A month-long monument hunt, and what I learned along the way.
23 January 2019
If you open up Google and type “Most Haunted Place in Canada,” sooner or later you’ll find yourself looking at a photo of Winnipeg’s Fort Garry Hotel. And it does look the part. An austere edifice of turn-of-the-century château-style architecture, it appears vaguely out of place – ever so slightly uncanny – as it looms over Broadway.
The Fort Garry Hotel was built from 1911–1913, designed by architects Ross and Macdonald for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. As the new railroad cut its way west across the prairies, Winnipeg was established as a major mid-continental hub for trade and travel; by 1912, it was the richest city in Canada. The Fort Garry was built just one block from Union Station to provide luxury accommodation for railway travellers.
For its time, it certainly was luxurious. The hotel featured 246 rooms across 10 floors, it was the tallest building in Winnipeg, and, unusual for that era, every room was complemented with a private bathroom.
Reports of supernatural activity at the Fort Garry go back a long way… and even while writing this article, I heard more stories about the hotel. On Christmas Eve I received an anonymous email from a current member of the hotel’s staff: “I work at Hotel Fort Garry,” it said, “and I’ve known about the ghost for a while.”
Yesterday I was working a 5am shift and when I walked into the staff washroom I instantly felt chills. When I turned around the corner there was a skirt laying on the floor and suddenly a small access panel about a foot and a half high from the floor opened. All day from then on I felt a weight on my back, as if I was giving someone a piggy back ride. I felt this weight all day until my shift was over. I went back to the washroom and I said ‘you can get off now.’ At that second she left me and I felt much lighter. I’ve never given much thought to ghost things, but I couldn’t shake how real this felt.
While numerous spaces inside the hotel have their own stories attached to them, the majority of these tales come from guests staying in Room 202. People who’ve stayed there have said they heard footsteps on the floorboards – around the bed – at night. They’ve heard wet, watery steps coming out of the bathroom, and the sound of wire hangers scraping around inside the bedside closet. Others have heard a disembodied sobbing. The light inside the closet is said to turn on by itself, as does the television. A cloaked figure hovers at the end of the bed.
The Winnipeg Free Press reports a sighting of blood seen running down the walls (an image straight out of The Shining); while the Globe and Mail tells how Canadian Liberal MP Brenda Chamberlain used the room in 2000, only to experience an invisible presence getting into the bed beside her. Ms. Chamberlain, otherwise an outspoken skeptic, said: “It was like somebody was settling into position next to me, like my husband only lighter. I actually felt the bed move.”
According to the Toronto Star, there’s a certain woman who regularly stays at the hotel and always asks for Room 202 – where she says she is visited by a ghost in a white ballroom gown.
As for the source of all this activity in Room 202? Well, stories vary from one telling to the next, but most describe a young woman who took her own life in the room after receiving news of her husband’s death. He had been hit and killed by a tram car (…or died in a car accident, or was run over by a horse and cart). In her grief, she hanged herself in the bedside closet.
Back in April 2018, I spent a week exploring Winnipeg at the invitation of Travel Manitoba. I told them I’d heard the ghost stories and so, naturally, they booked me three nights in Room 202 at the Fort Garry Hotel.
The first time I set foot inside the Fort Garry, I was only there 10 minutes before running back outside. It was through no fault of the hotel though – I had an early appointment, and barely enough time to grab my keycard then dump some bags before hopping in a taxi.
At first glance, I liked Room 202. Black floorboards, white bedding, and a large antique-style clock on the back wall. The room was recently renovated, but still had an intoxicatingly old feel about it. The floorboards creaked beneath my feet; the doors, under their layers of lacquer, felt heavy and organic.
I got back to the hotel late that evening, ordered room service, then lay on the bed reading ghost stories. Ghost stories about this room, I thought, with a tingle of excitement. It was hard to find firsthand accounts of the hauntings however, most reports having been absorbed over the years into generic urban myths; embedded in top ten lists of haunted destinations, with no links to original sources or statements. Aside from a couple of newspaper pieces and one oft-cited book (Ghost Stories of Manitoba by Barbara Smith, 1998), the stories I found were typically vague and anonymous.
So I took to TripAdvisor instead, and trawled through the Fort Garry reviews in search of an original story. I tried the one-star reviews first (because I guessed that blood running down walls didn’t lend itself to a five-star experience) but it was mostly just moans about mis-delivered caesar salads, and one review that actually made me laugh out loud: “Toilet was about 20 feet from the bed. It’s 02:00 and we are considering going home. No coffee in the room… Absolutely brutal and won’t come back ever again.”
