Ottawa 46 1/2 - Part 1

DECEMBER 7th, 2014


[John] Hi everyone… sorry for the late post. We are here now though! We hope you enjoy this article about our recent trip to Ottawa.

Here we go…

[Lana] One of the most enjoyable things that John and I have discovered we like to partake in is a good haunted walk. How else can you get a generous helping of local history, mixed in with some dramatically spooky storytelling and topped off with a brisk evening stroll? It is nearly the perfect event for people like us. I must admit that I may not have said the same thing just over a year ago before taking the Ghost Walks tour at Niagara-on-the-Lake but how quickly things can change (more on that experience a little later on).

[John] Yes… going into that first walk last year, we really didn’t know what to expect. Happily surprised, I must admit that it still didn’t give me a faith for all haunted tours. While one might be great, does that really mean the others will also be enjoyable?

[Lana] So we turned to Google to find other cities not too far away, which might host some similarly eerie tours to satisfy our growing interest in the darker parts of Canadian history. The very first entry to appear was The Haunted Walk - Ottawa. The company had been founded in 1995 by Glen Shackleton, a local historian, author, researcher and expert ghost story teller. On viewing the website we discovered that, not only did they have multiple tours in Ottawa, but that they also provide walks in Toronto and Kingston. We felt fairly confident that one of these tours would be perfect for our next adventure. All that was left to do now was to decide which city we wanted to see the creepy underbelly of the most.

While websites provide outstanding information, I enjoy looking to social media as a supplement to making this type of decision. I located @hauntedwalk on Twitter and quickly discovered that they were not only extremely knowledgeable but also quite friendly and fun loving. It always makes the experience more enjoyable when you can have fun people around. Since that initial contact almost a year ago, I have also interacted with a few of the tour guides (@OttawaZel, @margo_thespian and @PaolaSt_Georges) who are equally as fun to chat with on Twitter.

[John] Lana is much more the social media fan than I am and so I tend to leave the online conversations and posts up to him, for the most part. I couldn’t be happier that he was able to locate this great group of people.

[Lana] Our minds were made up fairly quickly after these online exchanges…besides, it had been ages since either of us had been to the nation’s capitol.

[John] Ottawa. Capital of our country. Political. Historic. Beautiful.

This is a place I’ve loved for as long as I can remember. I believe my first Ottawa experience was when I was about five or six years old. It must have stuck. I often wish for return visits so when we had an opportunity to spend a couple of days there in October, I insisted that we take advantage and enjoy the crisp autumn air of the season.

Day 1:

[Lana] Nearly a year to the day from our first spectral walk, John and I were on our way to Ottawa with tickets to both The Original Haunted Walk and The Ghosts and Gallows tours in our excited little hands (well packed into our bags if we are to be perfectly honest). Since we were already in Prince Edward County, we took the Glenora Ferry across the bay. Unlike any previous time we took the short cruise, we had to detour ten minutes or so along the shoreline so that two ships might make their trek towards Lake Ontario. We weren’t in a rush and we both love the water so we didn’t mind the extra long boat trip whatsoever. Once on the mainland, it was a short drive to the United Empire Loyalist historic landing place and burial ground in Adolphustown, the first permanent white settlement in the region. We had no idea the site was even there, we actually just stopped to get pictures of the ship that was responsible for our extended ferry ride.

[John] It was a strange experience really. I suspect during summer hours there is normally a guard at the entrance to the park and I’ve heard that there is typically a gate as well. On this day however, we entered without restriction and we were able to watch the ship pass along its way. We then drove further into the park, past a small cemetery and we noticed a small heritage plaque that provided the history. It was an odd feeling to me that the park was essentially “membership only” and the plaque defines it as being the first white settlement of the area. I suddenly felt very out of place and we chose to make our way out of the park and be on the road again. As we turned back onto the main road, we noticed a small cemetery that we will have to make a point of visiting another time – if only to have a close look at the one grave stone with a chain draped on it. Very curious we are.

