Heritage off the 401

The Fairfield White House, Bath

Buildings and architecture, Community

Published Date: Feb 12, 2009

Photo: The Fairfield White House, Bath

Highway 401, stretching from Windsor to the Quebec border, is one of the busiest highways in North America. Anyone who has journeyed east of Toronto will agree that most of the time, the 401 is the fastest route to such destinations as Kingston, Brockville and Cornwall. But it is far from the most exciting. Throughout eastern Ontario, often just a short distance from the 401, there are several routes you can take to explore the rich built, cultural and natural heritage of southeastern Ontario.

One route is the Loyalist Parkway, or Highway 33, which runs from Trenton to Kingston and follows the course of Loyalist settlement in this part of the province. The drive along the Loyalist Parkway affords beautiful views of Lake Ontario and the surrounding countryside, as well as opportunities to explore and interpret the area’s abundant Loyalist heritage. In Picton, you can visit the District Court House and Gaol, a two-storey Greek Revival structure built between 1832 and 1834. It remains one of Ontario’s oldest public buildings still in use. Just north of Picton is the White Chapel – the first Methodist church in Prince Edward County. It has existed as a place of worship longer than any Methodist church in the province. This section of the parkway also brings you in close proximity to Sandbanks Provincial Park – home to two of the largest freshwater sandbars in the world and a diversity of plant and wildlife.

Heading east from Picton, the Glenora ferry takes you to Adolphustown, where you can view the provincial plaque erected in recognition of the 1784 Loyalist Landing Place and visit the UEL Heritage Centre and Park. You may also wish to visit Hay Bay Church just north of the town. Built in 1792, it was the first Methodist Chapel in Upper Canada. Further east is The Fairfield White House in Bath. Built by William Fairfield in 1793, this house survives as an outstanding 18th-century building.

Sandbanks Provincial Park contains two of the largest freshwater sandbars in the world (© Ontario Tourism, 2009)

Photo: Sandbanks Provincial Park contains two of the largest freshwater sandbars in the world (© Ontario Tourism, 2009)

Picton District Court House and Gaol (© Ontario Tourism, 2009)

Photo: Picton District Court House and Gaol (© Ontario Tourism, 2009)

From Bath, it is not far to Kingston – where you could spend several days exploring its cultural and built heritage. Although the Loyalist Parkway ends at Kingston, you need not return to the 401. Travel east a short distance on Highway 2 to connect with the 1000 Islands Parkway at Gananoque and travel along the north shore of the St. Lawrence to Brockville. Along this route are many chances to experience the natural heritage of the 1000 Islands ecosystem through island tours, canoe trips and scuba diving.

The city of Brockville lies at the east end of the 1000 Islands Parkway, boasting a wealth of built and cultural heritage. While the city is home to a number of stately homes, it also has an impressive historic downtown. At the north end sits the Johnstown District Court House and Gaol, a stone neoclassical structure – one of the finer pre-1845 court houses remaining in Ontario. Extending south from the court house to the St. Lawrence, Court House Avenue is a wide boulevard with an elaborate fountain, lovely gardens and a First World War memorial.

Continuing east along Highway 2, you will reach the historic fort town of Prescott. If your interest is military heritage, visit Fort Wellington. Now a National Historic Site, Fort Wellington was built during the War of 1812 to defend the St. Lawrence River shipping route from American invasion. The Battle of the Windmill National Historic Site is also located in Prescott. This stone windmill stands as a lasting reminder of the 1838 skirmish. A visit to the Blue Church in Prescott is another worthwhile experience. Built in 1845, this small, wooden chapel exists as a memorial to the many settlers whose graves are located in the adjacent churchyard.

Continue your heritage tour in the nearby Morrisburg area and discover the heritage of the St. Lawrence Seaway. A visit to the Lost Villages Museum Complex tells the stories of communities along the St. Lawrence that were flooded in 1958 to allow for construction of the Seaway.

The next time you venture into eastern Ontario along the 401, consider taking a detour to explore these and other heritage gems just off the highway. While you may not get to your final destination as quickly, it will certainly be a worthwhile adventure as you explore the heritage treasures of southeastern Ontario.