Thursday, 26 October 2017

Haunted Heritage

Guest post by Matthew Komus, tour guide and heritage consultant with many of Manitoba’s historical sites and museums.

As Halloween will soon be upon us it seems like a good time to talk about heritage and hauntings. A great number of heritage buildings are said to be haunted. This should not be unexpected as supernatural and heritage worlds both share a common connection to the past. This connection is especially true when talking about museums. Museums are places that showcase the past. They exhibit to the visitor the way we used to live but they can be much more than that. As Jay Winters says: “Museums are, in a way, the cathedrals of the modern world, places where sacred issues are expressed and where people come to reflect on them.”[i] The theme of reflection fits well with the spirit world. If museums function as the connection between the past and the present, and ghosts come from the past to visit the present, it should not be surprising the museums would often find themselves the home of supernatural activity.

In the early 1900s Winnipeg was growing rapidly and plans were drawn up to build several new fire halls in a short period of time. The typical hall consisted of “beige-coloured brick exteriors, two floors, three or four apparatus bays, and characteristic three-story tower for draining and drying fire hose.”[ii] The No. 3 hall was a special case. The hall was to be located on Maple Street just back from Higgins Avenue and the Canadian Pacific Station. The city leaders realized this meant thousands of tourists and new arrivals to Winnipeg would view the station only minutes after arriving in the city. This resulted in the No. 3 hall having far more ornamentation then the other buildings.


Fire Hall No. 3 with the Canadian Pacific Station in the background.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Station No. 3 was the oldest operating fire hall in western Canada when it was closed in 1990. The building found a new role as the Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg. On exhibit are numerous wagons, vehicles and equipment from over a hundred years of fighting fires in Winnipeg.

The museum is home to more than just artifacts; it has a live-in apparition. The ghost apparently has a keen interest in what’s going on at the museum. One instance took place when a volunteer was performing maintenance work on one of the old fire engines. Busy with his work he was not paying much attention to his surroundings. The volunteer then felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. Annoyed to be interrupted he looked up to see what was so urgent, only to realize no one was standing next to him. The volunteer really started to feel a chill when he realized the museum was closed and no one else is in the building. There have been many incidents similar to this and the firefighters think they know who is haunting the station.

The No. 3 hall was equipped with four fire poles to ensure a speedy response. On June 9th, 1915 the station was responding to a house fire when twenty-five year-old firefighter Peter McRae somehow lost his grip while sliding down the pole and fell hard onto the floor below. The fall resulted in McRae’s death. It was a tragic accident for the fire hall, to lose the young Scottish fire fighter but an even great tragedy for his wife and two young sons. The firefighters believe it is McRae’s ghost that continues to keep an eye on things.

Fire Hall No. 3.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Haunted buildings tend to be spread throughout Winnipeg but in the case of the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia, two spooky buildings are located only feet apart. The St. James Museum uses exhibits and programs to tell the story of the communities of St. Francis-Xavier, Headingley, St. Charles and St. James. The museum consists of three buildings, the Brown House, a Red River Frame cabin built in 1856, the former Municipal Hall of St. James-Assiniboia, built in 1911, and a newer building used for displays and events.

The Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
The Brown House was not originally located on the museum site. Instead it was located in the parish of Headingley along the Assiniboine River. The Brown House has a kitchen, parlour and dining room on the first floor and four bedrooms on the second floor. The house remains largely unchanged from its original appearance. To help create the appearance of being back in time the museum has furnished the home with period appropriate pieces. The house was named for its builder and first owner William Brown. Born in 1809, Brown came to the Red River Settlement in 1830 in the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. After eleven years with the Company, Brown retired and begin a new life as a farmer. He would pass away in the home he built in 1891 at age 82.

The Brown House is now used by the museum to stage re-enactments of what early farm life would have been like in the settlement. Summer students are hired to play the various roles of the Brown family. Over the years the summer students have witnessed a number of unexplained events in the house. These events include doors slamming shut by themselves even when there is no breeze. Open windows have also slammed shut even though the windows are very tight to open and in some cases have even had sticks holding them in place. Two students once witnessed the lid of an antique trunk rise up and then slam shut without any touching it. Staff have locked the house up for the night only to come back the next morning and find chairs and other items have been moved around.

The Brown House at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Many of the museum staff have heard children’s voices in the home and suspect the ghost may be that of a little girl. The house features an old checker board and it is not uncommon to find the checkers have been rearranged as if someone was playing a game over night. If the ghost is a child, she seems to enjoy the company of other kids. If no school tours have visited the house in some time the ghost is known to cause more trouble.

Located just west of the Brown House is the Municipal Hall. It is an attractive two-story brick building with a stone foundation and cupola above the front door. It was built in 1911 for the Rural Municipality of Assiniboia, which was later merged into the city of St. James-Assiniboia. The town hall held administrative offices on the main floor and the council chamber on the second floor. At one time there was even a police station and jail cell in the basement.

The Municipal Hall at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Due to all of the supernatural events the museum has, on occasion, had psychics visit. One medium was going through the town hall when she had a vision of a tall man in a military uniform. This vision connects to one of the most unnerving incidents in the museum. A summer student was working in the town hall when a tall man dressed in a military uniform came in. He asked her for information about an old air field in the area. She told him she would look it up and turned her back to try and find the information. Her back was turned only for a few seconds but when she looked back the man was gone. The student was positive she did not hear the door open. She walked through the building to make sure the man had not just wandered off but he was nowhere to be found.


The following stories are recounted in great detail in 
Haunted Winnipeg: Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent
Haunted Winnipeg may be found HERE

Additional information on the Winnipeg Ghost Walk can be found at Winnipegghostwalk.com




[i] Winter, Jay. The Legacy of the Great War: Ninety Years On. Columbia: University of Missouri, 2009: 34.
[ii] City of Winnipeg. 56 Maple Street - Fire Hall No. 2. Winnipeg, 1990.

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