Inspire Me! blog

A thankful Thursday

A short post after a crazy week has left me with a few things to be thankful for.

On Monday my laptop battery stopped recharging. I spent all of Tuesday afternoon trying to resolve the issue, which turned out to be a defective charger. The solution seemed simple: buy a universal charger — which Best Buy didn’t have in stock. The unusually tiny prong on the tip that gets inserted into the laptop port was an extra complication.

I won’t go into all the tiresome details of running around to four different stores, but a big shout-out to our local Staples techies, who opened several packages to help me find a tip that fit — not perfectly, but enough to do the job. I really like my Acer SSD laptop, but seriously, what’s with the non-standard charging tip?!

Since then, I’ve been pushing hard to finish my NaNoWriMo challenge of 50,000 words of my second book by the end of the month. Today’s chapters were a challenge. My protagonist and a companion spent some hazardous time in Ukhu Pacha, the Inca Underworld, and I wasn’t sure how they were going to get out of there alive when I started writing. They did, of course, since the book hasn’t come to a dead end, and I’m happy with that pun and with the solution.

Yesterday hubby and I took advantage — along with several of our neighbours — of what looked to be the last mild day for a while to put up the exterior holiday lights. They look beautiful, and though we’ve barely had any snowflakes in our area so far it is starting to feel Christmas-y.

Our new bread machine showed up several days early — I have sensitivities to barley and some other ingredients in store-bought bread, so I’ll soon be able to produce my own loaves of bread in only two hours. The machine makes sourdough as well — our favourite 🙂 I’ll let you know about the results!

This Saturday is Tree Day, something I look forward to every year and my hubby enjoys once we’ve gotten our fresh evergreen securely in its stand. A little help putting the lights on it, and then he can chill while I pull out the boxes of decorations we’ve collected over the years, many during our travels. They tell a story of our life together, from highlights (great moments abroad) to low-lights (the black and gold hearts that represent our beloved dogs who are no longer with us).

I wish a Happy Thanksgiving to our family and friends in the U.S., and hope that all of you have something to give thanks for today.

430 million years of history into cement

Buried under more than 50 wineries, 10 golf courses, a college and a university, shopping malls, an outlet mall, and around 447,000 residents lie rocks that predate the dinosaurs by almost 350 million years. Standing on top of the Niagara Escarpment and looking out over the Queenston Quarry, it’s impossible to imagine what this land looked like so long ago.

More recent than that, but even harder to picture as the wind blew clouds fiercely across the sky, from 23,000 to 12,000 years ago the land we were standing on was covered in a glacial sheet of ice between 1 to 3 miles thick. That was the last of three successive glaciers that changed the shape of everything in southern Ontario.

Ice of a mile thick would exert 150 tons per square foot of pressure — it’s been estimated that the weight of the Late Wisconsin Glacier pushed the land 200 feet downward. When a glacier retreats the land begins to push back up, and in the Niagara basin it created the 11th and 13th largest lakes in the world: Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. We took visiting friends from Australia to the beach along Lake Ontario, and they asked if they were looking at the sea, not a lake.

At 445 million years ago, the entire area was a sea — the Michigan sea. tropical, and full of small creatures that, when they died, deposited enough calcium carbonate shells to form thick layers of sediment that slowly turned into layers and layers of limestone. It was this very limestone that, over 400 million years later, would become the basis for both a quarry and a cement company in 19th century Queenston, originally named Queen’s Town by the British soldiers occupying the area during the War of 1812, then shortened to Queenstown. The area was actually settled in the 1770s by Loyalist refugees and immigrants from the United States.

The Queenston Quarry was founded in 1837, supplying the stone for many of Ontario’s cities. The Royal Ontario Museum, Queen’s Park and Union Station in Toronto were all built with Queenston stone.

In 1882, ‘Isaac Usher & Sons’ opened a cement operation at the top of the escarpment running past the quarry. They mined a layer of stone with components similar to cement, firing it in huge limestone kilns, Once finished in the kilns, the product was ground into a powder and sold as Red Star cement. It was the first such plant in Ontario. In 1898, the Ushers issued a 33-page pamphlet entitled “Practical Hints on the Use of Queenston Cement” can still be found in libraries as far away as Australia.

