Today in History

Today in History: December 19

Old Fort Niagara Captured

Old Fort Niagara
Old Fort Niagara, Youngstown, New York, circa 1900.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

In the final hours of December 18, 1813, approximately midway through the War of 1812, some 500 British soldiers (regulars) as well as some 500 militia and Indians—crossed the Niagara River from Canada determined to seize Old Fort Niagara on the opposite shore in New York. By sunrise on December 19, the British were victorious and America's Niagara frontier lay open to attack.

From Old Fort Niagara, the British marched on to destroy Youngstown, Lewiston, Manchester, Fort Schlosser, Black Rock, and Buffalo. While America countered these losses on other fronts, denying the British a sizable lead in the war, control of the fort allowed the British to dominate the Niagara River and regulate access to the Great Lakes where fighting continued.

The British had launched their Niagara assault to retaliate against the destruction of Newark, Canada, on December 10, beginning their advance to Old Fort Niagara. U.S. troops had destroyed the Canadian city to deny shelter to advancing British forces, and, in so doing, left some 400 Newark residents homeless—outraging both the British and Canadians.

U.S. forces expected a British strike following the Newark incident but were caught unprepared on the night of the attack. Fort commander Nathaniel Leonard was miles away in Lewiston visiting family, and the garrison's picket soldiers—stationed nearby at Youngstown—had retreated indoors to escape the cold. After disarming the Youngstown pickets without a shot, the British advanced silently to the fort gate, arriving just as it opened to receive an American guard. Pushing past the entrance, the British found the majority of the fort's approximately 460 soldiers asleep. With little opportunity to resist, the fort soon fell.

Niagara River
Niagara River,
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991

Old Fort Niagara stayed in British hands throughout the remainder of the War of 1812. In accordance with the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, which settled the war and restored the prewar status quo, Britain returned the post to the United States in 1815 after which it operated as a peaceful border post. Old Fort Niagara served as a barracks and training station for U.S. soldiers during both World Wars; the last U.S. Army units were withdrawn in 1963.

map of Niagara Falls
Niagara-Falls, N.Y.
Beck and Pauli, lithographers,
Map Collections

A trip to Niagara
"A Trip to Niagara,"
William J. Cornish,
Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920

American Memory collections also have a wealth of materials on Niagara Falls.

  • Search the pictorial collections of American Memory on the term Niagara Falls for more than 400 images of the Niagara region.
  • Just south of Fort Niagara lay the spectacular Niagara Falls, which many couples visit on their honeymoon. Search the collection Music for the Nation, 1870-1885 on the terms Niagara or honeymoon for related sheet music. See, for example, the 1881 piece "Honeymoon Galopp."
  • View the 1900 [?] film A Nymph of the Waves from the American Mutoscope and Biograph which depicts a superimposition of a woman dancing over footage of crashing waves from the rapids of Niagara Falls.

The Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Bridge
Williamsburg Bridge, New York, New York,
glass plate negative, ca. 1903-10.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

On December 19, 1903, New Yorkers celebrated the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge, the second, and largest, of three steel-frame suspension bridges to eventually span the city’s East River. Designed by Leffert L. Buck and Henry Hornbostel, it had taken over seven years to complete. Built to alleviate traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge and to provide a link between Manhattan and the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the Williamsburg Bridge, with its main span at 1,596 feet, was the world's longest suspension bridge until the 1920s.

Originally open to horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and pedestrians, the Williamsburg Bridge soon became a vital transportation route for trolleys and elevated subway trains, spurring the growth of Brooklyn's working-class neighborhoods. In the 1920s, the bridge was reconfigured to accommodate eight lanes of traffic. As of 2007, it carries over 110,000 vehicles per day and some 92,000 additional subway riders.

On hand to film the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge were cameramen James Blair Smith and G. W. "Billy" Bitzer. Their films, respectively, Opening of New East River Bridge, New York, produced by the Thomas Edison Company, and Opening the Williamsburg Bridge, produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, each contain footage of the bridge and close-ups of the dignitaries and press in attendance. Note the large wooden box cameras carried by the press photographers.

East River bridge
Opening of New East River Bridge, New York,
Thomas A. Edison, Inc., December 19, 1903.
The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906

New York City Views. Pier of Williamsburg Bridge, from Below.
New York City Views. Pier of Williamsburg Bridge, from Below.
Samuel H. Gottscho, photographer,
Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955