by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — With cannons lined up along Lewiston's waterfront, pointed towards Canada, President James Madison braved a brisk chill in the night air and declared war on the British soldiers stationed just beyond the mighty Niagara Friday.
A minute or two later, the cannons fired, signaling the beginning of the War of 1812. Or rather, the show kicked off a weekend reenactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights 200 years after it kicked off the two-year war best known for helping create the Star Spangled Banner.
"Our next step is to take Fort George, across the river," Private David Yates, a re-enactor from Depew, said. "Our end goal is to drive the British off this continent and for the United States to control all of Canada. Both upper and lower Canada."
Of course, Yates, who has been reenacting battles with the 3rd Artillery Unit at Old Fort Niagara for four years, isn't serious about those intentions. The War of 1812 helped secure a lasting peace which isn't in jeopardy between the two neighbors. But during more uncertain times, borders between the two nations weren't defined.
Focus, for the re-enactors, at least, was on realism. Organizers brought six War-era cannons together for the kickoff event, the largest single showing of these types of cannons since the end of the conflict in 1814.
Yates said everything they're using, short of actual live ammunition, is exactly the way soldiers in the war experienced life.
"One of our goals is to live like the soldiers we're portraying," he said. "All the tools we're using are exactly like they would've used."
The crowd of roughly 500 onlookers appreciated the realism as the cannon blasts shook Water Street near The Silo Restaurant. Fireworks mounted by the boat docks simulated blasts, shooting toward Canada as the artillery fired. A regular fireworks demonstration accompanied the cannon display, lasting for nearly 30 minutes before a finale rocked the village.
Dan Greg and Annette Melcher, of Niagara Falls, made the trip into the village to witness the event after hearing about the many stories while on the Marble Orchard Ghost Walk. Melcher said she needed to witness the event because of its historical significance.
"This is something that isn't going to repeat itself ever again," she said. "This is history in action. You can't talk about this tomorrow, this is something you have to experience."
The overall consensus from the pair was they were definitely impressed with the presentation. Lee Simonson, the event's chief organizer, also felt the event was a massive success.
"Lewiston has outdone itself," he said.
Like those in the crowd who realized the significance of remembering the beginning of the battle, Simonson said the importance comes in its timing.
"Something like this won't be seen again for at least another 100 years," he said. "This is something that's very difficult to duplicate."
Events commemorating the battle continue tomorrow, both in Lewiston and across the border. In Canada, a group of five buses full of re-enactors will "invade" the country from the U.S. and participate in a battle, which they'll eventually lose.
Locally, events are detailed in a schedule available online at www.historiclewiston.org.