Welcome to any one of countless chilling experiences from the numerous spooky locales across Simcoe County. These sites may seem innocuous during daylight hours, but once the sun dips below the horizon and shadows begin to stalk across the landscape they can take on a darker, creepier taint. That’s when ghosts and ghouls crawl out from their graves to frighten the unwary. Or so legend goes.
Our exploration of Simcoe’s spooky sites begins in Collingwood, home of two famous tales of the paranormal. The first begins with the sound of creaking wood out on the water. Moments later a steamship emerges from the mist. The vessel appears to be a derelict; it lists badly, its hull rotted. Not a soul moves aboard. Then, without warning, the ship simply fades away. Countless encounters of this kind, with startled witnesses observing an ageless ship plying the waters of Georgian Bay, have occurred over the past century and a quarter. Many speculate that the spectral craft might be the Mary Ward, a steamship that ran aground in 1872, drowning eight crewmen who were swallowed by the inky depths and never recovered.
Collingwood Caves [www.sceniccaves.com] is home to an even older spirit, that of Leuantido, a beautiful Indian maiden cursed to walk among the rugged hills for all eternity. Though she was already promised, Leuantido fell in love with a handsome chief from another tribe. Disobeying tradition and her own father, she began a torrid affair with her beloved. She cherished the stolen moments they shared. Tragically, Leuantido’s brothers found out about her deception and took matters into their own hands, bludgeoning her lover to death. They rid themselves of the body by throwing it over the edge of the cliff, and watched in satisfaction as it plunged to the rocky ground below.
Leuantido couldn’t bear the thought of living alone, so she threw herself off the cliff. Her body crashed on the rocks below, beside the man she loved. Legend says her spirit is tied to Suicide Rock, and can be seen on moody days when grey clouds blot out the sun.
Penetanguishene has its share of ghosts, many of them concentrated on the grounds of the recreated 19th century military establishment, Discovery Harbour [93 Jury Dr., www.discoveryharbour.on.ca]. At least four spirits linger after death. The recently restored Officer’s Quarters is home to Private Drury, a young soldier who froze to death while standing sentry duty one bitter New Year’s Eve. An unidentified headless figure aimlessly wanders the grounds after dark, looking perhaps for his missing skull.
The most heartbreaking story is that of John and Samuel McGarraty, soldiers of the 79th Foot, whose weathered headstones are the only identified graves on site. They marched from Barrie to Penetanguishene in the sweltering heat of 1831. The detachment was about halfway through its trek when one of the McGarraty brothers became ill and fell to the side of the road. The officer in command refused to hold up the company for the sake of a single soldier, and so ordered his men to press on. Unwilling to leave his brothers’ side, the other McGarraty remained behind as well.
When a relief party was dispatched from Penetanguishene the next morning they found the lifeless bodies of John and Samuel McGarraty. One had succumbed to illness, while the other was claimed by the terrors of night, literally scared to death. They were found lying in each other’s arms. The brothers cling to each other still, appearing to startled witnesses as a misty pair.
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons [off Highway 12 in Midland, www.saintemarieamongthehurons.on.ca] is also reputed to be haunted. And why wouldn’t it? The bones of the tortured and murdered Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brebeuf lie here. Elsewhere, there are tales that the spirit of Etienne Brule, the French explorer who was killed by Indians in 1633, wanders the forests in search of vengeance. Indian legend says he’s often accompanied by his sister who appeared as a specter and breathed the smallpox pestilence onto those responsible for her brother’s death.
Orillia has its share of ghostly tales as well. The Stephen Leacock Memorial House [50 Museum Drive, www. leacockmuseum.com] is a major tourist attraction and literary shrine, but it’s also a hotspot for paranormal activity. Some believe Stephen Leacock, the great Canadian writer, remains in the home he considered his sanctuary. But there’s said to be a darker presence as well that is responsible for a sense of foreboding and unease felt by some visitors. This malice is most often felt in the upstairs bedroom that belonged to Leacock’s son, Stephen Lushington Leacock, whose growth was stunted from an early age and led a troubled life.
