With the sun shining brightly, I set off with photographer Sean McEvoy to explore the grounds of the Royal Military College (RMC) in Kingston. Having visited before, I knew that this was really two trips in one. The first trip was taking us to the site of the Royal Naval Dockyard, significant for its role in the War of 1812, while the second trip, on exactly the same grounds, allowed us to drink in the architecture of RMC.
During the War of 1812, land and naval forces clashed over a huge territory, stretching as far south as the Mississippi Valley, but the outcome of the war was decided on and around the Great Lakes. British forces realized that they needed warships to compete with the ships being built by the Americans at Sackets Harbor naval base. Point Frederick in Kingston, which had been a British naval base since the 1790s, became the new site of a large naval dockyard. This is where the HMS St. Lawrence was launched in 1814. It was the Royal Navy’s first warship to be launched and operated entirely in fresh water.
Today, the site of the dockyard on the eastern shore of Point Frederick is marked by an information board. As we looked across the peaceful bay to Fort Henry, we had to remember that this stone fortress didn’t exist in 1812. Instead, Point Henry was fortified with a wooden fort. That was the original Fort Henry – built to protect the new Royal Naval Dockyard. A brochure about the dockyard and the War of 1812 is available at Panet House near the information board. You can use it to do a walking tour that focuses on the role of the peninsula during the War of 1812. It helps you imagine that bustling period, when 1,600 naval personnel were based here, accompanied by roughly 1,200 casual labourers.
From Panet House, we had a wonderful view of the Mackenzie Building, the original administration centre for the Royal Military College. This iconic building with a magnificent clock tower was completed in 1878, but the college quickly outgrew it and plans were set in motion for a two-phase project: first, to build a new larger edifice, the Currie Building, adjacent to it; and second, to demolish the Mackenzie Building. However, before the demolition could take place, the college ran into a funding problem and had to leave the Mackenzie Building in place. As Sean snapped pictures and I admired the architecture, we were grateful for that funding shortfall.
No matter which direction we looked, we were captivated by the attractive limestone buildings. Just to the east of the Mackenzie Building, we noticed the Stone Frigate, which we learned was the oldest building at RMC. Completed in 1821, it originally served as a storage facility for naval equipment, ships and rigging, but was converted for use by the college in time for the arrival of the first cadets in 1876.
Crossing over to the west side of the peninsula, we passed a hive of construction activity, as workers busied themselves restoring an old limestone wall. Due to the construction, there were few parking spots for visitors, but that hadn’t been an issue for us because we had walked onto Point Frederick. There was plenty to see even though Fort Frederick on the south end of the peninsula was closed for restoration work.
On the west side, more information boards jogged our minds back to the War of 1812. Sean and I read about the failed attempt of the American forces to capture Britain’s largest ship on the Great Lakes, the Royal George. The British ship, pursued by seven American ships, raced to safety along the western shores of Point Frederick where land defences were strong. At that time, the well-protected waterway and shoreline was a refuge; today, the same spot is a different sort of refuge: a quiet place to enjoy a walk and soak in the local history.
Text by Helen Cutts
Photographs by Sean McEvoy