Screenshot of brochure cover; the document can be viewed in its entirety on the Canadiana website.

The Ushers closed their doors in 1905, and their kilns and ovens began to disappear under the rich soil and forests of the escarpment. Luckily they didn’t vanish entirely, and partially-restored remnants can still be seen today on a strenuous hike along Queenston Heights.

The trail starts off innocuously flat.

After a while you come across a strange structure poking its head out of the trees. It’s an old metal tower that was apparently used by the Department of National Defence to intercept foreign radio waves during the Cold War.

As we wound our way through the trees, we found two of the pit ovens used to treat the raw limestone.

The remarkable stone structure of the escarpment could be seen in a breathtaking natural amphitheatre about half of the way to the actual kilns.

After that point the trail becomes extremely hilly, and it was treacherous to hike on a fall day after several days of rain had littered the ground under our feet with thousands of wet leaves.

If you want to do this hike, I’d recommend spike-tipped hiking poles at the very least. Even with sturdy treads at the bottom of my hiking boots, I was happy to take the bypass where dirt steps have been added.

It took us a good 45 minutes to reach the kilns.

During excavation of the Third Welland Canal, it was discovered that a layer of natural cement rock underlay the blue dolomite running across much of the Niagara Escarpment. Usher leased the land from the owner of the property in order to build three kilns (later increased to six), 40 feet high by 10 feet in diameter. Two of them can be seen in the photo below.


The kilns were constructed of rubble and lined with fire brick and fire clay.

At the bottom, steel rails formed grates on which firewood and soft coal were layered with the cement rock and soft coal until the kiln was filled. The firewood was then lighted and kept burning as more coal and rock were added from the top. Below you can see remnants of the steel rails in the roof of the bottom opening.

I haven’t so far been able to find a definitive description of the process, but the resulting cement powder was packed in barrels produced at the warehouse. Each barrel held 350 pounds of powder.

The Queenston Cement Works was a going concern for several years, supplying cement for the St. Lawrence/Welland and Sault Ste. Marie Canals. The adhesiveness of Ushers’ cement was so high that in 1932 , during the blasting to remove the old Welland River Aqueduct, which carried the Welland River under the Canal, the stone itself typically broke before the cement bond did.

Unfortunately the Ushers weren’t able to compete with the lower pricing of Portland cement, developed in England earlier that century. Portland’s base materials were lower cost and widely available, and this cement remains in wide usage to this day. Queenston Cement also took 24 hours to dry, as compared to only 6 hours for Portland.

The cement stone was mined not far from the kilns in a system of caves that can still be seen.

When you look in through one of the two openings, you understand how difficult this mining must have been.

The caves are squatter than a person’s height, and the limestone rock bearing down on them is full of cracks. The tunnels are also flooded much of the time.

People have climbed down into them to have a look around, but from the number of cave-ins that have been spotted not far from the entrances, it’s not a stunt I’d recommend.

The Queenston Quarry itself was operated until apparently around 2008; its last owner as such was Lafarge Canada. After that it was bought by a developer, the Queenston Quarry Reclamation Company, who’s transforming the land into a golf course and residences. And so, another piece of Niagara history changes hands and develops a new face.

Carrying the torch

Maple leaves in autumn, by E. Jurus, all rights reserved

Today was Remembrance Day in Canada. Officially it commemorates the ending of hostilities in World War One, also called the Great War. Very few people from that time period are still alive today, and the impact of that event on the world is fading. We have to read a history of it to comprehend how terrible it was — over 8 million soldier deaths, and up to 100 million associated deaths, including the infamous ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic in 1918 that originated in an American military facility. It spread around the world quickly through troop movements and public events like the Liberty Loans Parade held in Philadelphia to promote war bonds (an outbreak from that event killed 12,000 people alone). As bad as our current pandemic is today, I don’t think we can in any way understand what the world went through during that time.