[Lana] Yes…what was up with those chains?

The lake along the highway made for some beautifully scenic views as we drove easterly. It would have been nice to continue along the lesser used routes but we wanted to make sure we had lots of time. Perhaps we would have more time on our way back.

We made a quick stop in Bath to grab our refreshments before jumping on the major highways and decided not to take another break until we arrived in Kemptville to grab some lunch. Being the adventurous people that we are, we like to try greasy spoons from off the beaten path. Sometimes you hit a goldmine…other times you get Fast Eddie’s Diner.

[John] We seem to have a knack for finding the gems.

[Lana] While John found us a table, I made my way to the washroom…or so I thought. The door which clearly had a plaque stating WASHROOM was being used as a storage room. I turned to go back out to the dining area when I spotted an artsy hand drawn washroom sign. Opening the door, I squeezed into a small closet with a toilet and sink. A little confused, I then made my way to our table and while looking around I noticed a photo on the counter by the cash register that puzzled me once more. I pointed out to John the autographed picture of a muscleman competitively posing.

[John] I’m still trying to figure out that photo… a staff member’s previous life perhaps? It was definitely somewhat out of place there on the food counter…

[Lana] And, seeing an overly muscular man always makes me want to say… “We are here to PUMP you up!!”

We had no more than placed our order when the employees (who were giving us dirty stares from the moment we walked in) began to stack chairs on the tables around us in preparation of closing for the day. I have seen this before and wouldn’t have thought twice about it had it not been before 2:00 in the afternoon. That teaches us for not reading the handwritten, Bristol board sign which stated that the diner did indeed close at 2 pm Monday to Thursday.

[John] I would have been happy if they had informed us of that tidbit when we sat down instead of staring at us and rushing us through it all. There’s no harm in letting your customers know up front that you are preparing to close and the kitchen is no longer serving food.

[Lana] With that in mind, perhaps the most surprising thing, considering the rushed service, was that the food was actually quite good.

[John] I had the chicken burger and it was a decent hunk of well-seasoned, tasty fried chicken in a bun… quite yummy.

[Lana] So thank you Fast Eddie’s for a unique visit, an education in sign reading and we will definitely try to make it earlier in the day should we ever stop in again.

[John] We will likely not stop in again… just sayin’. Feeling like an outsider isn’t always a fantastic experience. Though it was an interesting place.

[Lana] We didn’t stop again until we reached our hotel in Ottawa. The Best Western Macie’s was nice enough and had all the amenities in the room we could want but they had the smallest queen size beds we had ever seen. We were only there long enough to unload our luggage and freshen up before heading downtown to search for parking hopefully not too far from 46 ½ Sparks Street…the Haunted Walk.

It was easier to find parking than we could have imagined which opened up some time to grab our supper before the tour. We tried next door to the Haunted Walk, at D'Arcy McGee’s, but with a 20-minute wait just to get in we didn’t want to risk it. We made the decision to return to the pub after the evening’s entertainment and we walked to Second Cup for a nice discussion (and the best hot chocolate I have had in a very long time) while we patiently waited for our start time.

[John] It was a brisk, very wet evening and so the warm shelter and hot drinks made for the perfect remedy prior to the walk. After a short while we walked back up to Sparks Street for our tour.

[Lana] Upon returning to our rendezvous point, we had the chance to meet up and chat with two of the guides we had been corresponding with on Twitter…Élise (who was to be our guide for the evening) and Margo. It was a true pleasure to finally meet them in person. Perhaps next time we will have even more time to talk after they are finished with their tours.

[John] It really added something to the evening for us, having the opportunity to interact with the guides and properly introduce ourselves, enjoying a few minutes of chatting before being called to gather for our tour with Élise.

[Lana] The moment we had waited for finally arrived. Élise gathered the group together and, after a short introduction, the tour was officially under way. I was so into the stories as we made our way along the Rideau Canal and over to Byward Market that I want to share every little detail but I will try to hold myself in check. We should leave some tales for the professionals, after all.

