Is there a point when a place can be so saturated with suffering and violence that this anguish somehow possesses it? I don’t necessarily mean with ghosts and goblins, but with images, impressions, and textures gleaned from an evil past that have permeated a place to the point where these become palpable textures within our reality, like images of light imprinted onto film or voices on a tape. I have often pondered this when looking at locations of ruthless history that have, for whatever reasons, become inextricably linked to weirdness and the unexplained. Is human folklore and superstition more than enough to make this so, or are there some forces which we have yet to understand allowing blackened, vile history to make its mark upon our world, allowing these atrocities to come back and haunt us as surely as the image of a dead loved one can? If there are such places in this world, then a small, rocky slash of land in Canada certainly seems like it could be one of them. With a history stained with blood and its trees and land well acquainted with human suffering, blood, and perhaps the screams of the doomed, it is an eerie place that seems as if it could possibly be host to such flickers of the past. Or maybe just plain ghosts. Perhaps both, or maybe nothing at all. Regardless of the root causes of its bizarreness, it is an intriguing place worth consideration among locales of the strange. Let us take a look.
Just to the south of Stanley Park, of Vancouver, British Colombia, standing within Coal Harbor, is a small, picturesque island that seems rather inconspicuous for the most part, with most visitors to the popular nearby Stanley Park hardly even realizing it is there. Other than the Canadian naval base which now sits on the island and its rather quaint atmosphere, there is not much that really stands out about this little speck of land, yet under this calm veneer lurks a dark and violent past which stretches back past European settlement, to when the Native people first inhabited the area, and who called the island simply “Island,” but which would later earn its more sinister title of “Deadman’s Island” through a dark sequence of events.
The land was first tainted with the blood of the dead when two tribes of the area, the Northern and Southern Salish nations, were locked into a bloody war. During one particularly brutal engagement, the southern tribe kidnapped 200 women, children, and elderly tribespeople from their enemies and held them captive on the island, demanding 200 of their enemy’s warriors in exchange for their release. When the northern tribe agreed and handed over 200 of its finest warriors, the men were ruthlessly massacred right then and there by a rain of arrows and knives. According to Native legends, the following day there were mysterious and menacing flaming flowers growing where the dead had fallen, causing the southern tribe to abandon the land and deem it an accursed place plagued with black magic. Author E. Pauline Johnson gave the best account of this bloody massacre in her 1911 book Legends of Vancouver, and described these flowers thus:
In the morning the southern tribes found the spot where they fell people filled with flaming fire-flowers. Dread terror seized upon them. In the depths of the undergrowth on Deadman’s Island there blossomed a flower of flaming beauty… but somewhere down in the sanctuary of its petals pulsed the heart’s blood of many and valiant men.
From that point, the island was known as Deadman’s Island, a name it officially retains today, and the Native peoples of the area saw it as a forsaken land of the dead, fit only as a burial ground for more corpses to join the ones that where already there. The Squamish people took to using the island as burial ground, usually placing bodies within cedar coffins, which they then lodged up within the branches of ancient trees. These coffins would make a morbid discovery years later, when one of the first white settlers of the area, a man by the name of John Morton, visited the island in 1862. There he found hundreds of the deteriorated, crumbling boxes hanging from the trees like macabre ornaments, with some of them having fallen from the binds which had precariously lashed them to the branches, and been dashed upon the ground to spill their contents of bones, skulls, and tangles of hair upon the soggy ground. Supposedly, one of these boxes disintegrated on touch, showering the horrified Morton with human remains. Indeed it seemed the island lived up to its namesake. These wooden boxes were later moved by the European settlers, who were disturbed by such customs, and brought to the nearby graveyard of Lumberman’s Arch, where they were buried below ground in keeping with the traditions of the white settlers.
Despite the removal of the burial coffins, Deadman’s Island would remain a place where only the dead went, and it retained its purpose as a burial ground, this time for the outsider settlers who were pouring into the region. Starting from the early 1870s, the island became a veritable dumping ground for the corpses of the dead, serving as a graveyard for dead merchant seamen, the bodies of workers killed during the perilous construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway line, the 21 victims of the Great Fire of 1886, and pretty much anyone who died in the surrounding areas who could not afford a more upscale burial, including vagrants, outlaws, prostitutes, lepers, societal outcasts, and immigrant menial workers and laborers. These burials would continue, and the bodies would pile up until the nearby Mountain View Cemetery opened in 1887. The bodies buried here were typically unceremoniously dumped into shallow graves wherever there was space between the trees, and their graves marked with simple wooden crosses, pickets, or headboards, and on many occasions not marked at all. Most often, the makeshift graves would quickly become overgrown with weeds and vegetation, and the names on the cheap wooden markers would be inexorably wiped away by the elements, with the simple headboards sometimes completely obliterated by rot and weather until it was impossible to tell if there had ever even been a grave there at all.
