9.10 Hauntings in High Park

The names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of the deceased.

As I previously wrote about a few weeks ago, I participated as a walk leader during the Jane’s Walk Festival. My walk was based on a ghost tour I put together and on a lovely Saturday afternoon with about 25 people, I told stories about hauntings that have been reported throughout High Park.

Two women were very enthusiastic about the walk and ghost stories. One of them told me about an incident a few years ago when a severed leg was found in a High Park duck pond. At the end of the walk, they asked if I would consider doing another tour for them and three of their friends. This time at night.

See, the first time I did the tour was the night before Halloween. The park is not well lit and at night, especially when walking through the woods, it’s pretty dark. In the woods at night in the middle of the city? Perfect ghost tour environment.

We made some plans and a few days later, we met at 9:00 pm. The two women - Marjorie and Holly - brought with them two men and another woman - Kent, Scott and Michelle. Marjorie and Holly were pretty stoked and ready to hit the woods. Kent and Scott were doing that guy thing where they thought this was a bit of a joke. Michelle was quiet.

And so we started.

Our first stop was a field surrounded by trees. The field is serene, often the site of picnics and families spending some time together. On the way to the field, we passed a pond surrounded by stones. The pond is never full because what most people don’t know is that the surrounding area is a graveyard.

During the 1800’s, soldiers lived all around High Park and they enjoyed fishing at the pond and other activities. There were many soldier’s lives lost during the war of 1812 and a major battle took place in the now serene field. When the battle was over, the dead were buried in mass graves and marked by the planting of trees.

There is an underground stream below us. The reason why there is never any water in the pond with the stone border is because femurs, skulls and other human remains were carried by the underground stream and surfaced over in the pond. Throughout the perimeter of the field, there have been many reports of sightings of ghost soldiers peering out from the foliage.

From here, we had to cut through the woods. I led the way with a small lantern. Large branches and small trees littered the pathway from the wind storm of the previous day. When we reached Colborne Lodge, I waited for everyone to join me.

This was where the nightmare started. One of the walkers had disappeared. We called out Marjorie’s name and her friend Holly shined her flashlight into the woods. Nothing. Holly shrugged it off, said Marjorie knows the park well and will catch up with us. Probably just went to the bathroom.

We stood behind Colborne Lodge. A small trapdoor was built into the ground at our feet. 

Jemima Howard and engineer and architect John G. Howard were the original benefactors of High Park. Jemima had many long-term physical and mental health issues, it is believed she finally succumbed to breast cancer. 

Back in these times, people did not understand how to deal with mental illness and when Jemima’s pain got too much, she became erratic and at times violent. So erratic that John would sometimes lock her up in the small storage bunker under the trapdoor. He sat inside listening to her wailing from underground. Jemima spent much of her life in great pain and was often heavily medicated. Her last days were spent gazing through a morphine haze. She passed away in 1877 at the age of 75.

Over the years, including a police report from 1969, there have been sightings of a woman peering out of the second-floor window of Colborne Lodge. As well as wailing, as though it was muffled, like it was coming from underground. In addition, people have reported cold spots around the lodge and there has been poltergeist-like activity inside the house.

We climbed up a small hill and walked along the road that cuts through the park. A steep staircase brought us down to Grenadier Pond. It’s a lot of stairs, so I stopped at the bottom to wait for everyone.

Now there were only three walkers. Holly had disappeared. Michelle was visibly trembling but still not saying anything. Scott and Kent just dismissed it, thinking - hoping? - out loud that Holly was just looking for her friend Marjorie. Again, they both know the park well and we were in a pretty open area. They would find us.

We walked along the pond and came to our next stop. The 35-acre Grenadier Pond is a one of a kind geological feature in Toronto. Wave action on Lake Ontario combined with sediments that washed down Wendigo Creek accumulated over the ages at the creek’s mouth, eventually blocking the watercourse and creating Grenadier Pond behind it. Because the pond is so murky, people believe it is bottomless.

The ghost history of the pond dates back to the war of 1812. The Leather Hats, a regiment of the British army, were established in 1685. During the War of 1812, the regiments first large-scale engagement with American forces occurred in February 1813, at Ogdensberg, New York. Braving a fierce snowstorm, the grenadiers led a successful charge across the frozen St. Lawrence River, capturing an upstate New York village.

Two months later, the American forces initiated the Battle of York, and the Leather Hats were among the first troops US soldiers encountered. The Leather Hats were outnumbered and their feeble bayonet charge was soundly defeated. The Leather Hats attempted a charge across the frozen Grenadier Pond, but the ice wasn’t completely frozen. A number of the soldiers broke through, drowning and being sucked into the bottomless water.

A two-page story in the Toronto Daily Star from April 22nd, 1913 said that police had been alerted to the existence of a phantom arising nightly from the pond’s swampy depths. Several eyewitnesses claimed the phantasm appeared first as a gathering mist, then came together into a towering figure mounted upon a base of white light.

Since then, there have been many reports of nighttime growling around the pond. Others observed apparitions passing unimpeded through solid objects such as thick trees. These apparitions appeared to be soldiers, dressed in the uniform of the Leather Hats, and have been seen marching across the pond.

Like on cue, a growling echoed across the pond. I looked at Scott and Kent and told them that wasn’t funny. They swore the noise wasn’t them. We continued along the pond to the jogging path that runs through the woods. As we walked, I told them the story of the jogging ghost.

