Photo of Kingston city hall
City Hall and Confederation Park

Kingston is a city of about a hundred thousand people in Eastern Ontario. During the summer, it is a popular destination for tourists, who are attracted by the city’s limestone architecture, historical sites, and excellent sailing. It is also close to the Thousand Islands to the east and to numerous lakes to the north.

The imposing city hall building (pictured above) was built during the 19th century at a time when the city was the capital of the newly combined Upper and Lower Canada.

Kingston was also where Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, practised law. His home is preserved as a national park. You can also visit the MacDonald family grave site in the Cataraqui cemetary, at Sydenham Road and Princess Street.


Photo of church in Kingston
View over houses towards church

17th Century

People have lived in the Kingston region for approximately 11,000 years. In 1673, the native Iroquois greeted the first Europeans. The French built Fort Cataraqui to support their fur trading interests. Later, the fort was renamed Fort Frontenac after the governor of Canada.

In 1689, after the Iroquois attack on Lachine, the troops were ordered to abandon the fort. But when Frontenac returned to New France, the order was rescinded, and the fort continued to protect French interests.

As a result of Frontenac’s initiative, a network of forts and trading posts was developed throughout the Great Lakes region. The expansion of French territory eventually led to conflict with the British.

Today, the only remnants of Fort Frontenac are buried beneath Ontario Street.

18th Century

Capture of Fort Frontenac, 1758
Engraving of the capture of Fort Frontenac in 1758.

Fort Frontenac fell to the British in 1758. Until the American Revolution, the fort languished since the British considered other places more important for defense and trade. However, at the end of the revolutionary war, interest in Cataraqui increased. Not only was it’s strategic importance growing, but it was also a focal point for the resettlement of Loyalists.

King’s Town, named after King George III, was made capital of the district of Mecklenburg, which covered the eastern part of Upper Canada.

19th Century

Map Kingston in 1875
Map of Kingston in 1875.

In spite of it’s strategic importance, Kingston was not attacked during the war of 1812. However, the town experienced a boom as defenses were strengthened, the dockyards expanded, and merchants prospered catering to the needs of the armed forces.

The American forces failed to carry out numerous orders to attack Kingston, and instead, concentrated on less well defended targets in Niagara. It wasn’t until after the war that the full strategic importance of Kingston was realized. Taking Kingston would have meant cutting off supplies to all points to the west.

While tensions between the British and Americans continued to fester, the building of Kingston’s defenses continued:

  • 1826-1832: The Rideau Canal was built to provide an alternative route between Montreal and Kingston.
  • 1832-1836: The fort at Point Henry was rebuilt.
  • 1846-1848: Four additional Martello Towers and the Market Battery in front of the city were constructed.

At this time, Kingston was the largest town in Upper Canada, and so was named capital of the Province of Canada in 1841. This prompted the construction, starting in 1842, of a massive new city hall building, one of the largest building projects in North America. However, a year before the building was completed in 1844, the capital was moved elsewhere.

Although Kingston continued to grow during the latter half of the century, other communities further west grew much faster. In 1858, Kingston’s population of 13,000 was dwarfed by Toronto‘s 50,000 and even Hamilton’s 29,000.

Kingston’s military importance also waned as military technology and friendlier relations between Canada and the United States rendered the massive defenses obsolete. In 1870, British troops left Fort Henry. In 1875, the Market Battery was razed and replaced by a park, which was subsequently replaced in 1880 by railroad sidings for the main station of the Kingston and Pembroke Railroad. And finally, Canadian Militia troops left Fort Henry in 1890.

20th Century

Boom times returned to Kingston following the Second World War with the arrival of new heavy industries. Companies like Alcan and Dupont built plants. The city expanded to accomodate the increased population demands.

By the 1960’s, industries along the waterfront downtown began to languish, and efforts began to revitalize the area. One of the national projects for the centennial year 1967 was the Centennial Train, a sort of portable museum that travelled across the country. When the Centennial Train organizers were told to park the train in front of Kingston city hall, they thought the city officials were crazy. Why did they want to put the train in such an industrial wasteland? But when the train arrived, they found a newly rebuilt park in front of city hall!

Since then, the waterfront has seen additional development with new hotels, museums, office, apartment, and condominium buildings. To the west, additional suburbs grew, along with shopping malls and industrial plazas. In the late 1990’s, the city of Kingston combined with the neighboring municipalities of Kingston Township and Pittsburg Township.


Photo of downtown Kingston
Princess Street in Downtown Kingston

Even though other cities of Ontario long surpassed Kingston in importance, up until recently, Kingston had never quite given up on the idea of its own significance. This notion of self-importance was fostered by its relative isolation, with the nearest large city, Ottawa, over two hours away.

More recently, though, I think the city has come to terms with its position, and is taking advantage of it. You can really see that during the summer when the city is flooded with tourists.

In spite of the new suburban malls and big box retailers, Kingston still has an active and vital downtown that attracts many people. Over the past twenty years the downtown character has changed somewhat, now appealing more to a “yuppie” clientele.

One of the more famous restaurants in Kingston’s downtown is “Chez Piggy”, previously owned and run by Zal Yanovsky, formerly of the 60’s pop group, the Lovin’ Spoonful. The restaurant is located in a former livery stable.


Photo of waterfront park in Kingston
Waterfront Park in Kingston

A tourist could easily spend three or four nights in the Kingston area. The languishing of Kingston since its glory days of the 19th century has left the city with numerous old buildings, many built from the indigenous limestone. One store in particular, Cooke’s Fine Foods, hasn’t changed much since the 19th century.

Some of the more notable museums are the Pump House Steam Museum and the Agnes Etherington Art Center. Two of the Martello towers and Fort Henry contain exhibits describing military life during the 19th century.

The surrounding areas also offer attractions for the tourist. A half hour to the east, you can visit the Thousand Islands. Rather than taking a boat cruise from Kingston, you’re much better off driving east to Gananoque and starting your Thousand Island cruise there.

Fifteen minutes to the north, and you’re in the Rideau Lakes area.

And to the west, drive along the Loyalist Parkway to explore the Loyalist heritage of the area. Take the car ferry across to Prince Edward County and see the view from the Lake on the Mountain. Continue west and spend the rest of the day lounging on the beach at the Sandbanks Provincial Park.