As it turned out though, a ghostly encounter did not necessarily equate to a minimum score. Amongst the three-star reviews I found one that described: “something in our room at 315am in the morning that woke us both up. It was either a spirit or something that felt like a ghost trying to get our attention!”
Right at that moment there was a knock at the door. Room service had arrived, though the waiter didn’t seem to want to come inside. He stepped hesitantly across the threshold with the tray, his eyes darting about the corners, and to the ceiling above my head. I tipped him well for his pains (or at least, I meant to – but on reflection, what seems like a good tip by European standards is probably an insult in Canada).
I was halfway through my club sandwich when beside me, the door to the closet popped open on its own. The light was on inside. Of course, there would be a perfectly good explanation for it (heavy door, old hinges, a weak magnetic lock, etc.) but I’ll admit it made me uncomfortable. With the sandwich frozen halfway into my mouth, I contemplated the now-illuminated bar from which most top-ten lists agreed a previous guest had hanged herself.
Talking to the Dead
At 7pm the following day I had an appointment to meet a ghost hunter in the lobby. Whatever I had been expecting though, Kristen Treusch probably wasn’t it. Winnipeg’s resident spiritologist was as down-to-earth as they come – short cropped hair and glasses, casually dressed, and as I’d discover, more interested in apps than in ouija boards. A ghost hunter for the 21st century.
She took me to the Provencher Ballroom: a sumptuous space reserved for weddings and conferences, all antique chandeliers and velvet drapes. A handful of tables and chairs were the only furniture in the hall, clustered up at one end, giving it the impression of being even larger than it already was. The carpet seemed to go on forever and as we sat I had the strange feeling of being almost swallowed by the space, a pint-sized intruder in a ballroom built for giants.
Kristen brought out her phone and booted up an app called Ghost Radar.
The developers’ website calls the app, “a portable application designed to detect paranormal activity.” Essentially, it accesses various sensors on the phone to take readings of its surroundings – including fluctuations in sound, vibration and electromagnetic field. These measurements are then interpreted as an output of pre-recorded words. The Ghost Radar website explains: “intelligent energy can be made aware of their ability to influence the sensors of the mobile device … An intelligent energy should be able to influence the readouts and communicate with you.” So from the ghost’s perspective, in theory, this is not much different to tipping a cup across a board, only with more parameters – touch, sound, electromagnetism – that it’s able to employ.
We left the device to warm up, and occasionally it would read words to us: January. Chef. Venus. Meanwhile, Kristen showed me some of the other kit in her bag.
There were two K2 EMF meters, hand-held things that detect abnormal fluctuations in electro-magnetic field. Sat on the table, the devices showed a green light… held close over a mobile phone though, for example, the LEDs would flicker up to orange or even red.
Kristen had a set of dowsing rods too, and proceeded to give me a crash course. You hold them straight, level, and loose as you can, she said – so the metal rods aren’t tipping one way or another but can swing freely in their handles. Then you ask a question. If the rods swing inwards, meet and cross, then that’s a Yes. If the tips move apart it’s a No.
We tried a few test questions; her asking, me dowsing. I didn’t feel very comfortable with it though. The problem was, it only took a minuscule, near-invisible hand-movement on my part for the rods to give a resounding Yes answer. The few responses we got were typically the responses I either assumed or hoped for… and I guess I’ve read too much about ideomotor suggestion to not be deeply cynical of such results.
Instead, we talked about some of the other ghosts sighted at the Fort Garry Hotel. Like a spectral singer seen in the Palm Lounge, the ghost of a long-dead performer who had allegedly been shot in the head. Some people reported feeling a physical pain in their head when the ghost was nearby. In the Broadway Room meanwhile, staff and guests had reported sightings of a ‘phantom diner.’ The EMF meter flickered yellow as Kristen told me the story – so she invited the diner to join us, if he was listening, and we paused for a moment and watched the meter settle back to green before she continued.
Here in the Provencher Ballroom, Kristen told me about sightings of an impossible man in a kilt. Just then the Ghost Radar app chirped into life, saying: “Rod. Air. Converse. Deeply.”
“Do you want to talk?” Kristen asked the room. She passed me the rods.