After some brief stops along our walk through the beautiful downtown area, we found ourselves at the Carleton County Gaol much sooner than I had expected but was soon to discover why…the building had such a haunted history of its own that we needed all the remaining time and then some to fit in all Élise had to share.

[John] The walk through town was really nice and we had some stops along the way to hear some different ghostly tales. While on our way to the County Gaol, we had a very nice chat with an incredibly accommodating Élise, who shared with us her years of experience doing these tours and her acting career also. We were disappointed to learn that we would not be in town for a show that Élise and Margo were doing that weekend. Hopefully another time we will be able to participate as audience members in one of their performances.

I always marvel at the ability to memorize lines and recite stories. Élise graciously shared with us that while it isn’t always easy, she has been doing it long enough that the Haunted Walk stories are somewhat second nature now. It was also nice to learn that each guide takes on different tours from time to time, so they learn new stories and are able to share different tales with their groups, preventing the material from becoming stale for the storytellers.

[Lana] For someone like me with a “Swiss cheese” memory, it is more than impressive.

[John] Oh but you are a drama geek with a brain for lines… you could easily remember the stories and the fact that you would tell them as exciting tales versus simply memorizing a recitation, you would fit in perfectly. I’m the one who doesn’t really do the costumes and the dramatic readings. I’d feel completely out of place and would definitely screw up the stories. I could never do that job.

[Lana]  I think you are totally confused. Drama yes, lines never and you would totally rock at it.

[John] You neglect to realize that in the few minutes we have been sitting here, you have recited lines from about three different movies and shows and in the appropriate voices too. It’s so natural for you that you don’t even realize it.

So there. I win.

[Lana] Anywho…

[John] Sore loser much?

The other piece I enjoyed learning was that the tour guides themselves are involved in some of the research as they learn about new potential stories of the area. This is a company that verifies the stories they tell, including speaking to potential witnesses whenever possible. The stories become that much more real when you know that the people sharing the information with you, have done the research, spoken to witnesses and sometimes they have even experienced a ghostly surprise of their own while on tour.

[Lana] This is a good time to interrupt our experiences to bring you this brief historical note…

From the Haunted Walk and from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography we learned that one of the founding fathers of Canadian Confederacy, Thomas D'Arcy McGee staunchly spoke out against American expansionist motives towards Canada. Although an Irish nationalist, McGee denounced the Fenian Brotherhood in America because they felt a forceful takeover of Canada from Britain by the United States was necessary. Many believe it was these very actions that led to the only political assassination on the federal level in Canada’s history. On April 7, 1868, after a parliamentary debate that went past the midnight hour, McGee returned to his boarding house on Sparks Street. Finding the door locked from the inside, he had to wait for his landlady to greet him at the entrance. No sooner had Mary Ann Trotter opened the door, than a brilliant flash went off. A .32 caliber bullet sliced through McGee’s neck and exploded out his jaw, sending his dentures flying by sheer force. Thomas D'Arcy McGee fell into the street dead.

By the next night, over 40 Fenian supporters were being held for questioning (including Patrick Buckley, stable hand to Sir John A. Macdonald, who named Patrick James Whelan as the assassin). Whelan maintained his innocence the entire time but, even though the evidence was circumstantial, he was found guilty and sentenced to what would be the very last hanging at the Carleton County Gaol. In front of 5,000 onlookers on February 11, 1869, Patrick Whelan told the crowd one last time that he was innocent and that he knew who had killed McGee, before being hung by the neck until he was dead.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled blogging.

[John] Hearing this story told on the walk does greater justice than what we can provide here on the blog. The details gained in the tour truly add a level of intensity that cannot be gained by reading the story itself or reading it here as we have just recounted for you. Being in the locations of the murder and the hanging also add another level to the entire experience. I cannot say enough times that you should all make a point of taking this tour when you have an opportunity.

