Relive History at Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York
May 27, 2022
Located on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, the fort of the same name carries a legacy and proud history. Thousands of soldiers and refugees lived there, both when it was active and after. Having seen the front lines of several battles, the fort took a lot of damage over the years and was continuously rebuilt. Interestingly, both British and American troops held the fort over time. The fort even served as a refuge for victims during the Holocaust. So this Memorial Day Weekend, take a trip to Fort Ontario in Oswego to learn about its incredible history.
The History of Fort Ontario
Believe it or not, the current fort is the fourth one to stand on the property. The first fort, “The Fort of Six Nations”, was built by British troops in 1755. Originally an 8-sided wooden stockade, it served during the French and Indian War to protect the region. The fort provided additional defense for Fort Oswego, which sat across the river at the time (but is no longer there). The original name was likely representative of the 6 nations of Native Americans that made up the Iroquois Confederacy. Unfortunately, French soldiers destroyed the fort just a year later during the Battle of Fort Oswego.
In 1759, the British rebuilt a fort on the same grounds. But after the British abandoned it, American troops destroy this second fort in 1778. Yet the British did not stay gone for long. In 1782 the British returned to rebuild the fort yet again. The redcoats remained in control of the fort through the end of the revolution.
Several decades passed before the fort saw battle again. This time, Fort Ontario was being controlled by the Americans. It was the British who destroyed it.
Fort Ontario Today
It wasn’t until 1838 that the current Fort Ontario we know today was built. Rising from the remnants of the forts that came before it, Americans rebuilt Fort Ontario for the last time. Why? During the Civil War, northern troops feared that the British would cross Lake Ontario from Canada to go support the south.
The shape of the fort is just as iconic as its history. The five-pointed star is anchored by five bastions at its corners. This style of fort was optimized for cannons and was very popular for several centuries throughout Europe.
Fort Ontario in the 20th Century
Luckily, the continental United States has not seen battle in over a century. But Fort Ontario continued to serve many purposes. During World War 1, the fort was used as a military hospital. Medical personnel trained there before they were deployed to Europe.
During World War 2, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established Safe Haven at Fort Ontario. With an executive order, he created the only Holocaust refugee camp in the United States. In 1944, Safe Haven welcomed 982 refugees to safety at the fort. When the war was over, most of them decided to stay in the US after being befriended by the local community. Now, the Safe Haven Museum resides in an old gate house at Fort Ontario. Visitors can learn all about the refugees and the lives they lived there.
After the war, veterans and their families lived there for several more years. Then in 1949 the fort became a state historic site. Now, visitors can enjoy walking the grounds, seeing the barracks, and exploring the bunkers.
Visiting Fort Ontario in Oswego
When is Fort Ontario open?
The fort is open in the summer months, from early May to mid-October. Fort Ontario typically closes for the season on Columbus Day. Visitors are welcome Wednesday through Sunday, plus any holidays that fall on Mondays.
How much does it cost to visit Fort Ontario?
The fort is quite inexpensive to visit. At just $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, and FREE for children under 12, it’s hard to pass up a visit. And while you’re wondering, yes, admission to the fort is free for active military and veterans. Even better, leashed dogs are welcome on the property.
Visitors to Fort Ontario can relive history while walking the grounds and stepping inside the historic buildings. Explore the barracks that the soldiers lived in. Visit the mess hall and envision what a meal for the troops would have been like in the 1800s. Go underground in the casemates and peek out the cannon windows. Step inside the officer headquarters. Look inside the gunpowder room that held the artillery. Discover artifacts from the fort’s history. But most importantly, learn about the incredible history that took place at Fort Ontario over multiple centuries.
Plus, one of the best parts about visiting the fort is the live reenactions and knowledgeable tour guides. Both staff and volunteer adorn period-appropriate clothing and love to answer questions you have during your visit. My favorite part? Asking one of the soldiers to shoot his musket. Just be warned – it’s quite loud!
Events at Fort Ontario
It should come as no surprise that the fort holds several military and history related events. These events occur both while the fort is open and during its off-season.
Each year Fort Ontario is one of 2,500+ locations across the country to host Wreaths Across America. Every December the event is held to celebrate the lives of our military veterans.
As part of New York State Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, the fort also hosts a First Day Hike on January 1st every year.
Throughout the summer, the fort also puts on reenactments, volunteer recruiting events, and historic tours. Be sure to check their Facebook page for the most updated information.
Lastly, Fort Ontario is part of the Haunted History Trail of New York. It’s actually one of several haunted places in Oswego. During October, the fort occasionally hosts ghost tours with local paranormal investigators.