Many people scatter the ashes of their deceased loved ones throughout High Park. Often, the park is a favorite place for the elderly in their later years and request that their ashes get scattered. Some have felt that with so many ashes spread throughout, that it has created incredible ghostly activity.

Here is a report, from April 2012, that is typical of the many trails throughout the park. In the words of the eyewitness Jordan Trudel from an experience of him going for a jog at night:

I started running faster and the rest of the jog was loaded with apparitions and strange dark shapes roaming the woods. At some point, I felt like I was followed - by two dark shapes that kept a distance just out of my field of vision and I couldn’t make out who or what they were. I could hear their footfalls following me at times - though the other apparitions didn't make a sound. I fled the park by the brightest lit routes available, the two dark shapes still in pursuit. Immediately after I crossed the border of the park and back on to the city street, I felt the shapes no longer behind me, as though they were trapped inside the park.

This is what locals call ‘The Jogging Ghost’ - which may or may not be the same dark shapes Jordan Trudel saw. As people jogged through this very trail, they hear someone coming up behind them, as though they are jogging, that sound of running shoes on gravel. They turn around and no one is there.

As we climbed our way out of the woods and up a steep hill, I stopped at the top to make sure everyone was with us. Michelle, Scott and -

No Kent. I looked at Scott. The machismo and bravado were gone. His eyes were wide. Michelle hugged herself, rocked from side to side. We kept going and came to another open field. Reluctantly, I explained what happened here about 60 years ago.

We were near the swimming pool and skating rink. Right next door there is an administration building that used to be the home of James Mangold, his wife Margaret and their two young sons.

During the 1950s, James and his wife were the head caretakers of High Park. Originally, they had three young kids. Long before James and Margaret had their two boys, they had a daughter named Jessica. At the age of five, she was playing out in the field where we stood.

A common way that the men working in the park would cut the high fields was with a sickle. Jessica was small and barely could be seen over the tall grass. She came up behind one of the workers, a big strong man, who brought the sickle up and with all his force cut more than just grass.

For years, James and Margaret’s youngest son Jeremiah, could often be seen in the field by himself talking to someone. One night when Margaret was putting her sons to bed, Jeremiah said, “Jessica wanted me to tell you that she loves you and she is okay.” Margaret started crying because after Jessica’s death, they never talked about it, destroyed any sign of her. There is no way that Jeremiah could have known about Jessica. There have been many reports of the sound of a little girl laughing when people walk through this area of the park.

The last stop was again back into the woods and I was ready to get the hell out of there. When we were close to the statue, a piercing scream filled the air. I turned around to find only Michelle. Scott had also disappeared. Michelle was mumbling to herself and violently moving in awkward fits and starts. She fell to the ground, looked like she was having a seizure.

Another scream from deep in the woods. As I looked around, Michelle, now foaming at the mouth, stood up and ran down the path towards the statue. I ran after her. She ran at a fast rate and still with her arms hugging herself.

Forests and parks have long been a place for pagan rituals. The largest organizational structure that falls under Neopaganism is Wicca, or witches. Witches are mostly solitary practitioners, but others form informal groups of Wiccans. There is often no hierarchy beyond the coven, but some covens have a High Priestess and/or Priest that is democratically elected by the group to that office. 

Toronto is known for its high percentage of people who identify as Wicca. In fact, in a worldwide poll, Toronto ranked in the top ten, a list that includes Salem, Massachusetts and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The most densely populated Wiccan city is Lily Dale, New York, which is a community of psychics and witches that functions as a cooperative.

What few know is the historical ties between Toronto and Lily Dale. Many of the inhabitants of this community down in New York actually are of Canadian descent and many of them lived around the High Park area. After the community of witches was uncovered in the mid-1950s, most of them left Toronto, fleeing into New York state, establishing Lily Dale.

But they did not all leave. Over the years there has been a resurrection of Wiccans in the area and High Park has returned as the ground zero for their rituals and ceremonies. The biggest ceremony happens on Halloween, October 31st. However, there are other dates of significance throughout the year. There is a metal statue in High Park that was actually designed and constructed by the original Wiccan sect from the 1950s. And now, the post-modern era Wiccans use it as the centrepiece to their rituals.

This metal statue was exactly where Michelle was heading. Screams came from all sides. I looked behind me and the other four - Marjorie, Holly, Scott and Kent - were all in pursuit of me. I stopped, put my hands up. As they got closer, I lifted my lantern up and their yellow eyes caught in the light. Their growls made my feet get going.

As Michelle reached the statue, there were two figures in robes and hoods standing on top of the large structure. Michelle stopped at the base of the statue and thrust her arms towards the figures. From under the ground, a large wooden stake burst through the soil, cutting right into Michelle, lifting her off the ground, impaling her.

The other four - people? - made it to the statue and other wooden stakes appeared. Kent was impaled, Scott dodged two of them. More and more stakes and they were coming towards me. I ran deeper into the woods. Which way? My mind was lost. My body was lost. I ran because my life depended on it.

I could hear the growling in pursuit behind me. Stakes exploded from underneath the ground. I ran along a steel bridge, jumped down a flight of stairs, across the road, up another path and cut out of the woods to the western perimeter of the park. I stopped, turned towards the entrance to the woods, hands on knees, keeled over, breathing heavy.

The growling echoed but as Scott ran full tilt, when he reached the perimeter of the park, he slammed against an invisible wall and fell backwards. Slightly stunned, he stood up. A stake appeared from below, lifting him up off the ground, impaling him.

I backed away from the park and the entrance into the woods. I ran away and never returned.

Paul Dore