was ignited. On the top of the pile, a miniature skyline of the city of Buffalo and Black Rock in older times glowed against the dark night sky.
The mini-houses and business were made by Rob Niemiec, owner of the 60-year-old Niemiec Builders Supply on Grant Street, to add verisimilitude to the scene.
“It’s to give it a little more visualness,” said Niemiec, who fashioned the tiny village out of scraps of pine and other odds and ends of wood around his business. “We’re trying to re-create the scene or feeling of 1813.”
Across the water, in Canada, where similar commemorations were taking place, another large bonfire glowed. Canadians commemorating their country’s experiences in December of 1813 were gathered in Fort Erie.
Also during the brief program, cannons were fired in salutes toward the Canadian shore, and re-enactors dressed in period garb addressed the crowd and added color to the bonfire scene.
National anthems for the United States, Canada and England were sung.
Here and there, a taste of the contemporary intervened. At the close of “God Save the Queen,” sung by a re-enactor, John Cherry, dressed as a British soldier, someone in the crowd added a jovial line to the last line of the last verse:
“... God Save the Queen.”
“... and Kate Middleton!”
The event will take place again next year, on Dec. 7, and is expected to be even bigger. December 2013 will mark a full 200 years since the burning of the communities.