Even after the new cemetery was opened, death would never really release its skeletal grip on the island. From 1888 to 1892, the region was struck by a smallpox epidemic, and the island was used as a quarantine site for droves of victims. Although it was ostensibly a quarantine zone, at the time there was really nothing to do for those who had contracted the disease, and they were more or less considered to be the walking dead. Considering the death sentence that getting smallpox was in those days, no one really expected those who were sent to the island to ever return, and indeed most of them never did, even after death. During this dark time, many of those who succumbed to the ravages of the illness were buried right there on the island rather than having them rowed over to the mainland to be buried at the cemetery. Since many of the graves were never marked, or were erased by the march of time, most of the bodies interred at the island during these years were never exhumed, with their locations a mystery even to this day. This may or may not have something to do with various tales of seeing ghosts, specters, and dancing orbs of light within the nighttime forests of the island by early settlers over the years, and rumors abounded that it was a decidedly haunted place that was best to be avoided.
From 1899, the island was leased to an American industrialist named Theodore Ludgate, who had grand ambitions to open up a logging operation on the island, much to the consternation of locals, who thought the land should not be developed. Even after being warned by local authorities not to use the land for logging, Ludgate would not be deterred. Ludgate’s plans would be dashed when he defiantly headed to the island in April of 1899 with 30 of his men in order to start building a lumber mill, and found a large contingent of police waiting for them in order to prevent them from starting, by force if necessary. Ludgate would be arrested when he began trying to chop down a tree anyway. These confrontations between police and Ludgate would continue until 1911, when he was finally granted the legal right to log on the island, and he would subsequently steadily strip it of nearly all of its trees, while at the same time evicting a rather flourishing squatter community, until his lease expired in 1930. It was around this time, during the logging dispute, that the island began to take up a more prominent reputation in the public eye as not only a place with a bloody history, but as a haunted place as well.
In 1909, during one of the numerous showdowns between authorities and Ludgate’s loggers, police actually camped out on the island to make sure no one would start chopping down trees. It was during this time that some of the officers claimed that they could hear disembodied voices screaming, as well as the rattling of chains. Some even claimed to have seen ghostly skeletons which warned them that great harm would befall anyone who tried to chop down the trees of the island. Of course these reports were not taken very seriously at the time and were mostly chalked up to nerves and overactive imaginations spurred on by spending the night in the dark on such a spooky island. The skeptical police chief ended up telling his men to just carry torches about at night to put them at ease and keep any restless spirits at bay. No word if this was actually effective or not.
The rumors of ghosts on the island were not enough to deter industrious entrepreneurs from trying to acquire the island and turn it into an amusement park, entertainment district, or resort area, and others wanted to turn it into a park, museum, or memorial site, but none of these plans ever come to fruition. In 1942, the government turned the land over to the Canadian Royal Navy and the island was used for the location of a naval base called HMCS Discovery. It was with the island’s transformation into a military base that reports of ghostly occurrences and paranormal phenomena began once again in earnest. Since its construction in 1944, naval officers and Royal Canadian Navy reservists at HMCS Discovery have been beset with all manner of strangeness here, ranging from hearing numerous anomalous sounds such as breaking glass, furniture being moved, voices from nowhere, shouts, inhuman screams, spooky chanting sounds, and footsteps, to being pushed or tapped by unseen hands, to seeing various apparitions, glowing eyes in the fog, mysterious lights, shadow people, and an eerie glow emanating from the trees that seems to flicker and writhe like flames before slowly congealing into a human form. Additionally, personal belongings and other objects are said to continually go missing, often ending up in strange places far from where they should be, and lights or electrical equipment seem to have a disconcerting habit of turning themselves on and off. It is said that many of these seemingly supernatural events seem to gravitate around a place called Building No. 1. Another location that is known for its ghostly activity is one of the storage areas which was once a holding cell for prisoners. According to base lore, a young worker on the island during the war hung himself within the dank cell after being imprisoned there for theft, and it has remained haunted ever since.