[Lana] Upon entering the building that is now used as a hostel, we bypassed the main desk and directly made our way up the eight flights of stairs.

[John] I’m glad we didn’t know ahead of time that there would be eight flights of stairs to ascend, or we may have reconsidered the decision. Though we enjoy our walks and I am an avid hiker, we are nearing old fogey status (really… Lana is nearing old fogey status) and eight flights of stairs can be intimidating (for Lana). I am proud to say that we made it to the top neither fainting nor experiencing heart failure… congratulations Lana… I’m very proud of you. I’ll carve you a special cane for your next birthday. (heh heh)

[Lana] *Wheeze* *Wheeze* I’m still young enough to tell you where you can put that cane.

[John] … and I’m still younger than you…

[Lana] The eighth floor is the one with the claustrophobic single cells. So much unexplained activity occurred on this level (footsteps in the hall, cell doors slamming closed and disembodied voices), that no one could spend the entire night and would always leave, demanding their money back. It got to the point that the hostel even offered the rooms free to anyone who managed to remain the entire night. They’ve never had to give a complementary stay.

No sooner had Élise finished telling us these details when a door slammed somewhere down the hall in the unused section of the floor. She genuinely looked startled. I wanted to explore down the walkway but wasn’t sure if we were allowed and hesitant to leave while needing to stay with the tour, we moved on to death row.

[John] A number of us jumped when that door slammed, including Élise. My own heart was racing and I grabbed onto Lana’s sleeve (remember in this partnership I am the girl and Lana is actually the guy… and I had a very typical girl moment of burying my head in Lana’s shoulder and then gripping his hand tightly) and then my brain immediately wandered to thinking that either a staff member had been in that hallway, or that the tour guides had set up the experience just for us. After the tour, I did ask Élise about the use of the hallway and she said that the door is never used. Élise also confirmed that they hadn’t set anything up to falsely surprise us. The skeptic in me is still unsure it was a true paranormal experience but I will not deny the thrill of the moment with such impeccable timing. I also proved to myself that I am indeed a typical girl who almost cried when a door was slammed in a creepy environment. Le sigh.

[Lana] John’s reaction was completely adorable in the best ways possible.

On death row, the first cell was walled off to keep the next in line for the gallows separated from the other prisoners. I felt a darkness emanating from this area in the brief moment as I passed through. John confided in me afterwards that she too was affected there, which confirmed the sensation.

[John] Honestly… I was still thinking about the door slamming and hadn’t really clued into what Élise had said about the area we were entering, so I didn’t realize what room it was that we were passing in that moment. All I knew was this heavy feeling pressed hard against my chest and I looked up at the doorway while, for a brief moment, I was conflicted with the desire to peer further into the dark and the intense urge to run away. I returned my gaze to the rest of the group and followed along into the main area of death row. When Élise continued her story and detailed the use of that one room, chills ran through my entire body and the image of the solid darkness in that cell took over my thoughts and unfortunately I really don’t remember much else of what Élise said. Even as I write this, I can feel that pressure and the pull to peer into the darkness but I am quite happy that I chose to continue walking with the group.

[Lana] Our attention was drawn to the door at the opposite end of the passageway where the executioner would emerge to complete his duty. A room now used as a storage area, it was this door that on a previous tour shook and rattled despite being locked. It was this door that, while padlocked, I just had to touch ever so lightly as we walked past, causing it to shake and rattle much more than I think it should have. I know I didn’t touch the door enough to cause it to vibrate the way it did.

