Our History

Steeped in history yet always changing.

Kingston, Ontario, Canada is a city rich in history and culture.

We were first settled in the 1600s on First Nation lands named Katarokwi, and were later referred to as King’s Town in honour of King George III (until it was shortened to Kingston in 1788).

You should know that we were named Canada’s first Capital in 1841, but the capital was relocated in 1844 since Kingston was considered vulnerable to attacks because of our proximity to the United States (it was a different time) and our location on the water.

We are also home of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald (or, Sir John A.), who was also a respected lawyer and councillor in the city. Today, you can experience a bit of history by grabbing a beer in his old law office, The Public House. You can also visit the home where Sir John A. raised his family at the National Historic Site Bellevue House, built in the 1840s.

We’ve always been a city steeped in history yet always changing – for example, City Hall (built in 1844 by George Brown) has at times housed a tavern, a women’s medical college, and was once the police headquarters and home to the city jail (you can still visit the old jail cells in the basement!)

Did you know that a fire destroyed most the downtown, including old City Hall in 1840? To prevent this from ever happening again, the city prohibited building with wood and therefore began building with brick and stone (mostly local limestone) – which is why Kingston is named the ‘limestone city’ today since most of our historical buildings are made from beautiful limestone.

But the times, they do change and when you meander downtown you’ll find many historic buildings that have been transformed over the years. For example, the old Kingston Fire Hall, as well as the historic Wooden Mill, have been converted into restaurants and the Kingston and Pembroke Railway Station provides a convenient location for the Visitor Centre.

Downtown Kingston is also home to The Kingston Public Market, the oldest market in Ontario, which has been providing food and a sense of community to the residents of our city since 1801.

Kingston’s Military History

Because of our strategic location at the point where the Cataraqui River, St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario meet (as well as its proximity to the United States border), Kingston was of extreme military importance back in the day.

Starting with the construction of the French trading post and military fort, Fort Frontenac, the 1600s and 1700s saw both a French and British military presence in the region. Kingston was a hot spot during the War of 1812 (fought between the United States and Great Britain) and later became the base for Britain’s navy to guard the Rideau Canal, built in 1832.

The original fort was built during the war of 1812, but after the war, Fort Henry replaced the existing fortification and the Martello Towers (Cathcart Tower, Shoal Tower, Murney Tower, and Fort Frederick) were built to defend the city against any future attacks – today, Fort Henry remains the largest fortification west of Quebec City, and is a museum, National Historic Site, and part of the Rideau Canal designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kingston’s Marine History

We’re really proud of our arts and creative community, and they have always had a prominent role in Kingston’s history.

For example, The Grand Theatre has been a staple in Kingston since its opening in 1879. Although it has changed over the years (from Martin’s Opera House to the Grand Opera House to a movie theatre), it’s presently the home of the Kingston Symphony, as well as host to both local and international artists and remains a central cultural venue within the Kingston community.

Our city is also home to many famous artists, musicians, actors, and writers like the Tragically Hip, Sarah Harmer, Dan Akroyd, and Michael Andre. Some prominent writers that called Kingston home include Matt Cohen, Robertson Davies, Janette Turner Hospital, Helen Humphreys, Diane Schoemperlen and Bronwen Wallace (we told you we were smart!)

Throughout Kingston’s history, we have always had a vibrant nightlife. In 1840, we had a total of 132 licensed taverns (… with many more unlicensed) for a population of 8,000. Over the years, our population has grown and so has our restaurant and nightlife scene with more restaurants and bars per capita than almost any other city in Canada.

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