Through a series of simple Yes and No questions, we established that we were talking to the woman from Room 202. “Were you married?” Kristen asked, and in my hands, the rods tipped to the Yes position.
“When?” she continued. “In the 1910s…? 1920s…? 1930s…? 1940s…?”
The rods said Yes.
Through this process we established that our visitor (or should that be host?) had been married in 1941 to a military man, possibly serving in the navy. I found the rods frustrating, however, and so when Kristen suggested we moved the conversation up to Room 202, I was quick to agree.
I sat on the bed, Kristen in the bedside chair, and she told me the story she’d put together over the course of her research here. Aside from what I’d read online, she added some more details: the husband had been called Michael while the woman, deceased, was Kate – and she was 24 years old.
The standard story had it that Michael was killed by a tram (from 1896 until 1960, trolley cars ran up and down the street outside the Fort Garry), after which Kate took her own life (slitting her wrists, overdosing on pills, or, more commonly, with a makeshift noose in the bedside closet). But I learned there was a whole other narrative preferred by some ghost researchers:
The young couple staying in Room 202 were lovers – possibly engaged, maybe married already. It was a forbidden love, however, and one that Michael’s father did not approve of. Maybe it was a class thing. Perhaps Kate was the family servant… perhaps Michael got her pregnant. The father had tried to pay Kate off, and make her leave town without a scandal; but she refused. Kate was murdered, and never given a proper burial. (One visiting medium, Kristen told me, a smoke-studying capnomancer, believed the father had her killed.) It’s possible that Michael never knew what happened to her.
Of the two stories though, I think Kristen preferred the former. “The room feels positive,” she told me, and I tended to agree. Very few of the reports from Room 202 described grisly or violent hauntings… the feeling guests described was more about sadness, grief and confusion.
“Kristen,” the phone said then, and we both stopped talking.
“Snake” it said next, and the EMF meter beside it gave a momentary flicker up to orange. We held our breath and waited. “Jeff,” it said, then “Maria.”
The phone said “pen,” and Kristen pointed to my pen and notepad, resting on the bedside table. “Do you want him to write something?” she asked the room. No reply.
I perched forward on the edge of the bed, as Kristen told the room: “Flicker the lights if you want more space on the bed.” I made a gesture of budging up towards the pillow-end, making room for a guest, and suddenly my neck felt very cold as I imagined an invisible spectre standing over me, or kneeling, behind, trying to squeeze into our conversation.
“Autumn,” the phone said eventually, resuming its nonsensical stream of consciousness.
“Are you here?” Kristen asks, but there’s no reply this time.
The Dark Heart of the Fort Garry
On my last evening in Winnipeg I went for a drink with Frank Albo: a local researcher of occult architecture, whose sister happens to own the Fort Garry Hotel. After a few gin and tonics Frank dropped me back at the Fort Garry, and in the lobby he asked if I’d like to see the dark heart of the hotel. Sure, I said.
The Fort Garry’s basement doesn’t usually feature in ghost stories – it’s off-limits to guests, after all – but that doesn’t make it exempt from reports of strange goings-on. In the 1930s, a hotel chef is said to have murdered another employee down there; and later, towards the end of the 20th century a visiting psychic who knew nothing of this history was apparently able to describe the event with surprising visual detail.
There were two night porters on duty in the lobby, and Frank asked if they’d be kind enough to take me down to the basement. “He wants to see the shit pit?” asked one, incredulous.
“Why do you call it the shit pit?” I asked, as we rode the lift down to the basement.
“Because that’s where all the drains end up – you’ll smell it yourself, in a moment.”
The basement of the Fort Garry was a warren of pipes and generators, snaking cables and spare furniture. There was a dampness to the air and a musty odour – like stale water, mildew and old bricks. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d been warned (though in fairness, I’m someone who likes to explore sewers for fun).
“There used to be a tunnel to the train station,” said my guide, and it made sense; winter in Winnipeg can get as cold as −40 °C (−40 °F), and so a hotel serving the train station might very well have once been connected by a weatherproof tunnel. Just like central Winnipeg today is largely joined up in a series of weatherproof walkways, arcades and underground malls. There are even stories of an ornate underground passageway leading from the Fort Garry’s former stable block, all the way to the station… festooned with chandeliers and spacious enough to ride a horse through.
The porter told me how hotel staff had searched for the tunnel, though as yet, they still hadn’t found it. Apparently the Fort Garry Hotel has more secrets waiting to be discovered.
