Niagara Peninsula

Physically, the peninsula comprises 2 contrasting plains separated by the NIAGARA ESCARPMENT. The Ontario Plain, with fertile, sandy soils and a favourable climate, contains the Niagara Fruit Belt, where much of Canada's soft fruits and vines are grown.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Streetscape
Niagara-on-the-Lake streetscape (photo by Steven Elphick).
Vineyard at Inniskillin
Vineyard at Inniskillin Winery (courtesy Wine Council of Ontario).

Niagara Peninsula

The Niagara Peninsula lies between Lakes ONTARIO and ERIE and the NIAGARA RIVER in southwestern Ontario. As the river is also on the international boundary between Canada and the US, the peninsula has played a frontier role since 1783.

Physically, the peninsula comprises 2 contrasting plains separated by the NIAGARA ESCARPMENT. The Ontario Plain, with fertile, sandy soils and a favourable climate, contains the Niagara Fruit Belt, where much of Canada's soft fruits and vines are grown. The wooded slopes of the escarpment, an abrupt rise of some 60 m, are etched deeply by gorges with falls at their heads, most notably at NIAGARA FALLS, and are quarried for limestone. The Erie Plain, with bedrock closer to the surface, is less productive than its northern counterpart; the soils are poorly drained clay, and the climate is wetter, with shorter frost-free periods. The Onondaga Escarpment, inland from Lake Erie, is quarried for limestone.

Subregions in the peninsula provide a rich variation of detail: shoreline bluffs along Lake Ontario, with ponded river estuaries behind sandbars; the shoreline of glacial Lake Iroquois across the Ontario Plain; the Short Hills embayment in the escarpment, with steep-sided slopes; a glacial kame of sand deposits at Fonthill, the highest point of the peninsula; the buried St Davids Gorge, the plugged channel of an ancestral Niagara River; marsh areas, including peat bogs, on the southern plain; the slender Onondaga Escarpment; and limestone headlands alternating with sandy bays along Lake Erie, contrasting with the eroding clay and sand bluffs along Lake Ontario.

Settlement and Development

The pattern of settlement has responded to this diverse terrain. Native villages followed the Niagara Escarpment, and many trails became roads. Permanent settlement arose during the 1780s with the influx of LOYALISTS. NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE was established temporarily as the first capital of Upper Canada, QUEENSTON and Chippawa developed as portage terminals, and FORT GEORGE, Fort Mississauga and FORT ERIE as garrisons commanding entry to the Niagara River. Immigrants first settled the Niagara River frontage and the Ontario Plain, then the Erie Plain. Townships, surveyed with 40 hectare lots, had a road in front of each concession and between every other lot. Mills developed mostly where rivers crossing the Niagara Escarpment and the Ontario Plain could be diverted for water power. Small settlements arose here and at several "corners" accessible from nearby communities.

The expanding economy was disrupted severely by American invasion during the WAR OF 1812, and then by an aftermath of border mistrust. William Lyon MACKENZIE and some of his supporters crossed the border during the REBELLIONS OF 1837, and FENIAN raids were launched from the American side in the 1860s. Closer contact prevailed with interlinking rail and highway bridges, the substantial introduction of American-owned industries, the pull of the Buffalo market and the development of the Lake Erie shoreline under American seasonal cottage and recreational properties.

As the Niagara River could not be used for through navigation, the WELLAND CANAL was constructed across the peninsula to provide through transport by water between the continental interior and Lake Ontario. First opened in 1829 but continually enlarged, the canal had water power available at every lock, where streams were crossed, and from hydraulic raceways. A line of new settlement was added to the peninsula: ST CATHARINES became an industrial town; Port Dalhousie and PORT COLBORNE grew as ports; and THOROLD and WELLAND were founded, together with Port Robinson and Allanburg on the main canal and Wainfleet and DUNNVILLE on the feeder canal. Niagara-on-the-Lake lost its premier position, and the county functions were transferred to Welland and subsequently St Catharines.

