Niagara-on-the-Lake is a chunk of Ontario land that has possibly seen the most bloodshed in the province.
It’s no wonder it has plenty of ghostly tales from when the Americans pushed British troops back and lit a match to the town, sending all its inhabitants into the cold of a December 1813 night.
But not all of its ghost stories revolve around the historical battles between British and American soldiers during the War of 1812.
There is some debate about the resident spirits inside the Prince of Wales Hotel, at the southeast corner of King and Picton.
For writer Andrew Hind, Room 207 is home to a newlywed woman whose husband went off to fight in WWI a few days after the nuptials.
To the owner and manager of Ghost Walks of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Daniel Cumerlato, it’s a poor soul who met the business end of an American soldier’s bayonet.
Regardless of the timeframe for the alleged spirit’s era, there is something happening on the grounds of the Prince of Wales Hotel, and most often it’s in Room 207.
A little bit of history
Sarah Kaufman, the managing director of Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum, is unable to comment on the alleged haunted room, but she can paint a sepia-hued picture of what the hotel was like in its infancy.
Originally built in 1864, Long’s Hotel was your regular stopover, and then it was rebuilt in 1881 on the same property. But unfortunately in the 1890s, William Long has an accident caused by runaway horses.
“He had a really slow recovery, and was stressed, so he ended up selling it to a guy named Patrick O’Neill.”
O’Neill later called the hotel the Niagara House. Back then, a stay at the Niagara House cost $6 a night, Kaufman said.
Compare that to the current charge of $206 to $260 a night now.
The property on Picton Street, however, didn’t get its modern-day moniker until 1925. There isn’t a clear reason why they named it that. It can be assumed that it was because of King Edward VIII visited Niagara in the autumn of 1919 or any of the other subsequent visits.
Other hotels in Canada had the same marketing strategy, as the Prince of Wales Hotel outside of Calgary also took the title. Edward, however, never visited Niagara in 1919, choosing to visit St. John’s, Nfld., Quebec City, Parliament Hill, Sault Ste. Marie, the Nipigon River, Regina and Victoria, where he laid the foundation stone to the provincial capital’s parliament buildings.
The Prince of Wales would return on three more occasions, in 1923, 1924 and 1927 to stay at his ranch in Alberta. Niagara Falls was not visited, even though he helped open Union Station and Princes’ Gates in Toronto.
Kaufman couldn’t confirm the official year of the change but did say the name change came from the Brownlee family.
“There isn’t a clear reason why they named it the Prince of Wales,” she said. “But it could have been inspired by a visit from King Edward VIII who came to Canada in 1927.”
The reputation of the building would take a hit over the next four years, as it became — for the lack of a better term — a dive.
It wasn’t until the Wiens family, who purchased the property in 1975, that the Prince of Wales Hotel started anew.
“Before that, the Prince of Wales was known as a bit of a shady place. It was known to be the best place to go to in town for drinks.”
The Wiens family took over and extensively refurbished it, expanding down King Street and down Picton to include what is now called the South Wing, the Studio and the Court Buildings.
On the grisly side of things, Kaufman did reveal a small morsel of historical gossip that’s in the annals of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Across the street, in what is now the parking lot for the old Courthouse, and behind a Balzac’s Coffee, there was once a carriage house.
In 1895, a gentleman by the name of Hugh Hutchison went to the local smith to acquire a shotgun.
“He said it was for a cat that was in the barns there and he needed to get rid of it,” Kaufman said. “But then he was found in one of the stalls there. He had killed himself.”
The official date of death was Dec. 12, 1895.
A tale of two hauntings
A lot of the details surrounding Molly McGuire, the alleged ghost of Room 207 are fuzzy. Andrew Hind, who co-authored the book Ghosts of Niagara-on-the-Lake with Maria Da Silva, through Dundurn Press, discussed two alleged spirits in the Prince of Wales Hotel.
Though Da Silva and Hind do not offer a name for the elegant female spirit, they do acknowledge her presence in both Room 207 and the main lobby.
“At least on one occasion guests have been greeted upon their arrival by the sight of a beautiful, young, ethereal woman wearing an outdated floor-length dress,” it says in Ghosts of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Hind acknowledged the common trope of a woman in white throughout many different cultures in a November phone conversation.
“It’s kind of interesting. It does seem to be a common them,” the 46-year-old writer said. “If you look to British folklore, the woman in white is a very common trope in castles and palaces.”
Hind, a history graduate from York University, was drawn to the alleged hauntings at the hotel, replete with a French-style mansard roof because no one had focused on it in great detail.
“You’d get a few write-ups in books where it would be one page telling old folklore, second-hand stories,” he admitted. “Stories become expanded upon and exaggerated. With my ghost books, I always like to do first-hand, primary documents and speak with the people, specifically.”
He first started researching the location when he was writing a travel article. He had mentioned to the manager at the time that he had written books on haunted locations in the past and was surprised by her candour.
“That would have been my a-ha moment because this is a prestigious hotel, and this is a manager — a professional woman who has a lot to lose — and yet she’s openly discussing the spirits they have there,” Hind said. “That added to the authenticity because it’s not someone looking for their 15 minutes of fame.”
Even former mayor, Gary Burroughs shared ghost stories at the book signing some 15 years ago at the Angel Inn, another haunt mentioned in Da Silva and Hind’s book. These small anecdotes have leant themselves to the second spirit rumoured to be haunting the corridors.
That can be saved for another day of exploration.
However, the story of the young woman in Room 207 has another interpretation.
Ask Ghosts Walks of Niagara-on-the-Lake manager, Daniel Cumerlato, about the story of Molly McGuire, and you’ll be buried in War of 1812 history.
As the tale goes, American troops were in Niagara-on-the-Lake looking for British troops when they came across a home in the vicinity of where the Prince of Wales Hotel is now situated.
A soldier was sent to clean out the house and found nothing on the first floor. Then they climbed the steps to the second floor, where a young woman, allegedly named Molly, was waiting for her beau.
Suspecting the shape in the room was the enemy, the soldier ran it through with his bayonet, only to discover it was a young woman.
It was a sad end, but a reminder of the violent times that once afflicted Canada during its infancy.
As for any ghostly encounters Cumerlato’s come across, it’s from a concierge at the hotel.
“There was a story about a couple staying overnight. They heard a loud noise in the bathroom, they opened the door, turned on the light and they saw a woman, in the mirror, staring at them,” Cumerlato said. “When we talked to the concierge, he mentioned he was the one who checked them out because of the ghostly experience.”