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Fort Willow illustrationFort Willow

by Andrew Hind

When one thinks of the forts of Ontario, the magnificent stone bastions built by Britain to defend the province from American hostility invariably come to mind. Among them are Forts York, Niagara, and Henry. Those perhaps more versed in history might remember the Hudson Bay Company trading posts of the northwest. But, only the most astute students of Ontario’s heritage will recall Fort Willow (sometimes called Willow Creek Depot), despite the important role it played during the War of 1812.

Many fortifications were constructed during this war against the United States, most of which were a temporary expedience, duly abandoned at the conflict’s end. Fort Willow is the only example that remains of these short-lived structures, and even it fell into disuse and was reclaimed by the forests. Indeed, for decades it was lost amongst the trees, and was only rediscovered in the 1950s when Wilfred and Elsie Jury, a pair of eminent archaeologists, began to excavate the site. Twelve years later, their work was completed, and a remarkable picture emerged of the fort and those who served there. The Fort Willow Improvement Group is currently lovingly restoring the site to a state as it would have appeared during the War of 1812.

The fledgling United States of America declared war against Britain in 1812, the result of a national fever for war inspired by rumoured British incitement of Native attacks and several inflammatory maritime incidents between the two nations.

Hoping to take advantage of British preoccupation with the war against Napoleon then raging in Europe, Congress declared war on June18th, 1812. They believed Canada could be wrested from the British Empire and added to the Union with relative ease. The Americans underestimated British and Canadian resolve.

The conflict was a seesaw affair from the start, both sides making gains and suffering defeats. In the summer of 1812, however, Commander Oliver Hazard Perry decisively beat a Royal Navy squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie. This victory ensured American domination of the lake, thereby cutting British lines of communication to Lake Huron and her isolated forces at Fort St. Joseph and Michilimackinac on Lake Superior. With the majority of her resources tied up in the European conflict, retaking control of the lake was not an option for England, at least not in the short term.

To skirt American naval supremacy on Lake Erie, the British took advantage of an overland route from York (Toronto) to Lake Huron, used for centuries by Natives and fur traders. The route lay overland from Fort York up to the Humber River, which was followed north to Fort Gwillimbury (modern day Holland Landing). From there, supplies and personnel would transfer into boats to traverse the Holland River to Lake Simcoe, and then across to Kempenfelt Bay (Barrie). There, the Nine Mile Portage led through the wilderness to Willow Creek, which fed into the Nottawasaga River and hence into Lake Huron at Wasaga.

The route was less than ideal. Narrow paths twisted through an imposing wilderness, down rivers incapable of supporting large craft, and through dense swamp that was every bit as forlorn as the Everglades of Florida,. Nevertheless, for several years it supported the British military effort in the northwest.

It was a truly remarkable feat of logistics and human endurance.

At the end of the Nine Mile Portage, a fort was hacked out of the dark forest. Located on a plateau overlooking Willow Creek and the vast Minesing Swamp, Fort Willow defended the vulnerable route from attack and acted as a supply depot for forces operating in the north. A contemporary has described the location as a “hellish and malarial place,” yet the fort was quite sizeable and housed a significant garrison.

Fort Willow boasted several log houses, a barn, and two blockhouses (strong points for defence; what we would call bunkers), surrounded by a wooden palisade measuring 180 feet by 250 feet and beyond that, extensive trench works. The garrison numbered 250 men at its peak, including 20 Royal Navy shipwrights brought from Kingston to build bateaux for service on the river and Lake Huron. The bulk of the fighting force was composed of men from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, hardy soldiers well-accustomed to frontier warfare, as well as a token detachment of artillery. The force was commanded by Lt. Colonel Robert McDouall of the Glengarry Light Infantry, a man described as an imposing and energetic figure and an inspiring leader. A conventional British officer, he nonetheless adapted to the rigours and hardships of frontier warfare much better than many of his brethren, and he is undoubtedly one of the unsung heroes of the war.

The shipwrights proved their worth over the winter of 1813-14, constructing 29 bateaux that were used by McDouall to resupply and reinforce the isolated forts on the northern end of Lake Huron in the spring. Without relief, these forts likely would have fallen to American siege and the outcome of the war may have been far different. In all likelihood, the modern Canada-US border would be significantly altered west of Lake Erie.

The overland route and Fort Willow played an important role throughout the war, and well beyond. While the majority of the garrison was removed as soon as the war ended, the route remained in use for some time, until roads could be cut through the wilderness to the naval garrison at Penetanguishene. In the meantime, it was used by several notable explorers, including David Thompson on his way back from exploring the west, and Sir John Franklin, who passed through in 1825 on the initial leg of his epic Arctic voyage of discovery. Inevitably, when the road to Lake Huron was completed, the Nine Mile Portage fell into disuse and Fort Willow was forgotten.

There has been extensive debate about whether a village sprang up in the shadow of the fort. Writing in 1948, local historian Andrew Hunter was adamant there was indeed a settlement: “In consequence of the great amount of traffic quite a little village grew up at the northwest terminus of the Willow Creek Portage.” His view has been supported by Robert Thom, an expert on Georgian Bay history, who noted that workers laying tracks for the CPR dug up graves that suggested a village existed between 1816-1830. Many modern historians remain dubious, as archaeological work has yet to uncover any evidence to support this theory. We may never know for sure.

The Fort Willow Improvement Program is in the early stages of reconstructing the fort to a state as it was during the War of 1812, conforming to exacting archeological specifications. Several signs and maps have been erected on-site, detailing the history and importance of the fort and the painstaking efforts to rebuild it.

A fresh palisade is in the midst of construction, and the foundations for the buildings laid out. Searching among the trees, you will find the earthworks, still readily apparent after nearly 200 years.

Few people know of Fort Willow, perhaps because of its out-of-the-way location. Only nine miles from Barrie, it feels like you are in the middle of virgin wilderness, or perhaps in another time. The forest here is gloomy somehow, almost primordial. It’s not hard to imagine the tribulations of those soldiers as they struggled over the portage from Kempenfelt Bay, encumbered with packs weighing up to 60 lbs., and making perhaps three to five miles per day through the dense undergrowth. Seeing the palisade through the trees for the first time is an odd rush. It feels distinctly out of place in such an isolated locale, as does the Union Jack that flies proudly from the flagpole. But this is actually beneficial to the whole experience. The low rate of visitors means you often have the fort to yourself, a far cry from what you experience during the tourist season at Forts York and Henry.

The conservation area is open year round, although the extensive network of walking trails that lead from the fort down into the Minesing Swamp is not maintained in the winter. Access to the park is free, but small donations for the costs of rebuilding the site are welcome. Special events are occasionally hosted here, from living history re-enactors to Halloween-themed tours. Contact the Fort Willow Improvement Group for more information at (705)424-1479.

Fort Willow Creek can be found in the Fort Willow Conservation Area, nine miles (obviously) west of Barrie. Take Highway 90 west, and then turn right on Grenfel Road. About four miles further on, you will see the conservation area on your left, the palisades just visible through the trees.

This is an original story, first published in The Country Connection Magazine, Issue 42, Spring 2003. Copyright Andrew Hind.



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