Note: This article on Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Chautauqua Neighbourhood is written by contributing writer, Shawna Butts, Assistant Curator at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum.
In Niagara-on-the-Lake, there is a unique neighbourhood where the streets are laid out in a spoke and wheel pattern. This neighbourhood is fondly known as Chautauqua or “SHAW-
tauqua” for the numerous Shaw Festival staff members who have resided there over the years.
So, how did this neighbourhood in town come to be and what the heck is Chautauqua?
Crookston to Chautauqua
This area in town was first known as Crookston after the estate that James Crooks built on this
property in the late 18th century. Unfortunately, on May 27, 1813, Crookston was the site of the
initial bombardment for the American invasion of Niagara during the War of 1812. Crooks’
estate was so destroyed that he kept the property but resettled in the Hamilton area. For those
Hamiltonians and outdoor explorers like me, Crooks’ Hollow bears his name!
The property remained in the family until it was sold to the town’s Postmaster, Robert Warren,
in 1886. Robert dreamed of creating a summer camp in Niagara-on-the-Lake that was modelled
after the Chautauqua Institution’s annual summer camps in the United States.
The Canadian Chautauqua and the Niagara Assembly
Now for those who don’t know what the Chautauqua Institution is, it is not like the camps kids
are sent to or like the Kellerman Mountain resort from the movie Dirty Dancing where you
would have the time of your life. (If you ask me, NOTL’s Chautauqua Assembly needed a little
Patrick Swayze to liven it up!)
Instead, it was an annual summer retreat and education program that was developed to train
Methodist Sunday school teachers and church workers. This style of learning became so
popular that the institution expanded to incorporate subjects beyond religion.
The institute even created a remote learning course so that the working class could obtain post-
secondary education. The success of this course is what led to Chautauqua’s popularity. As its
members and graduates spread the Chautauqua idea, many towns established Chautauqua
Assemblies. And Niagara-on-the-Lake was about to get its very own!
Robert Warren purchased the Crookston property so that it could become the site of the
Canadian Chautauqua. Several interested parties were interested in his plans, so they formed
the Niagara Assembly to oversee the development and management of the Canadian
An Ambitious Plan
Their plans were overly ambitious. The Niagara Assembly constructed two hotels, the Hotel
Chautauqua and the Lakeview Boarding House, a wharf, and a generating plant. They also had
about 500 lots that they planned to lease for 99-year terms so that people could build cottages.
Several of these cottages still exist today and are just as quaint as the Dreamweaver
Cottage, Five Point Cottage, and Blue Pearl, all located in Chautauqua, which can be rented from Niagara
Holiday Rentals during your stay in town. (I swear that I willingly wrote this and was not
coerced in any way to plug their properties lol!).
One of the most unique features of the creation of the Canadian Chautauqua that still exists
today is how they laid out the grounds. They did it based on a radial plane, with the streets
spreading from a central point. In the centre, they constructed their amphitheatre, which is
where a lot of the lectures and divine services took place. The amphitheatre had a seating
capacity of about 4,000 people.
Attendees to the Canadian Chautauqua didn’t just spend time learning all day long. Activities
like lawn bowling and tennis, baseball, and golf were all made available to those wanting to
have a little fun in the sun. Resident, John Readhead, also opened the Chautauqua Boat and
Bath Houses so that people could go boating or fishing.
Change in Direction
Now I wish I could tell you that the Niagara Assembly’s venture was a success, but it was a
costly and elaborate undertaking that failed. The first season opened in 1888 and by 1894 the
Niagara Assembly went bankrupt.
There were a lot of forces working against them. A mortgage oversite, overassessment of their
property taxes, and lack of interest in leasing lots led to their dissolution.
A new group, made up of several former members of the Niagara Assembly’s board of Directors
purchased the property and ran the hotel and resort until 1909 when the hotel was destroyed
by a fire.
While the Niagara Assembly’s Canadian Chautauqua has now been closed for some 130 years,
their summer resort has left behind a lasting legacy as a uniquely designed urban
neighbourhood. While the Niagara Assembly hoped that a summer resort would become a
popular summer cottage community, it did so decades after their ownership, and later the area
transformed into a unique and lively residential community known as “Chautauqua”. For a more in-depth look at the Canadian Chautauqua’s summer program check out the
Museum’s Google Arts and Culture Exhibit:
By Shawna Butts
Assistant Curator of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum
PS All Niagara Holiday Rentals guests get free admission to the Museum!