The development of railways strengthened existing settlements. Routes constructed during the 1850s along the 2 lakeshores, the Niagara River and the Welland Canal were augmented by 2 southern routes during the 1870s and a transverse Hamilton-Buffalo line in the 1890s. Settlement expanded at border crossing points, especially Clifton (now NIAGARA FALLS) at the Suspension Bridge and Victoria (Bridgeburg, now Fort Erie) at the International Bridge. Welland, at the hub of the peninsula, expanded "Where Rails and Water Meet" (its civic motto), as did Merritton. Railways also encouraged the emergence of fruit farming, which replaced wheat and mixed farming north of the Niagara Escarpment; cottage and recreational development along the shoreline of Lake Erie; and tourism at Niagara Falls. St Catharines became a spa, and religious campgrounds were introduced at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara Falls, Crystal Beach and Grimsby Beach.

The infrastructure was again strengthened through hydroelectric developments at Niagara Falls and DeCew Falls (St Catharines) from the Welland Canal. As generating stations, storage reservoirs and power transmission lines were added to the landscape, towns obtained a new impetus for expansion. Major industries developed, especially along the Welland Canal in St Catharines, Thorold, Welland and Port Colborne, and at Niagara Falls and Chippawa on the Niagara River.

An extensive interurban streetcar network connected the towns until the automobile became dominant. New highway bridges were constructed across the Niagara River and the Welland Canal; the major roads inland from the border crossing points were improved; and the QUEEN ELIZABETH WAY opened in 1939.

Outward sprawl from its own towns and sporadic growth into the peninsula from the west during the prosperous postwar period presented severe problems. The annual loss of agricultural land on the most productive soils in Canada was also severe. Suburban shopping centres denuded the historic urban centres of their retailing strengths and the Niagara Escarpment as a vital scenic landscape was threatened by linear development. Conservation, urban quality and respect for the environment became major issues.

Present Day

The Niagara Regional Municipality houses some 400 000 persons. Its principal city is St Catharines. Niagara Falls and Welland are its other major centres. The population has expanded through substantial immigration from eastern and southern Europe, the West Indies and Southeast Asia to introduce diverse cultural features to every urban centre. The region also attracts an increasing number of retirees, from abroad and from within Canada, as residents.

Manufacturing has declined drastically while service activities, including medicine, education and government, have expanded greatly. In the agricultural industry, there are many established and new estate wineries; vineyards, peach and cherry orchards are supplemented by greenhouses growing flowers, cucumbers and tomatoes; and livestock output is headed by poultry.

Tourism is an expanding industry, especially gambling in Niagara Falls, heritage tourism in Niagara-on-the Lake and a growing agritourism industry associated with the peninsula's wineries. The Niagara Parks Commission has added a paved recreational trail along its river frontage. A parkway system along the Welland Canal has been approved and various sections are open for recreational, non-vehicular use. Each of the peninsula's major centres also has its own tourist draws. In the 1990s, greatly expanded trade between Canada and the US as a result of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) meant heavy increases in road traffic along the Queen Elizabeth Way. Various options to accommodate the increased traffic are being considered although the Mid-Peninsula Highway, proposed as long ago as the 1950s, has yet to be approved and, if so, is at least a decade away from reality.

Further Reading

  • A.E. Coombs, History of the Niagara Peninsula and the New Welland Canal (1950); Hugh J. Gayler, Niagara's Changing Landscapes (1994); John N. Jackson, Names Across Niagara (1989); The Welland Canals and Their Communities: Engineering, Industrial, and Urban Transformation (1997) and The Mighty Niagara: One River, Two Frontiers (2003); John N. Jackson and John Burtniak, Railways in the Niagara Peninsula (1978); John N. Jackson and Carol White, The Industrial Structure of the Niagara Peninsula (1971); Owen A. Thomas, Niagara's Freedom Trail: A Guide to African-Canadian History on the Niagara Peninsula (1996).

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