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Fire over the falls

Ablaze from stem to stern, the American side-wheel steamship Caroline is propelled over Niagara Falls on a cold, moonlit night in the winter of 1837, a victim of rebellion. Earlier that year, Canadian William Lyon Mackenzie had taken up arms against the British-controlled government, seeking democratic reforms. For a time, the action centered on what is now Ontario, then called Upper Canada. By November, Mackenzie’s followers had been forced to regroup along the Niagara River, on the Canada-U.S. border, and they took control of Navy Island, just above Niagara Falls.

Now Caroline enters the story. The coal-fired steamship was the height of technology at the time, well-suited to America’s rivers and with plenty of power and cargo space. Privately owned, she was the ideal vessel for sympathizers to use for supplying Mackenzie’s followers.
For a time, it worked. On the night of Dec. 29, however, government loyalists crossed the Niagara River and seized Caroline under the cover of darkness, towed her out into the stream, set her on fire and let her go, off into the swift-flowing waters.
But that wasn’t all; the loyalists also killed an American sympathizer, and the “Caroline Affair” became a cause célèbre. President Martin Van Buren lodged a formal protest, and U.S. troops were sent in to keep things quiet as anti-British feeling swept through the area. Some good did come of the so-called Caroline Affair. Under the 1842 treaty that resolved the matter, Great Britain and the United States, among other things, agreed to peacefully share the Great Lakes.
The Caroline, it seems, did not go down in vain.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.


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