It is late evening, not quite dusk, but the shadows have begun to lengthen across Sparks Street in the heart of Ottawa. A woman wearing a black cloak and hat and carrying a lantern, beckons a group of us around her. She is Margo, our guide to Ottawa's haunted houses and neighborhoods - those spooky places where the living meet the dead, and the dead refuse to die.
Margo introduces herself and catches my skeptical smile. She says: "We pride ourselves at having done our homework on our Haunted Walk of Ottawa Tour. Our teams have combed through historical archives and old newspapers reports, and we've personally interviewed several people who have had first hand experience of strange encounters at each location. So folks, the stories you'll hear tonight are all true. But whether you believe them or not, well, I guess that's up to you!" I wipe the smile off, and nod earnestly.
Ghost hunting has become a popular spectator sport in recent years. Canadian ghosts are exhumed in Ottawa, Montreal, St. John's, Kingston, Toronto and Victoria, all of which have their haunted walks accompanied by macabre yarns and audiences shivering in mingled horror and delight. So, entering into the spirit of things (punning aside) I decide to suspend disbelief for the next 90 minutes. Never mind that the roar of traffic hurtling around Confederation Square and the babble of crowded sidewalks would, in my opinion, be enough to scare off the most intrepid of ghosts.
But does it? Not according to Margo.
To start off our tour, she tells us a story. One that drifts back in time - so that the contemporary cityscape around us shrivels and evaporates. We are in the midst of a sepia coloured world with shacks sprawling haphazardly across slushy ground. Construction workers sit around their campfires smoking pipes, laughing, gambling, brawling. This is Bytown in 1826 where the Rideau Canal is just beginning to take shape. An epidemic of swamp fever breaks out claiming victims by the hundreds, and bodies are interred in makeshift graves, many without a headstone. As the years roll on, Bytown becomes Ottawa, and Ottawa is growing fast - roads, bridges, buildings all taking shape and form. The skeletons are dug up and dumped in a vacant lot on the fringe of the town, but as the edges of the city expand further, they are moved again to a third cemetery. However, fragments remain. Road crews - as recently as 1971 - have found a finger, a jawbone, or a hollow eyed skull staring up at them from the disturbed earth. Backhoes and crushers may have crunched these bones into dust, and commercial complexes and offices may now stand massive and tall along the concrete sidewalks - but occupants of some buildings have been horribly startled by inexplicable thuds and laughter from empty rooms...
So whereabouts in Ottawa was this old graveyard? What stands on the site today? Well, I'm not giving anything away - so you'll have to find out for yourself. Suffice to say that the answer sends a queer little tingle up my spine.
Not so secret is the ghost that walks the corridors of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. As we stand in the Square facing the Chateau, the stone walls and turrets glow in the light of the setting sun lending it the appearance of an enchanted castle. Margo shares with us the tale of an wraith-like figure who once accosted a well-known CBC personality on a stairwell. On another occasion, a woman fled in panic, when things began moving around her room of their own accord. The Chateau staff are understandably tight-lipped about which floor plays host to its other-world guest. Rumor has it that this is none other than the ghost of Charles Melville Hays who commissioned the Chateau Laurier-the first in his grand scheme of establishing a chain of opulent hotels across Canada. Hays died aboard the Titanic when it went down a mere 12 days before the opening ceremony of the Chateau on April 26, 1912. The flesh and blood Hays never saw his dream come true, but the belief is that, shackled by that unfulfilled desire, his spirit continues to dwell in the hotel which was his last and greatest achievement.
Margo leads us down Elgin Street, pausing before a pretty restaurant whose supernatural resident is an asthmatic with nasty poltergeist tendencies. Further on, we gather in the front porch of a building which used to be a private school in the early 1900s. "Ask the janitor what happened on a sweltering summer night when the temperature in the attic suddenly fell below freezing levels," Margo says. "He'll tell you how fast he high-tailed it out of there after what he saw!" The group shuffles uneasily as she recounts the details. "And," she adds, jabbing at the glass pane of the front door. "Take a look down this corridor, folks. Just don't be too sure that the shadows you see are just a trick of light! One of the after-hours maintenance staff told us how a figure materialized out of those darkened patches into the full beam of the overhead light, even though he knew that the building was locked and barred from the inside and totally empty, except for himself." The story has a bizarre ending and a woman standing next to me shakes her head and mutters, "Wow, that's weird!"
