This book is dedicated to Harriet Tubman, a conductor in the Underground Railroad and a woman of enormous courage.” When a guide book on bicycling in Niagara begins with this dedication, you suspect it might be special. Another clue is when you realize that the book is 324 pages long.
Marg Archibald’s Excellent Cycling Adventures in Niagara came to me recently as a surprise gift from a friend. I had seen the book, published in 1998, before, and it held no interest. I arrogantly assumed no one, especially an interloper from southern Alberta as Archibald was, could know more about cycling routes in Niagara than me, and the book was 24 years stale.
As we so often do, I spent a few minutes last week glancing through it to make sure my baseless pre-judgment was correct, and quickly realized how wrong I’d been. This book is a wonderfully entertaining mix of tales and anecdotes about Niagara’s history, and a bonanza of local trivia shared with perfect wit and subtle humour.
Archibald enlisted many local riders, including Pelham’s Steve Bauer, Regional Councillors, and transportation planners to share their thoughts and secrets on Niagara as a cycling destination. She relied heavily on the Freewheelers, Niagara’s preeminent non-competitive cycling club, to provide safe, interesting routes. John Helm, a Freewheeler, ground-truthed every route and all of the book’s 68 maps.
One needn’t be a cyclist to enjoy this book, or travel its 14 themed intra-Niagara road trip routes by car or motorcycle. Its shortest rides and accompanying thorough directions make for interesting walks.
When cycling west along Sugarloaf Street from H.H. Knoll Lakeview Park, located on the Port Colborne waterfront, I always turn left onto Tennessee Avenue through massive stone gates. It’s a short street that twists through ancient sand dunes. Beautiful old homes overlook the bay on its south side, more modest homes perch on now-manicured dunes to the north. Tennessee Avenue has a very unique history of which I was totally unaware until reading Archibald’s book.
“In 1880, Mr. P. McIntyre, a prominent Memphis, Tennessee businessman, took his family to visit relatives in Toronto. But their visit ended in a tent on the shores of Lake Erie,” states Archibald. She goes on to say that McIntyre’s daughter had become desperately ill during the trip, and this portion of Lake Erie shoreline was “the one place in the world conducive to her recovery.”
McIntyre’s daughter did recover, the family fell in love with the breezy beach, and within a few years 15 Memphis families and their servants had built palatial summer homes on this stretch of waterfront. They played tennis, rowed, held fancy balls and brought famous chefs from Buffalo to cook for them. The area was called Solid Comfort, and it was guarded by those same stone gates we cycle through today.
Archibald’s book is absolutely filled with similar stories about almost every community and historic area in the Region. Unfortunately, Pelham is only mentioned in conjunction with the Fonthill Kame and views from the escarpment. Better that than Archibald’s derisive description of Jordan: “Exploring Jordan would be the world’s tiniest bike ride.”
It is in the themed Great Rides section that Excellent Cycling Adventures in Niagara shines.
Archibald’s Freedom Trail route is brought to life with historical information and gossipy tidbits that turn this bike ride or drive into an entertaining educational adventure. What books have taught us over the years about Niagara’s role in the Underground Railway is brought to life on this route. Fort Erie was the most-used entry point into Canada: “The last step to freedom for many blacks who crossed here,” reads a historical plaque on the river’s edge.
Cycling or walking along the Niagara River in Fort Erie today, staring across the swift current, one can visualize exhausted slaves surreptitiously gathering on the New York shore, tantalizingly close to Canada and freedom. Their desperation to cross the river by any means possible, ferry, rowboat, swimming, even walking across frozen ice, becomes real.
The route follows the Niagara River from Fort Erie to Niagara-on-the-Lake, then into St. Catharines and Port Dalhousie, detailing the many locations connected to the Freedom Trail. St Paul’s Church in Fort Erie, whose congregation helped slaves escape and resettle. Little Africa, where many fugitives were helped to transition into self-determination and paid employment by those who had come before. The Niagara Falls British Methodist Episcopalian Church was a social and spiritual hub for many Black refugees.
Their desperation to cross the river by any means possible, ferry, rowboat, swimming, even walking across frozen ice, becomes real
Windmill Point, just west of Fort Erie on the shore of Lake Erie, offers a humbling side trip. “Looking out over the water, there you see the route taken by a Quaker farmer, Benjamin Baker, who regularly took his wagon, loaded with grain for milling, across the ice to the U.S. It was noticed that he came back over and over with the wheat still un-milled and other people in the wagon with him. Always Black people,” writes Archibald.
The Lighthouse Restaurant & Pub at the mouth of Black Creek is a favourite stop for cyclists needing a bite to eat or thirst-quenching brew when riding between Fort Erie and Niagara Falls. How much more alive would their ride become if they realized their lunch stop was originally the Black Creek Tavern and Restaurant, a safe house where slaves crossing from Grand Island could quietly paddle into the creek, then scramble by tunnel directly into the tavern’s basement to avoid detection.
As Archibald says, “It is the history behind these gentle sites that make them powerful.”
The Niagara Parkway Extravaganza ride covers much the same route, but is focused on more traditional tourism sites and activities. Archibald makes it clear that, “All the information in this book is completely independent. There have been no payments accepted for positive coverage,” which allows her to be honest in her opinions about the merits of each attraction.
The Canadian History Tour route is packed with trivia that would merely rate a footnote in history books. Crystal Beach’s amusement park, including the Crystal Ballroom, the largest unobstructed dance floor in North America at the time, was founded in 1888 as a religious Chautauqua summer camp. Interesting to know now, but for most of us long-time Niagarans heading to Crystal Beach as teenagers in beat-up old jalopies on a Friday or Saturday night, religion was the last thing we were looking for.
Choose your interest and Archibald has a Niagara route for it. Rural artist workshops and studios are the theme of To the Artists. The streams cascading over the escarpment are explored in The Quest for the Perfect Waterfall. The Garden of Eden ride reminds us how bountiful Niagara is as it takes us to busy fruit stands and small local markets.
Lovely as Pelham is, and as exciting as walking along Haist Street or the Steve Bauer Trail may be, change is good. In a section entitled Towns & Cities: Exploring and Routes In and Out, Archibald’s book contains numerous three to five kilometre bike rides in a variety of community cores that can easily be walked or jogged. A leisurely 2.5 K route in Grimsby includes the fourth oldest church in Ontario, the oldest inhabited building between Niagara and Kingston, a house that served as a barracks in the War of 1812 with a prison cell in the basement, and more.
As expected, there are detailed chapters on bikes and equipment, road and personal safety, and other cycling tips. Traffic levels and road configurations may have changed due to recent development in some communities, rendering a few routes outdated. In my opinion the book’s worth and charm lies in its storytelling and history. I can’t imagine an easier way for those new to Niagara, or looking to connect more intimately with our community, to do so than cycling, walking or driving the routes in this book.
Excellent Cycling Adventures in Niagara by Marg Archibald is available at the Lincoln-Pelham Library Fonthill branch, or can be purchased online. ◆