7.19 Hauntings of High Park

This entry is a transcript of the Dore's Open event Hauntings of High Park. This originated as a ghost walking tour and is featured on an episode of the Open Kwong Dore Podcast. The tour has seven stories that are detailed below. Included is a map of High Park and you can either use this transcript or the podcast episode as an audio guide through the woods of High Park in Toronto...if you dare!

Click here for the audio guide on the Open Kwong Dore Podcast.

1. The Playground of Death

The playground is usually filled with screams of joy and laughter from kids at the Jamie Bell Adventure Playground. But in the early hours on March 17th, 2012 there was a different kind of screaming going on.

A local boy named Jonathan - which is a fake name as the police did not release any details - often played here, especially in the mornings while on his way to school. One of his parents usually accompanied him, but on this day, March 17th, Jonathan’s parents felt he was old enough to go to the playground alone.

While he was climbing amongst the structures, a man entered the playground. Jonathan got scared and hid inside one of the structures. The man appeared to be dousing the playground with some liquid. He then set fire to the area, the gasoline combined with the wood caught immediately and the fire quickly overcame Jonathan, who burned to death.

Since the playground was rebuilt, some parents have reported seeing their kids talking out loud to no one. When the parents ask the kids who they were talking to, there have been at least five reports of the kids saying, “Jonathan. I was talking to Jonathan.”

2. The Graveyard of Trees

According to the map, the second stop is a large pond with a stone border. As you move past this pond, you come to a large field surrounded by trees. It’s serene, often the site of picnics and families spending some time together. What they don’t know is that this site 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 this 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. 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, so city officials ordered it be drained. When you enter the trees, watch out because there have been many reports of sightings of ghost soldiers peering out from the foliage.

3. Colborne Lodge

Next we enter on to the property of Colborne Lodge. 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, and it is believed she finally succumbed to breast cancer.

You’ll notice a trapdoor as you approach the back of Colborne Lodge. When Jemima’s pain got too much, she became erratic and at times violent. In those times, people did not understand how to deal with mental illness. So her husband John sometimes locked her up under that 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 and laudanum 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 the house. As well as wailing, as though it was muffled, like it was coming from underground. In addition, people have reported cold spots around the home - as we know, the temperature drops when a ghost is present - and there has been poltergeist-like activity inside the lodge.

4. The Ghost Soldiers of Grenadier Pond

The 35-acre 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 regiment led a successful charge across the frozen St. Lawrence River, capturing the 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 story goes that they were outnumbered because the Leather Hats attempted a similar charge across the frozen Grenadier Pond, but the ice wasn’t completely frozen and a number of them 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. These apparitions appeared to be soldiers, dressed in the uniform of the Leather Hats, marching across the pond.

5. Scattered Ashes

Everyone knows that 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 there. Some have felt that with so many ashes spread throughout, 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 eye witness Jordan Trudel:

"I was on a typical jog into High Park in the very early morning. After exiting street lighting and entering the woods at the north west corner of the park, I was confronted by a figure and an experience I really don't understand. It was late October, it was chilly outside. When I slowed my run to a walk to adjust to the greater dark, I suddenly encountered a large man that was wearing nothing but a pair of red summer shorts. I halted and watched as the figure walked slowly, mechanically, out of the bushes, halted, then craned it's/his neck mechanically to look at me. There was only extreme dark where his face should have been - darker than the rest of the surrounding. I felt drawn in. I suddenly saw images in my mind's eye: images of this person and their life in the park; I saw him relaxing by the pool, hiking, smelling flowers, that sort of thing. Then I was back in real time - I had suddenly found myself off the path a number of feet, struggling to find my way.

"The rest of the jog was loaded with apparitions and strange dark shapes roaming the woods. I saw crowds of apparitions in some regions of the woods as I ran past in complete wonder and astonishment - a sort of shock settled on me in which I forgot to get scared, I was too intrigued! At some point I felt like I was followed by two dark shapes that kept a distance, just out of my field of vision, so as I couldn’t make out who or what they were. I could hear their foot falls following me at times, although the other apparitions didn't make a sound. I feel I watched one apparition vanish in the wink of an eye. It was at that point, having received multiple experiences, I finally felt a fair bit of terror, unable to explain what was happening. 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."

There have also been reports of what locals call ‘The Jogging Ghost’ - which may or may not be the same dark shapes that chased Jordan Trudel. As people walked through the many High Park trails, they heard someone coming up behind them, as though they are jogging, that sound of running shoes on gravel. When they turned around, no one was there.

6. The Crying Ghost Child

The field near what is now the swimming pool and skating rink is the next stop. 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. It was just stated that they had two young kids, but originally, they had three. 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. A common way that the men working at 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 singing when people walk through this area of the park.

7. Pagan Symbols

For the last stop, we have a more contemporary story. Forests and parks have long been a place for pagan rituals. The largest organizational structure that falls under Neopaganism is Wicca, or witches. As you may or may not know, 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, mediums 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 decent 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, and 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. 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 centre piece to their rituals.

According to the handy Wiccan reference online guide, witchway.com, here is how a ritual usually happens. They usually gather in a circle about nine feet in diameter. An alter or some type of statue is in the centre of the circle. Candles on the circumference are usually oriented to the four cardinal directions. A space is created within the circle, the purpose being that it’s to confine the healing energy until it is released. And then they chant or release spells. For example, to ease a broken heart, they will say, “Oh, Great Mother Goddess, enclose me in your loving arms and nurture and bring forth the Goddess within me. We represent the Great Goddess, Mother of all things. I shine in the light of the Golden Wings of Isle. All that is great and loving only belongs to me.” And sometimes a figure appears outside of the space, but the witches are safe, as long as they stay inside it.

Take special care when walking through this part of the tour. As the Wiccans continue to return to Toronto, there have been many reports of strange rituals deep in the dark woods.

Paul Dore