The Lisgar Collegiate building is our next stop. It is perceptibly darker now. The street lights are on and the trees along the grassy verge throw quivering leaf-designs on the sidewalk. The little side road is empty of traffic and the night seems very quiet. Margo points to the dusty windows of the top floor. "The only stuff up there is storage material," she says, "and area has been closed off to students and staff for several years." She explains why and adds, "So, as you can imagine nobody is too eager to go in there except in groups - and that too, only in broad daylight." As we turn to walk on, I glance again over my shoulder at the windows. And stop and peer again. A walnut-wrinkled face seems pressed against the glass. The group moves ahead, and I stand irresolute, wondering whether to go back and maybe try taking a photo. But when I look up once more, it's just a shadow-dance of branches thrown by the street light against the window pane. Maybe.
I catch up with the group. Margo holds her lantern aloft, her cloak flowing bat-like in the gloom. We are now on a pathway flanking the Rideau Canal, its waters shimmering with reflections from the street lights and adjoining buildings. Margo stops and places her lantern on the ground. "So far I've told you about other people's experiences," she says.. "But this time I'm going to tell you about what happened to me. In there." She points to an old stone building, the Bytown Museum, which stands about two hundred yards away. In the deepening night it looks like a crouching, sullen animal. The group draws closer.
She goes on: "We were preparing for a special event that was to take place in the Museum the following morning, but we had to wait until staff and tourists had left the building. Three of us, my colleague - I'll just call her Betty, but that's not her real name, my boss - let's call him, John - and myself, got here 10 o'clock that night." Margo pauses for a moment before continuing. "We all knew that the Museum was supposed to be haunted, but that was the last thing on our minds when we unlocked the door. There was a lot to be done, and even with the three of us going full tilt, it was almost 11.30 by the time we were finished. We then went through the place-upstairs and downstairs-checking to ensure that all the windows were properly locked and bolting the doors to the rooms behind us. Betty and I stood just inside that side entrance door you see there, while John went over to the stairwell to set the security system. And that's when it happened..."
What followed brings me out in goose-bumps. All the more because as Margo talks, she is plainly edgy. Her eyes dart uneasily at the building as if she's still in the grip of that earlier night, when she and Betty bolted terrified out of the door. Worst of all, John's frantic 'Oh Jesus! Girls...don't leave me alone in here!' meant that, no matter what, they knew they'd have to go back inside again.
Margo picks up her lantern, and makes her way towards Confederation Square, her audience now clustering around her and peppering her with questions. I leave them to it, adjust my camera to a low light setting and approach the Museum. By the time I finish taking shots from several angles, the group has dwindled into the distance. A toenail moon hangs over the city, and a cool breeze springs up, bringing with it the murmur of traffic. As I turn to leave, I feel a soft touch brushing against my shoulder. My startled yelp turns to sheepish relief - its just a leaf spiraling down - but I nonetheless hurry to catch up with the others.
It's time to leave the un-dead who writhe and groan in the
night, and along with four others in the group, I seek the
company of another kind of spirit. It comes out of a rum
bottle - and is comfortingly dark, smooth and heady. We
lounge around in the convivial atmosphere of D'arcy
McGee's Irish Pub and exchange ghost yarns. Does the
spectre of the Pub's namesake, the brutally murdered McGee, lurk in the shadowy corners
watching and listening? Well...perhaps.
Article by Margaret Deefholts
IF YOU GO:
Haunted Walks of Canada offer several walking tours of Ottawa from May till October (some only run from June to Labor Day). Apart from The Original Haunted Walk, and The Essential Haunted Walk, they also conduct a Ghosts and Gallows tour, offer titillating glimpses into Naughty Ottawa and welcome visitors to their Naughty Ottawa Pub Walk. They offer a special tour at Halloween.
Tours start at the kiosk located on the corner of Sparks Street and Elgin Street. For updated ticket information, group rates, detailed schedules, timings and bookings phone them at (613) 232-0344, or fax them at (613) 562-4988
Their website may be accessed at http://www.hauntedwalk.com/ottawatour.htm
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