Some stories told by those stationed on Deadman’s Island stand out as being particularly chilling. One famous story is that of a Leading Seaman named Anne Marie Hamilton. Although no one usually sleeps on the island, with the facilities locked up and personnel going to their homes at night, and only a watchman positioned at the front gates, Hamilton had requested special permission to stay overnight to complete some work. The building she ended up in was the notorious Building No.1, and that evening she was awoken by the sound of two men going up an outside stairwell. She could clearly hear them calmly talking as they ascended up to the 3rd floor just above her and proceeded to move around furniture from the sound of it, which was joined by the sounds of doors opening and closing, for about 30 minutes before all went silent. Although it was certainly odd that anyone would be there at that late hour, or at all for that matter, Hamilton just assumed that some others had also ended up staying on the island that night for some important business. It wasn’t until the next day that she would realize that anything was amiss. When she asked the front gate guardsman who had been at the base the previous evening, she was told that she had been the only one and that no one else had come through the gates all night. Although it was very strange, and she didn’t immediately jump to the conclusion that it was ghosts, the experience was certainly unnerving for her, and she would say later of the incident:
The noises didn’t make me feel that uncomfortable, but the fact that the commissionaire said no one was here, that kind of creeped me out. I was like, ‘What do you mean, no one was here?’
In 1991, during the Gulf War, another creepy story was relayed by Leading Seaman C. Grahn, who was stationed at the base as a security guard in response to beefed up measures to protect the base from possible vandalism from anti-war activists. One night, he heard the sound of the double doors between the main building and the drill hall opening and then slamming shut as he was using the restroom, which was alarming in that he knew that he should be the only one there. Thinking it was perhaps the base commissionaire, he radioed to ask where the man was, but he claimed that he had been at the front gate the whole time. Grahn went back to check to see if there was anyone else there, perhaps an activist who had broken into the base, but he could find no one, and the doors to the facility where he had heard the noise were securely locked. He would later say of the incident:
I’m a skeptic about the whole thing. But when you’re by yourself, you have a crisis of faith. The next thing you know, you’re running out of the building.
In another strange incident the following year, Leading Seaman Jason Eldridge was in an office on the base when he he heard footsteps hurrying loudly down a nearby stairwell. Thinking this was strange because he should have been alone in the building, Eldridge took a look out the window to check the stairwell and found that the lights were out there. He then called the guard at the front gate, who told him that no one else had arrived at the island, and as he was in the middle of this call furniture began to slide loudly and roughly across the floor upstairs. Eldridge decided to go out into the stairwell and the sounds immediately stopped. Unsettled by what was going on, he nevertheless went to the floor above and found the room dark. He flicked on the lights to find that there was no one there, then went up to the 3rd floor just to be sure, only to find it equally unoccupied. By this time thoroughly creeped out, Eldridge decided to call it a night and head home. He still has no explanation for what happened.
Two years later, in 1994, Petty Officer Rob Low was at the base mess hall one morning when he heard the sound of voices and heavy footsteps downstairs. Since there were reservists all over the place on the base, he thought nothing of it and just figured they were down there messing around, but the cacophony soon got on his nerves and he went downstairs to tell them to keep it down. When he went down there, he found that the whole area was completely deserted. Baffled, Low went back upstairs, only for the ruckus to start up once again, and when he rushed back to catch whoever it was in the act, he once again found that the area was still abandoned. It is a mystery as to who was making all of that noise or where they could have gotten off to since there was nothing really down there except a hallway and drink machine.
These stories are certainly weird, regardless of whether they are actually caused by ghosts or not, and there are those who may feel inclined to go check these phenomena out for themselves, but unfortunately the island is off limits to visitors. The only people with access to the island are those who work at the base, and the single causeway that leads to it is gated and guarded. Those who try to go there by boat and sneak in are most likely facing arrest, and it seems like the only information on ghostly activity on the island is limited to the weird tales provided by the personnel of the base, who seem to have come to treat it as sort of a fact of life.
So, the question we are left with is, is Deadman’s Island haunted? It seems that all of the classic criteria are in place for it. Ominous, bloody history? Check. Indian burial grounds? Check. Forgotten or desecrated graves? Check. If haunted places do indeed exist, then this place seems like it is a shoe in as one of them. Even if ghosts or vengeful spirits do not exist, when looking at places such as this, one wonders if there is the possibility that violence, tragedy, pain, and suffering can imprint themselves on a location, somehow imbuing them with an endless loop of images and experiences that are more like an audio recording on a tape rather than any autonomous specter prowling about. The numerous cases of these “supernatural” events converging on locations of anguish and pain seem to suggest that it is perhaps worth considering, even if we do not yet understand how such a process might be possible. Or maybe this is all superstition, folklore, and tall tales. I leave it for you to ponder. Whatever the case may be, Vancouver’s Deadman’s Island has more than earned its name.