[John] I was ahead of Lana when he touched the door and as it rattled I whipped around to see him moving away from it. Lana told me he touched the door, so when Élise also turned with a somewhat concerned and quizzical look on her face, I explained it was Lana who had caused the door to rattle. I thought Lana had pressed hard on the door purposely rattling it to see how stable the door was. I hadn’t realized that he’d only lightly placed his hand on the door. We explained this to Élise at the end of the tour… I’m not sure exactly what she thought at the time but the experience had Lana and I wondering about the cause. Is it possible that Lana’s light touch was heavier than he realized? Sure it is. Is it possible that the door was not completely solid in its hinges or design? Of course. Could there have been a ‘presence’ on the other side of the door playing with Lana? I won’t rule it out entirely. All I know is that we won’t have the true answer and for me that is a challenge to find out the real reason behind the rattle.

[Lana] Next on the agenda were the gallows themselves. Unused in an official capacity since 1869, a noose hangs dramatically as a reminder of those days long ago. The exit at the bottom of the stairs led us right under the drop of the executioner’s rope before taking us into the courtyard where many of those executed were buried.

[John] When we reached the gallows and stopped to hear some more stories while standing and looking at the noose, it was really interesting to hear of some experiences that other visitors have had in that same spot and I’m glad that nothing as dramatic happened to us.

When we exited the building and stood outside, under the gallows, I was overcome with a great sadness. Looking up and seeing the light bleeding through the wooden covering constructed as a feeble attempt of hiding the gory history of the jail, I felt mystified by our human need to witness suffering. In those days it was supposedly normal to watch a man be put to his death. At times I’m sure there was even cheering. What a strange concept to me. For the general public to bear witness to such an event and cheer, while a life – unproven as guilty as it was in many cases – is drained of the body by force and potentially unfound judgment. That where we stood in that moment was an historic site of violent death… I felt an inner cold take over me and it was all I could do to not walk away and cry.

While my emotions ran high as I found myself lost in my thoughts, I realized Élise was telling another interesting story and so I pulled myself back to present day and upon considering the details of that last tale of the evening, I made a conscious note to pay attention to whether Lana or I ended up with a bloody nose later that night. (Curious? Go to Ottawa!!)

[Lana] Because it was the Hallowe'en season, we had been told that one of the stories we had heard this night in the gaol had been completely made up. It was now our task to decipher which of these tales was the false one for a chance to win something from the Wheel of the Damned…Good Prizes. Out of the 19 (or thereabouts) people in our group, only 3 correctly identified the fictitious piece of history. John was one of this astute trio but unlucky when it came to having her name drawn for the opportunity to spin the Wheel. I was still proud of her.

[John] Aw shucks.

[Lana] With this last bit of business complete, the tour was at an end.

[John] I didn’t want it to end. I wanted to go back in and explore some more. I wanted to check out the door that had slammed. I wanted to ask the employees some questions. I wanted time to take pictures. I wanted to peer into the darkness.

I wanted to run away.

[Lana] You can’t always get what you want…

[John] But if you try sometimes…

[Lana] We thanked Élise for the wonderful job and an excellent evening before slowly returning to Sparks Street, taking a few photos along the way.

[John] Because of the wet evening, we had opted to leave behind our DSLR cameras and we functioned solely on our phones and a small, old point-and-shoot… I think this alone warrants another trip to Ottawa so we can really spend some quality time behind our camera lenses.

[Lana] Arriving back at Sparks Street, we saw that D'Arcy McGee’s was much quieter now and so finally grabbed something to eat. I have long been enamoured by Celtic history, folklore and culture so was quite pleased that we gave the Irish pub a chance. Although the seating was a bit crowded by the sheer number of tables they tried to squeeze into the dining area, the food was good and the selection of Irish whiskeys was even better. The area by the bar was still hopping and had live music that made me smile. I do revel in a bit of Celtic music.

[John] We both love the Celtic side of things and it was a wonderful, warm and inviting way to remove the chill of the evening and prepare us for a good night’s sleep to energize us for the next day. Lana had picked up a bit of a cold that week and the Irish whiskey of his choice was exactly what he needed to put the cold in its place and allow him a peaceful night of rest. One whiff of his whiskey was enough to put to me to sleep.

[Lana] With our meal finished, it was time to call an end to the evening. After all, we had another big day to look forward to.