Kingston’s Haunted Fortress

By Michael Rappaport

By day, Fort Henry, a 19th century fortress built on a hilltop overlooking Lake Ontario, is Kingston’s most popular museum, where Canada’s colonial military past is brought dramatically to life. The world famous Fort Henry Guard, comprised of about 100 university and college students, recreates the music, drills and artillery practices of the 1860s British garrison. By night, after the contingent of costumed interpreters have departed, the ghosts of the unfortunate souls who’ve met their tragic end here, rise to haunt their former abodes.

Visitors to Fort Henry may brush elbows with these troubled spirits if they take the Haunted Walks tour, The Ghosts of Fort Henry. By the flickering glow of a lantern light, a guide cloaked in black, takes visitors on a spooky tour of the Fort, regaling them with stories, which combine historical tidbits and haunted tales.

Haunted Walks was founded in 1995 by Glen Shackleton, Eastern Ontario’s most respected ghost historian. As a history student at Queen’s University in Kingston, he spent a term studying abroad in England. Inspired by a haunted tour of York while in England, he decided to start his own haunted tour when he returned to Kingston in the summer of 1995.

Originally the ghost tours were offered only in downtown Kingston. Initially, Glen received strange stares from the pubic and he even had a run in with the police.

“Once while taking a group to Skeleton Park in Kingston, so named because it used to be a graveyard, the cops pulled me over. They thought I was some sort of cult leader,” Glen recalled.

Almost ten years later, Haunted Walks tours are a familiar institution in Kingston. Glen employs 50 tour guides, has five full time staff and offers ghost tours in both Kingston and Ottawa. He also has partnerships with the Old Carleton County Jail (now the HI-Ottawa Jail Hostel), the Bytown Museum, the Fairmont Ch√Ęteau Laurier, and Fort Henry, National Historic Site.

Haunted Walks began offering ghost tours of Fort Henry in 2001. Developing the ghost tour of the Fort, Glen dove into the archives and examined the records of those who’ve died there. He also interviewed staff who’ve had unusual encounters, such as hearing mysterious footsteps, doors slammed shut unexpectedly or objects falling off shelves.

“Night watchmen are some of my best sources,” Glen revealed.

In order to establish the credibility of ghost stories, Glen insisted that each sighting have at least two separate witnesses for independent confirmation and that there existed a historical basis to back up the claim.

Many of the best leads come from customers who’ve asked Glen to investigate ghost sightings. Before calling Glen with a haunted query please note: He doesn’t do exorcisms.

The Haunted Walks’ Ghosts of Fort Henry tour begins late in the evening outside the front gate of the limestone fortress. Built on a hilltop in the 1830s to defend Kingston’s naval harbour, Fort Henry was the largest and most costly fort constructed west of Quebec City.

Although the 19th century state of the art fortification was never attacked, it did serve as an internment camp after the Rebellion of 1837 and during WWI and WWII. And it was the site of a few daring escapes and quite a number of deaths by workplace accidents, military mishaps and the occasional hanging.

The Fort was abandoned by the British Army in 1870, but was garrisoned by Canadian troops until 1891. The Fort subsequently fell into disrepair. In 1936 it was restored under the direction of Ronald L. Way as a living history museum and reopened on the 1st of August 1938 by then Prime Minister Mackenzie King. In 2003, Fort Henry celebrated their 65th anniversary as a national historic site.

My haunted guide for the evening, Heather, rattled off a few of the more boneheaded deadly mishaps. The worst of which was the tale of the hapless artillery brigadier who didn’t bother to wait until the cannon had cooled down before stuffing more gun powder down the barrel. Ignited by the heat, the powder exploded and the ram rod was blown straight through his head. Truly, an excellent candidate for the Darwin Awards.

Drunken and clumsy soldiers have met untimely ends in accidental falls in the dry ditch surrounding Fort Henry, which is 40 feet wide and 30 feet deep. During the tour, we descended down a stairwell and through a narrow tunnel to reach the reverse fire chamber. The chamber housed a “carronade,” a specialized cannon which fired canister shot, metal balls, designed to ricochet off the walls of the dry ditch with deadly results.

During the tour we visited the tiny cell where Nils Von Schoultz was imprisoned for his role in the Rebellion of 1837. Acting as his defence counsel was none other than John A. Macdonald, who was to become Canada’s first Prime Minister in 1867. Naturally, Nils went to the gallows. On clear nights, a figure wearing a tattered blue uniform can still be seen haunting the fort. Presumably, Nils is still miffed over his lawyer’s bill.

A few of the Haunted Walks, ghost stories have even been featured on TV, such as the story of Deadman’s Bay, which was profiled on the series, Creepy Canada on the Discovery Network. Deadman’s Bay is the body of water which separates Kingston from Cedar Island and the site of countless shipwrecks.

Visitors to Fort Henry, should try to catch the Sunset Ceremonies held every Wednesday evenings during July and August. The hour and a half performance by the Fort Henry Guard Drums, Drill Squad and Artillery Detachment is a remarkable spectacle, which includes precisely choreographed military drills and marching bands topped off by a mock battle with rifle and cannon fire.

During the day, visitors can watch military training, the changing of the guard, artillery firing, the garrison parade and the music demo. Children are sure to enjoy the events geared for kids, such as the story telling, children sentry training, the fire engine demonstration and the mascot walkabout. David VIII, a white saanen goat, is the current mascot of the Fort, and the seventh in the line of goat mascots, most of whom are buried on the premises. (Ghostly goat sightings have yet to be confirmed.)

At night, after the Union Jack is lowered, the Fort Henry Guard departs and darkness falls, take a haunted tour of Fort Henry. If you dare!