Ghosts

Could Fort Erie’s Bertie Hall hold secrets from Underground Railroad?

Bertie Hall in Fort Erie, Ont. has a few ghostly tales that would light up the imagination of Gothic novelist M. R. James.

Situated on the corner of Phipps Street and Niagara Boulevard, the Greek revival homestead to William Forsyth was built in 1833, and it’s suspected that the respected architect John Latshaw had something to do with its design.

Forsyth, however, was an interesting character in Fort Erie and lived in the house until he died in 1841. Involved in tourism to the area, and planned the Bridgeburg Historic District.  

Because of its age, and its past owners, as well as stories of the Underground Railroad and visitors like King George V, Bertie Hall is veiled in subtle mystery.

It is alleged that there was an underground tunnel that connected Bertie Hall with the Niagara River, where slaves avoiding capture would enter and arrive in the basement of the home.

Ask Jim Hill whether or not the connection to the underground railroad is grounded in historical fact, and he’ll admit there is nothing substantial.

The senior manager of heritage for the Niagara Parks Commission acknowledged that Fort Erie was a major crossing point in Canada, given that there was evidence that the Erie Canal was a major tributary.

Upstate New York was relatively safe for those who were escaping their white plantation owners.

“The fact (Bertie Hall) was built the year the British parliament passes the act against slavery, in 1833, that may be why people connect the two,” Hill said. “Once you made it to Canada, you were safer. Not to say that people weren’t dragged back — Canadians try to collect bounties — you were pretty safe.”

Combine the coincidence of being built the same year as the British abolishment of slavery, the ties to the War of 1812 and the Fenian raids, who could have marched past the house on their way to the Battle of Ridgeway in 1866, Bertie Hall is steeped in very active history.

Bertie Hall was purchased by Niagara Parks in 1982 and currently houses the archives. It was leased to the Fort Erie Museum and then to Mildred M. Mahoney Dolls’ House Gallery. There were rumblings of it being renovated into a museum for the underground railroad.

Those are just rumours, David Adames, Niagara Parks Chief Executive Officer assured.

“We’re doing some additional research to see whether in fact the home was used during the Underground Railroad era — just to see if it’s factually accurate,” he said. “We haven’t uncovered direct evidence that it was used.”

Adames acknowledged that there is plenty of evidence to validate the Underground Railroad was active in the Niagara Region corridor, just nothing verifying Bertie Hall’s role in that point of history.

The Niagara Parks Commission requested Adames’ team to do an assessment of the nearly 200-year-old homestead.

“We are going to do a high-level assessment, looking at everything from the foundation, roof, windows,” he said, adding there are not any immediate plans to renovate the property.

Niagara Parks moved its archives into the location a year and a half ago and it has served as home base for that department since then.

In the past, Bertie Hall has served as an impromptu residence for Wilfred Laurier archaeology students who are performing fieldwork on Fort Erie.

Reports of whether or not students experienced anything out of the ordinary were not confirmed, but a handful of paranormal researchers in the Niagara Region have provided a glut of ghostly tales about the house.

The Haunted Dolls’ House

Carol Taylor has investigated Bertie Hall quite extensively with the Niagara Area Paranormal Society (NAPS). She also runs courses out of the Fort Erie landmark for budding paranormal investigators.

Back then it was called the Mildred M. Mahoney Doll House Gallery, but she did return after the gallery shut down.

Photo courtesy Niagara Parks
Bertie Hall was built in 1833 by William Forsyth, an
animated character in Niagara Region.

Mahoney died in 1990, but the collection of miniature houses, dolls and accessories were auctioned off in August 2010 by Plato Auctions.

For Taylor, Bertie Hall has been the most active location in terms of paranormal activity. Her first visit with NAPS was during a Cogeco TV feature in the early 2000s.

“We had free rein of the place, and we had shown that we had never been there before,” she recalled during a November phone conversation. “We were setting up our equipment in one specific room, and we would set up our lighting elsewhere.”

A reporter and cameraman were with her on-site, and while was alone in the gravel and dirt-floored basement with the reporter, they could hear children talking.

“She was like, ‘Do you hear that?’ and I said, ‘I do hear that,’” Taylor recalled. “As we were standing down there, all of a sudden gravel started getting tossed at us.”

Nobody else was around, and the reporter was freaked out. When the cameraman returned and admitted that he did not believe in the paranormal.