Just across the lake is the hamlet of Uptergrove and St. Columbkille Church [4993 Highway 12, at Muley Road], one of the most famously haunted buildings in Simcoe County. Ghostly tales began almost as soon as the church was built more than a century ago. Eerie music will waft down from the organ loft, a figure in black hat and white face will float through the choir area, and mysterious candlelight will be seen flickering from the windows on stormy nights. Many believe the spirit responsible is that of a former priest, either the one reputed to be buried in the basement or the seemingly cursed Rev. Henry McPhillips, who lies in the graveyard and once found paperwork he was working on mysteriously completed in blood.
Some ghost stories can be easily dismissed as hallucination, misinterpretation, or outright fabrication. Others, however, are far more difficult to discount. Such is the case with Barrie’s Simcoe Hotel [31 Bayfield Street], where fact, fantasy and history have come together to tease the imagination.
People have sworn they’ve seen a woman wearing a long dress standing motionless and deathly pale standing amidst the shadows of the historic building, or that sudden cold breezes without obvious source can suddenly caress one’s face. On one occasion, an ethereal woman was momentarily seen stretched out on the floor stretched out on the floor inside the hotel. What these eyewitnesses couldn’t possibly know is that in the bitterly cold winter of 1872 a woman named Elizabeth Meyer had frozen to death outside the hotel after a lengthy bout of drinking and her corpse was brought into the Simcoe Hotel to be examined by the coroner. It seems the poor woman is bound to the spot where she died more than a century ago.
Take a brief side trip to Fort Willow [Grenfel Road, north of Highway 90], a partially reconstructed War of 1812 military supply depot where a young soldier was said to have been flogged and hung for desertion. The tragedy of his death ensured the soldier would not rest peacefully in his grave. Instead, he walks silently beneath the partially reconstructed palisade and through the eerie woods to this day. For those perceptive enough to see or feel his presence, he invokes sadness and fear, no doubt reflections of those the ghost himself experienced as he was sentenced to death.
In the village of Thornton, a former hotel serves up fine fare under the watchful gaze of a tragic female spectre. The Thornton Village Inn [238 Barrie Street, www. thevillageinn.ca] is a beautifully nostalgic Victorian building and a fine dining establishment, its pleasing appearance and excellent food masking the dark stains of a terrible crime.
During the 19th century, the building was host to many travelers, but among the masses one pair, a young couple, stood out. She was beautiful and gentle, he abusive and unfeeling. One night, the woman and her cruel husband began to quarrel, and as it often did, the fight soon turned violent. The woman fell under a rain of insults and punches that left her body and spirit bruised. She was either thrown down the stairs from the second floor or fell as she ran from the assault. In either case, by the time her body had come to rest at the bottom, it was broken and lifeless.
Since then, “The Lady of the Stairs” is said to haunt the second floor of the restaurant. She can be seen standing atop the staircase, walking along the second-floor mezzanine, and looking mournfully down upon the village below from the second-floor balcony. Tradition states she appears most often on the anniversary of her death.
Simcoe’s spooky tour ends in the real ghost town of Ballycroy, located near Alliston [off Highway 50, about one-kilometre north of Highway 9]. Though the village and its inhabitants have long since faded away, it feels as if time has stood still here and one swears the echoes of those who lived and died in the village can still be heard among the trees, along the empty street, and in the foundation holes.
One of the few original buildings to remain in Ballycroy is the former McClelland general store and hotel, now lovingly restored as a private residence. The handsome two-storey structure, itself a relic of a bygone era, is home to a woman from the past that refuses to pass on to the other side.
An elderly woman who stayed here was awakened late at night by a female spirit in a Victorian gown standing over her bed. The ghost stared at the groggy woman for a time, then asked in a hollow voice, “Why are you in my room?” Before the woman could give a response, the spirit faded from view.
Others have seen this spectre, presumably a former resident, over the years as well. Was it some forgotten tragedy that causes her to remain tied to the building all these years later, or is it perhaps an unusually strong affinity for the building?