Kingston resounds with echoes of its past

By Kenneth Bagnell, Special to the Spectator    August 3, 2013


On a calm summer evening on a vessel cruising waters off Kingston and nearby islands, the skyline is memorable: spires, towers, domes of a historic city with rocky shores and thick spruce on several islands. The echo of the past is everywhere — on the city’s shores and its sidewalks.

 The Island Queen setting sail for an evening dinner cruise among the lush green islands in the waters off Kingston.

We stayed on a street called Sydenham, named for a noted governor general, in an inn completed in 1850, The Rosemount. Past and present meet in history-touched rooms and manicured gardens.

It’s just minutes on foot from Kingston’s downtown where we sat in restaurants with reputations that precede them: Olivea and Le Chien Noir, both with sophisticated cuisine, and windowside tables where we watched evening life in Kingston: so many young people — students at Queen’s, the city’s famed university — strolling, laughing and looking with amusement upon a team of visiting buskers doing daring routines.

In its wisdom, Kingston has chosen to be fully open about being home to “Kingston Pen.” In fact it even has a museum, which to me — as a former volunteer counsellor in a prison — is especially worth dropping in on. You’ll see the dungeons of the past, the flogging table, the coffinlike box in which long ago an inmate could be “water bathed,” an act of cruelty once regarded as therapeutic.

Fortunately you can see more constructive artifacts: imaginative paintings by inmates, transcripts of their writings, even broadcast equipment from a radio station run by inmates in recent years. The museum, opened in 1967 and soon closing, is set in an ornate home (built by prisoners long ago for the warden) directly opposite the sombre prison. (penitentiary

On a sweep of land with fine views of Kingston and the waters around it, a stone fortress rises, one that has much to say if it could only speak: Fort Henry, dating to the early 1800s, serving over the years as a defence, a wartime prisoner-of-war camp and more recently a historic site drawing tens of thousands.

My wife Barbara and I, using a convenient hop-on/hop-off trolley, arrived at Fort Henry where we had lunch in a shadowy stonewalled room called The Battery Bistro, a café where you feel enveloped in the past. There’s inevitable solemnity at Fort Henry, especially for those who lost relatives in the wars of the 20th century.

One attraction we couldn’t attend but wish we did: a twice weekly sunset ceremony in which Fort Henry guards perform military music and manoeuvres of the 1860s. It’s all at

One man towers in Kingston memory: John A. Macdonald, our first prime minister, the man who more than any other led in creating Canada. I stood in the square beside the City Hall where, “John A.” as history knows him, began his political life in 1843 as an alderman.

Just past noon, with a guide dressed in a costume of John A.’s days, I took the John A. Macdonald walk, back through streets and to buildings where his provocative life unfolded and where his spirit, many say, still lingers. My guide, Paul Dyck, a graduate of Queen’s, was filled with facts and zeal for John A.’s story.

We saw sites of his private and political life, some of high controversy, given his chronic drinking and one scandal. As a young lawyer he defended men charged with crimes carrying the death penalty. One story stood out. Our guide told of a man sentenced to hang, was hanged, but somehow survived. For a few minutes.

“The rope was too long,” said Dyck, “and he hit the ground, stood up and shouted ‘See, I wasn’t intended to be hanged.’ It didn’t work. The rope was shortened, he was hanged again, this time staying hanged.”

The most poignant moment was one where we began and ended: the Square at City Hall. There, on a day in June 1891, John A’s casket arrived home by train from Ottawa. Unnumbered thousands came, in respect and affection, for a man who despite political scandal and personal problems, is probably the greatest of all prime ministers, having brought about the Canada we cherish. For John A. theatrical walking tours:

The waters beside Kingston are like no others, usually serene and made special by their islands: Wolfe, Howe, Amherst and several others. Each time we visit, we take a cruise with 1000 Island Cruises, a company offering a variety of affordable trips. We boarded The Island Queen about 5:30 on a sun-washed evening, then went to the second level and a reserved corner table. The Queen was comfortably filled but not crowded.

Just before six, our server arrived with our glass of wine and we were offshore. The high sun began its descent over the limestone buildings of Kingston’s regal Royal Military College.

Then we slipped by Fort Henry. The recorded commentary mentioned islands I’d not heard of: Cedar Island, Whiskey Island and so on.

Dinner began as we drew near the best known of all Kingston Islands, Wolfe Island, now with its wind farm, an aspect given such attention by the commentary I felt I was in a classroom on wind energy. Dinner was a varied, tasty buffet — good food without ambition to high cuisine — made very pleasurable with my Prince Edward County red wine.

The evening went well, smoothly helped by a strolling strumming singer, Roger James, a man with a crooner’s voice who kept the atmosphere relaxed, along with commentary that kept us interested. The cruise lasted two hours and for me the view I remember most came on our return.

As we neared shore, the last sun fell over the limestone towers and domes. The old Kingston Penitentiary — a fine piece of architecture standing since 1835 — glowed in the day’s last light. Suddenly, the sight of the building, brought back a memory from another visit I made to Kingston.

I was doing a magazine article on the city and so interviewed a Queen’s professor. As we were finishing, I casually asked if it bothered him that a maximum-security prison was near his home. He smiled. “Not at all,” he said. “They make good neighbours — they’re always quiet.” Not bad.

The Rosemount Inn

The basics: For information on Kingston and nearby attractions: For information on Rosemount Inn & Spa: or toll free: 888-871-8844. Ken Bagnell’s visit to Kingston was assisted by Tourism Kingston.