Cue the supernatural horror trope of the skeptic getting preyed on. Upstairs was one particular dollhouse, a pink colonial number, that had been linked to alleged bizarre occurrences.

All of the dollhouses were enclosed in plexiglass cabinets, but the one Taylor suggested to the cameraman was perfect for the B-roll.

“There reports of that specific dollhouse moving from one side of the room to the other,” she said. “The table was on wheels, but it was heavy and there were no slants to make it move across the room.

“It was also the only dollhouse that had a replica Ouija board inside of it, of all things.”

The cameraman went to set up a shoot, and Taylor heard a loud banging noise followed by a “Holy shit! Holy shit!”

“When he came down the stairs he was as white as a ghost,” she said. “We asked what was going on and he said, ‘I would have never believed any of this.’”

The cameraman went on to recount his experience with the invisible furniture mover. While trying to set up a shot of the colonial house with the Ouija board, he asked — out loud — if the spirit could move the dolls’ house so he could get a better shot.

He left the room to capture more of the building and upon his return to the room, the whole dolls’ house was shifted enough for him to take a picture.

“He was just absolutely freaked out because maybe half an hour before that he told me he didn’t believe in that stuff,” Taylor said. “I was like, ‘It’s going to be a good night,’ and it was.”

That same night, they also captured the chandelier turning on and off very quickly, and they investigated the switch which was at the bottom of the stairs.

Whoever or whatever the entity is, Taylor observed its strange sense of humour. She held paranormal investigation courses at the house and there were times she was teaching a course and told the audience that they never saw objects move. A few moments later a heavy lead candlestick flew off a table.

Another time, when Taylor mentioned it was the most active location she’s investigated, it was a quiet night.

The upstairs rooms and the basement seem to be the most active areas.

“I have hundreds of EVPs from that location,” she said, adding that a few people recognized Mildred M. Mahoney’s voice, the former owner of the dollhouses.

Taylor once tried to coax the alleged spirit. It was a tradition for Mahoney to leave a pair of shoes on the stairs as a memorial to her husband.

“I had a tape recorder on me and we had a static tape recorder just sitting there and on both tape recorders, when I say, ‘I wonder what will happen if I move this over here,’ I got a female voice saying, ‘I’ll push it right back,’” she said. “When I played that for the staff, they said that was Mildred Mahoney. That was her voice.”

Other disembodied voices and physical impressions from the location include a male and a child. The story that accompanies the child has it drowning in the tunnel.

Although, any evidence of a tunnel connecting Bertie Hall to the Niagara River has not been uncovered.

“I mean, it has a very deep basement, but we don’t have any proof that (a tunnel) was there for smuggling goods and more people.,” Hill said.

Keeping up appearances

Hill is not just a historian. He takes an interest in all things paranormal and believes it’s a great way to teach history.

“I joke all the time that I’m a founder of CUGE Local 1,” he said, with a laugh. “The Canadian Union of Ghost Employees.”

When he was attending Brock University, he spent summers working for Parks Canada and he worked with Kyle Upton, who has written about Niagara’s spectral residents in Niagara’s Ghosts at Fort George. Upton asked his superiors at Parks Canada in 1994 if he could host ghost tours at Fort George.

“They balked at it a little bit, but Fort George has a very active friends’ group and I said, why don’t you do it through the Friends of Fort George,” Hill recalled. “I give the superintendent of Parks Canada at the time credit.”

Credit indeed, as Upton was asked to carry on the tradition of storytelling if Parks Canada was going to allow them to have a ghost tour. They also had to make it “abundantly clear” when they were stating historical facts.

Hill, Upton and Upton’s girlfriend at the time handed out 200 free tickets to every restaurant and shop in the old town for a ghost tour at Fort George. They set up at Queen’s Landing and nobody showed up. That Halloween, however, 400 people showed up after a gradual buildup over the summer.

“That number of people kind of overwhelmed us,” he said. “So, I made it a point when I’ve travelled through Europe, at every city, that I take their ghost tour.”

Unfortunately, 2020 was the first year since its inception that the ghost tour did not happen, due to the pandemic.

“We actually joked about the fact that this is the first time in over 30 years we haven’t had Halloween events at old Fort Erie,” Hill said, thoroughly enjoying the conversation about history and ghosts.

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