For a lot of Baby Boomers, World War Two has more presence in our consciousness. My mom was a nurse in Europe during the war, and some of her stories of holding her post in a surgical theatre while bombs were falling are hair-raising. Even though both my parents survived the war, it’s impact never left them, whether via deep emotional scars or medical fallout from food rationing and years of stress. My dad never talked about the war much; his outlet was to write novels about it, which I suspect weren’t entirely fictional, but I imagine it was easier to write as if it all happened to someone else.

And of course there have been veterans of many more conflicts, localized but just as terrible to go through. I have a friend who served as a Peacekeeper for a time; what little he’s told me about it sounds traumatic in a way that those of us back home will hopefully never experience.

The poem written by Dr. John McCrae after a friend of his was killed in the trenches in Belgium during the spring of 1915, less than a year into WWI, has become an icon of that first global battle. In Flanders Fields is deeply moving, as the dead who sacrificed everything to preserve freedom ask us to carry the torch they’ve passed through generation after generation.

Today we’re engaged in our own global battle, even if it hasn’t been given a name. We live in a world of amazing technological and medical advancements, but we’re still fighting greed, selfishness and prejudice — governments and corporations that are destroying the environment for profit, people who put their own desires over the greater need to prevent COVID from causing many more deaths, and people who treat badly anyone different from themselves.

So we carry the torch, continuing the fight against fear, ignorance and oppression a century later. We can’t let our lives be defined by fear, whether it’s of a viewpoint or way of life that’s different from ours, or of an incredible medical advancement that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of people to get vaccinated against the most devastating disease of the 21st century to date, or of doing the right thing, even when it’s challenging. Take up the torch, each of you, and let’s continue the fight to make the world a better place. Together, we can do it.

Lest we forget!

Diving in to my alternate reality again

It’s that time of year again, when published and unpublished writers dedicate the entire month to getting 50,000 words’ worth of writing toward a new novel. I’m working on Book 2 in my trilogy; Book 1 is going through one more edit for style, and I hope to get it out to my team of beta readers in the next few days.

It’s an interesting sensation, putting your baby out there for someone else to read — especially to beta readers, because you hope they enjoy it but conversely want them to point out whatever they didn’t like. I am incredibly grateful to the people who’ve volunteered to do this for me.

I read through the NaNoWriMo forums from time to time, and participate in a couple of groups. With one completed novel under my belt, I think I can now offer the following recommendations if you decide to join the fray and become a novelist:

a) Have an outline of your novel with at least all the main plot points mapped out. During the NaNo writing sprint, the challenge is to get your ideas out of your head and onto the page, but if you have no idea what should be happening, I’m not sure you’ll get very far.

b) Get into the head of your protagonist. Your story is going to put her/him/them in a series of challenging situations — you should know how they’re going to react (although on occasion they may surprise you).

c) Reduce distractions. If you’re anything like me, you’ve had the story concept for years but put off writing it out, so don’t waste more time by procrastinating. The NaNo writing month isn’t meant to create the perfect book, just the book that’s been in your head, even in rough form. Making the book better happens in the editing.

d) As I went along, I started a spreadsheet on which I noted ideas for what should happen next and later on in the book. As I was moving through the story, more scenes and events began to pop into my head. It didn’t take me long to have the story completely fleshed out. I don’t know how other writers do it, but this really worked for me.

e) Figure out what you want the ending of the book to be. This helps you determine what needs to happen in the protagonist’s journey to arrive at that point. It’s like a beacon far away, reminding you which way you need to be headed.

f) Just write. Nothing else happens until you write those words.

Good luck to all my fellow NaNoWriMo writers!

Lest we forget — Remembrance Day November 11th

Ghosts in the Graveyard

spectral soldiers walking on the grounds, clo

Ghosts have been seen in all manner of locations. A cemetery might seem a bit clichéd, if you’re a non-corporeal citizen, but I imagine you wouldn’t have much choice in the matter.

