If you could go back in time, when would visit? What would you do? At Fort Wellington National Historic Site in Prescott you might find yourself time travelling to the 1800s where you can become a gunner in the Royal Artillery. Better still, they let you fire the cannon!
I must admit, I signed up for Fort Wellington’s Fire a Cannon program because I’ve spent way too many vacations yawning through museum visits and history tours. I was looking for something more exciting.
Fort Wellington was built during the War of 1812 to defend the St. Lawrence River shipping route against a possible attack by the United States, and it was rebuilt to thwart another American invasion during the 1837–1838 rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada. With this tumultuous history, there is no better place to fire a real cannon.
The experience begins at the modern visitor centre with an ominous waiver, which I imagine is not much different than the enlistment papers men signed in the 1800s. After agreeing that I am of age, that I will pay the $73.60 fee, and that I will follow instructions, I am presented with a wool uniform consisting of a blue coat with brass buttons and a hat. Do I look like a real soldier? Or a bellhop? Or a flying monkey from Wizard of Oz? Either way, I resist the urge to snap a “selfie” as the commander escorts me outside onto the fort field.
With the historic fort as a backdrop, I meet my crew and cannon. “It is so shiny!” I nervously exclaim as the three seasoned gunners exchange glances and get to work teaching this rookie. In the next half hour, I get a crash course in loading a real muzzle-loading cannon from the War of 1812. Through a series of commands, I use a tool called a worm that looks like a giant corkscrew to clear out the barrel, a sponge to cool it down, and a rammer to seat the explosive cartridge. My crew – who seemed so serious at first – exchange stories, tips, and laughs as the sun draws beads of sweat to our brows. After a short period of time, I pass inspection and am ready to fire.
The cannon is loaded. A crowd has formed. I march up to the loaded weapon. I am presented with a fiery wick and final instruction: “Do NOT fire until you hear the command for fire.” Through my earplugs, I can hear only my own nervous breathing. From inside the fort, the huge British flag is blowing in the wind. In front of me, the menacing St. Lawrence River flows between two countries. In this moment, I truly feel like I have gone back in time.
The adrenaline rush that follows indescribable. The ground shakes and I feel it in my chest. After a slight pause, I resist the urge to yell “That was AWESOME!”
When the smoke clears, I pose for photos with tourists and regrettably bid farewell to the 1800s and my crew. The commander congratulates me as I turn in my uniform. A photographer has documented this experience and I am made an honourary gunner at Fort Wellington National Historic Site and presented with a certificate, photos, and dogtags.
I promise to return. And I will. Fort Wellington offers a rare evening whisky tasting seminar at the end of August. What better way to encourage camaraderie among the troops than by sharing a wee dram?
Fort Wellington tells the story of Canadian military history from the War of 1812 up until Confederation in 1867. I feel privileged to have joined the ranks of history, if only for an hour.
If cannon-firing and whisky tastings are not for you, you can visit the historic site more traditionally through tours and interactions with costumed guides. The fort is also extremely family-friendly with the Parks Canada Xplorers program for kids. For information on how you can plan your visit to Fort Wellington, check out their website.