“Which floor do you need?” the night porter asked, as we stepped back into the lift.
“They’ve put me in 202,” I said, and he smiled.
“Has she been bugging you? She’ll only bug you if she’s got a problem with you. If she likes you, she’ll leave you be.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment then,” I replied.
By now I had spent two nights in Room 202 at the Fort Garry Hotel. There had been the occasional creak in the night, and a couple of times my closet (the one beside the bed where Kate, supposedly, had hanged herself) had popped open of its own accord. Kristen had let me borrow her EMF meters when she left and since then they had flirted briefly, occasionally, with abnormal readings; but all in all – and despite dedicated efforts to actually open a conversation with the dead – I had nothing out of the ordinary to report.
So I decided to try creating something extraordinary myself.
The previous night, Kristen had said something that stuck with me. She’d shown me a collection of photographs taken inside the Fort Garry – spectral blurs, strange lights and orbs, and one shot of two boys in the hotel with a demonic-looking face that seemed to loom above them in mist. That last one in particular was quite an unsettling image, and Kristen was so taken with it that she told me she’d once offered a $500 reward to anyone who could artificially recreate – and thus disprove – the photograph. It was a challenge I couldn’t resist.
Winnipeg actually has a long-standing pedigree in the field of spirit photography. Thomas Glendenning Hamilton was a doctor and spiritualist who lived in Winnipeg in the early 20th century. He hosted countless séances at his home there, taking thousands of photographs and creating an extensive body of research into the phenomena of ghosts, psychokinesis and ‘ectoplasm’ – a psychic substance that manifested as T. G. Hamilton’s mediums made contact with the spirit world.
Much of that research has since been debunked, however. Ectoplasm emanating from a medium’s nose, in one of the more famous photographs, was in fact no more than tissue paper dotted with faces snipped out of newspapers. Other images had likely used techniques seen elsewhere in the field of manufactured ‘spirit photography’: plumes of smoke or steam, vaseline-smeared camera lenses, or models moving fast through long-exposure photographs to leave translucent ghost-like traces.
Sometime after midnight – armed with a tripod, an electric kettle and some greasy plastic sandwich wrappers – I headed out into the corridors of the hotel to see if I could fabricate some ghosts worthy of T. G. Hamilton.
It’s not that I set out solely to ‘disprove’ anyone’s story. If the opportunity presented itself, I would have gladly dropped my fake-ghost project to photograph a real one instead. Perhaps I was just looking for a good excuse to hang around the hotel’s corridors through the small hours of the night; something to keep me awake and busy while I waited for the ghosts to come and find me. I decided to start by investigating the nearest ice machine.
I have seen more than my fair share of horror movies. A good number of those featured haunted hotels, and there’s a recurring trope of guests being preyed upon by ghosts as they wander down corridors in the middle of the night looking for ice (Room 1408 and American Horror Story come to mind, though there’s plenty more out there). The Fort Garry’s ice machine was more modern than I’d hoped though, and did little to set the mood – although the EMF meter did momentarily blink up to orange in its presence.
So I wandered the hallways for a few hours, rode elevators up and down, explored the mezzanine level and sat in leather chairs beside phones that never rang. I set up my tripod in a corridor and tapped the camera to make the lights blur into trails. I walked through one of my own shots to leave a ghost-like figure behind. Back in Room 202, I used a folder of hotel literature to waft steam from the kettle into a pillar that sort of hung almost imperceptibly above an armchair. I took some photos through the greasy sandwich wrappers too, in the hope of creating some otherworldly apparition; but only succeeded in getting mayonnaise all over my lens.
By 4am I had to abandoned the project and pack for my early flight. In three nights at the Fort Garry Hotel, I hadn’t seen anything supernatural – despite looking for it, hard. But I couldn’t explain the stories either, and those spirit photos I’d tried to fake certainly weren’t going to be winning me any cash rewards.
I thought I saw a ghost once when I was younger, and I still remember how real that felt to me then. But in the last ten years I have visited dozens of so-called haunted houses and, frustratingly, as soon as I’m ready with all the equipment necessary to prove their existence, those ghosts never seem to want to appear for me. Perhaps they’re just camera shy. The Fort Garry Hotel seems as likely a place as any to meet a ghost – with its wonderful looming presence, the history, the secrets and stories – but failing that, they do at least make an excellent club sandwich.