It’s six o’clock in the morning, and apart from an early-morning jogger, I have Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake to myself. In just a few hours, this street will be bustling with a thousand tourists. German, French, and a dozen other languages will be overheard above the sound of automobiles, the clattering of horse-drawn carriages, and the clicking of camera lenses.
Queen Street is replete with shops, restaurants, inns, and outdoor cafes. You don’t have to travel the world to spend your shopping dollars. In Niagara-on-the-Lake, you can get everything Irish at Irish Design and Irish Tea Room, everything French at Serendipity: The Little French Shoppe, and everything Scottish at Lochcarron of Scotland. You can even buy Christmas decorations all year round at Just Christmas. In support of its local industry, the Liquor Store proudly displays wines from the Niagara region in its windows. Wildlife artist, Edward Spera, has a gallery here on Queen Street, and at the Romance Collection Gallery on King, you can purchase art created by Trisha Romance, Whitney Rose Peterson, Tanya Jean Peterson, Alex Colville, and Jordan Morrison.
The gardens along the sidewalk are lush and immaculate, framing a frequently photographed Cenotaph and clock tower, which stands boldly dead centre in the roadway where Queen Street meets King, and where the old Court House still stands since the end of the War of 1812. Just down the road, you can wade into Lake Ontario, just at the mouth of the Niagara River and feel like, if you just had a strong enough arm, you could toss a rock across the river into Youngstown, New York.
I have been on the Bruce Trail for a month, rarely seeing another person, so later in the morning, I am happy to sit and people watch for a while. By listening to their conversations, I see that it’s a sophisticated tourist crowd, cultured, well-travelled, and well-read. Many are here to enjoy the Shaw Festival, a single summer event created in 1962 by local lawyer, Brian Doherty, who loved the work of Irish playwright Bernard Shaw, that turned into the famous festival it is today. Many are here for the famous Niagara Wine Festival.
But by 11:00 am, I am overwhelmed by the hordes of tourists, as interesting as they are. And I can only take so much of the constant temptation of pastries from the Niagara Home Bakery, fudge slices from Maple Leaf Fudge, and melting delicacies from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. And the multitude of people walking by licking ice cream cones and eating gelato with a spoon is making me drool. So I head only a single block north toward the lake and have a quiet, treed street to myself again, walking past houses that are older than Canada herself.
I have always loved this town. It’s the only town in Canada that has a Lord Mayor, a special status in recognition of Niagara-on-the-Lake being the first capital of Upper Canada. I spent four years in this area during my undergrad years, and was down here from St. Catharines quite frequently.
Some people find Niagara-on-the-Lake ostentatious. It’s showy, that’s for sure. But it’s not pretentious. The culture, history, and local talent are all for real. The vineyards are truly some of the best in the world. And although there is lots of old money here, and the property values attract wealthier homeowners, these are the same people who have rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to preserve the culture and history of this small little town. Just like the ancestors who rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt this community after the Americans burned it to the ground in 1812. The townsfolk here have money, but they also have grit and determination.
And for that, I applaud them all.
And now, for the Niagara-on-the-Lake ghost story.
I can’t say for sure that I saw a ghost back in 1992 at a restaurant called The Buttery (now called Corks), but while I was using the washroom in the basement, I could hear someone shuffling around on the floor behind me. Of course, there was no one there. That’s why this is a ghost story. Hehe.
This restaurant was built on the original foundation of the home of Lloyd and Kate Burn, who lived here in 1850. Kate agreed to marry Lloyd Burn under the condition that her brother Philip, who was ill with a mental disorder, live with them. Lloyd agreed, as long as Philip stayed in the basement under lock and key, since he was prone to outbursts and seizures. The arrangement actually worked for a while, but Philip hated it. Infrequently, he was let out of the basement to visit with the family, but this only made him want his freedom even more.
One day, in a rage, Philip managed to get out of the basement and lashed out at his pregnant sister on the stairwell. She spilled hot soup on herself, scalding her legs and abdomen. Her screams of pain caused Philip to panic, so he pushed her away. Kate fell to the bottom of the stairs, where she later died. The baby was lost.
Philip must have blamed his brother-in-law for everything, so he grabbed a knife and headed upstairs. After hearing his wife’s screams, Lloyd had barricaded himself in his room by pushing a heavy dresser up against the door. But this didn’t stop Philip, who gained entrance and stabbed Lloyd relentlessly until he was lifeless. Afterward, Philip ripped up some floorboards in the basement and buried his sister and her husband. He sat there for two days and then either killed himself or died from a massive schizophrenic seizure.
It wasn’t long after that neighbours began hearing noises from the house. More than a century later, when the building was bought and turned into the Buttery, the ghost stories became more prominent. Often were heard sounds of moaning and sounds of someone falling down the stairs. Ghostly apparitions were seen, and there was even some poltergeist activity of moving chairs, trays being knocked out of servers’ hands, and even a slap on the back of a worker who was folding napkins. Soup spills and burns are more common here. Even the owner of the Buttery badly scalded her legs from a soup spill.
In the early 1980s, an exorcism was performed and it seems that Kate has found her peace.
But the ghost of Philip still runs amok! Bwahaha!