If the cemetery in question has an additional layer of drama, such as Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario, ghost sightings are inevitable.

The natural rise in the landscape where the cemetery lies was part of a 23-acre parcel sold to a young couple in 1799 by the wife’s father, James Forsyth. Forsyth had received a crown land grant of 388 acres along the Niagara River at the Horseshoe Falls and became one of the first ten families to settle into the Niagara Falls area.

The husband, Christopher Buchner, was a United Empire Loyalist, i.e. a loyalist to the British side during the American Revolution. He’d fled to Ontario around 1786, and married Sarah Forsyth, James’ daughter. At some point, Christopher and Sarah decided to set aside some of their land as a burying ground for themselves and neighbouring settlers.

It would soon prove prophetic. Within three years of the happy couple settling on their homestead, the War of 1812 broke out. A dispute over trade issues between the United States and the United Kingdom, it naturally spilled across the easiest access points in and around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. After the American armies tried to cut off military supply lines at Montreal but failed, in the summer of 1814 they tried again at Niagara Falls, in what would become the infamous Battle of Lundy’s Lane.

This battle took place right on the peaceful, orchard-flanked hill where the Buchners had decided to allow people to lay their loved ones to rest, and it became known as one of the bloodiest battles of the War. Hundreds of soldiers fought at very close quarters;  Lieutenant General Gordon Drummond reported that:  

“Of so determined a Character were [the American] attacks directed against our guns that our Artillery Men were bayonetted by the enemy in the Act of loading, and the muzzles of the Enemy’s Guns were advanced within a few Yards of ours”.

Both sides suffered heavy of casualties, but the British had won a strategic victory.

Today the battlefield lies like a phantom below the green grass of Drummond Hill and the same-named Cemetery. It’s a nationally recognized heritage site, and an interesting stroll as Halloween approaches.

There have been accounts of five spectral soldiers limping around the grounds, clouds of vague ectoplasm, as well as the sounds of boots and shouting. Since the cemetery is cheek-by-jowl with one of the busiest tourist sites in the world, however, noises heard in the vicinity may be coming from the boisterous living.

I visited the cemetery on a chilly day shadowed by dark, heavy clouds with occasional piercings of sunlight. The colonial origins of the place show in numerous tombstones so weathered that it’s impossible to read their entire inscription.

The cemetery is in itself a time capsule of the region — old headstones of early settlers that fractured when they fell over and have been respectfully encased in a stone bed for preservation,

while those still upright have been given steel sleeves to keep them in situ,

One interesting find was the burial place of a survivor on the Underground Railroad.

Burr Plato went on to become a free, prominent citizen in the Niagara Region. One of the most famous residents is Laura Secord, a local heroine who famously walked 20 miles through hilly, tree-studded terrain to warn British forces of an impending attack by American troops.

In 1895 the Canadian Parliament contributed a battle memorial to mark the remains of 22 British soldiers who were buried in the vault below it. The tall monument is flanked by stacks of cannonballs and two large cannons (the provenance of which I haven’t been able to find out).

There appears to be an entrance to the under-croft that’s shrouded in locks and iron fencing; it’s not a spot I’d like to wander near in the dead of night.

The age of the cemetery gives a certain amount of gravity, and the atmospheric old cairns among the trees supply an inherent eeriness.

One headstone that I came across was surprisingly creepy. The figure at the top, where you might expect to find an angel or a religious statue, is instead something completely encased in a draped shroud — perhaps the deceased on the next stage of their journey?

I can’t report any ghosts, orbs or strange feelings while I was there, or any spectral shapes showing up in my photographs. I wish the area surrounding the site had been better preserved; it’s hard to get a sense of the battle or the time period. Unfortunately Niagara Falls has been subjected to rampant tourism development, so this little remnant of history sits like a ghost town in the middle of the city. May all the people who fought valiantly for their cause find a tranquil rest there. On the other hand, judging by the photo below, this place would make a great film site for a zombie horde 😉

All photos are by me and all rights reserved.