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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 15

Report of the 1972 Archaeological Excavations of the Market Shoal Tower, Kingston, Ontario

by Donald A. Harris

Historical Background

A detailed historical account by Ivan Sanders of Kingston Harbour, the Market Shoal tower and their relationships to the St. Lawrence River accompanies this report; nevertheless, the historical information presented here will provide the reader with some perspective of the site.

The history of the Market Shoal tower revolves around the history of Kingston and its importance as a key strategic position in controlling the flow of maritime traffic moving from the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes. The French early recognized this position for its military importance and in 1673 constructed Fort Frontenac on the western bank of the Cataraqui River where it flows into the lake. This position was held by the French until 1758 when it was captured by a British force led by Colonel Bradstreet. The British garrisoned Kingston until 1870 when they, along with all imperial garrisons, were recalled from British North America (Stanley 1954: 21).

At the termination of the American Revolution a section of the St. Lawrence River was converted into an international boundary, creating further problems with which the British had to cope. The hostilities between Canada and the United States again flared up in 1812, re-emphasizing the need to fortify Kingston against possible attack. In 1813 the first Fort Henry was erected. The disadvantages of using the St. Lawrence River as the only means of water communication between Upper and Lower Canada were also realized and in 1826 Colonel By was commissioned to construct the Rideau Canal. This canal, designed primarily for military reasons, needed to be defended and as a result plans were drawn up in 1829 to erect a system of fortification, consisting primarily of a strengthened Fort Henry and several outlying auxiliary fortifications. Work proceeded slowly on Fort Henry and no progress was really made toward the completion of the auxiliary works. This situation changed, however, as tensions between the two countries heightened with the adoption of the "Fifty-Four Forty or Fight" slogan of the 1844 American presidential election campaign. With the election of James Polk and the Democratic party, Britain began to prepare for war with the United States. This preparation did not go unnoticed by the editors of the Kingston Argus who stated in January, 1846.

It is not for Oregon we shall have to contend, if contend we must. The blood of the yeomanry of Canada which may be spilled in defence of their homes will attest their abhorrence of the tyranny of Democracy. Britain seeks no war with America — Canada seeks none. But let us imitate Britain and PREPARE FOR WAR as the surest means of securing PEACE.

The threat was sufficient to incite immediate action on the part of the master-general of the Ordnance and Board, and plans were quickly drawn up for the construction of four Martello towers (exclusive of the two at Fort Henry) for the defence of Kingston Harbour (Fig. 3). The first of these contracts was let on 30 January 1846 for the construction of the Murney Tower, and work proceeded so rapidly that the masonry was ready for testing by 10 June 1846. The contract for the Market Shoal tower was also let in January of that year, but work on it proceeded at a much slower rate.

3 Map of Kingston harbour. (Public Archives of Canada.) (click on image for a PDF version)

The construction of the Shoal tower differed from that of the other towers in that it was built on a shallow shoal in the harbour and was completely surrounded by water. This posed technical problems that were not encountered in the construction of the other towers. William Murray was awarded the contract for its construction and he probably sub-contracted the initial work to John Greer. It was Greer's job to construct a coffer-dam (Fig. 4) on the shoal and pump out the water on the site. He set to work immediately, making good use of the ice, and by 20 March 1846 had completed the dam and had begun to pump out the water. This chore occupied 15 pumps manned by six or seven men each until the middle of June when the interior of the coffer-dam was pumped dry. This dam was 90 ft. in diameter and 7 ft. 6 in. in height, meaning the displacement of 47,750 cubic ft. of water.

4 Plan and cross-section of coffer-dam as proposed in 1846. (Public Archives of Canada.)

On 15 June 1846, the Oregon Treaty was signed and this project, begun with the utmost urgency, slowed considerably; it was not until October of 1847 that the tower's construction was completed. Although the tower was completed in 1847 it was not armed for another 14 years.

The garrison for the tower was never very large and for the most part it was placed on a maintenance basis or was looked after by a caretaker. It was first occupied in 1849 by four guards, and between then and 1854 the number of men never rose above seven. In 1855-56 the tower stood vacant because of the Crimean War, but as a result of Britain's involvement in the United States Civil War, the garrison increased to 23 men. These men were all single, whereas before the tower was used for married quarters. After the crisis in the United States had passed, the number of men again declined to its previous 1850s level.

The tower was occupied by a British garrison until 1870 when, as stated above, all imperial troops were withdrawn from British North America. At that time it was turned over to Lieutenant Colonel Wyly, Director of Stores of the dominion government, and kept on a maintenance basis for 10 more years. After this period it was considered obsolete and was therefore abandoned.

A local informant stated that the tower had been occupied at the turn of the century and later by a Kingston family, but this story has yet to he substantiated; however, such an occupation would explain the recovery of certain artifacts such as toys. After final abandonment, the tower languished until the mid-20th century when it was re-roofed to protect it from the elements.

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