“You’re looking for the OLD fort,” barks the soldier. I have been mincing around the property, unauthorized. “This is the Armoury”.
Lost again, despite having checked the map twice before I left. Lost despite the GPS in my smartphone. Useless. If I had existed back then I would surely be toast. He points me to the Old Fort.
I clamber along under the Gardiner, terrified that I will be shellacked by falling concrete. I finally see some light through the fog and enter through the back of the gift shop. “Is this where the lantern tours are?” I asked feebly. The tour guide, Khary Matchurin, tells me that we are meeting in the old barracks next door. I look over the wares. A copy of The Frugal American Housewife holds promise. I should aspire to lead a more Spartan lifestyle. The recipes for are for “Salt Pork” and “Tripe.” Depressing.
Texts like Canada on Fire and Washington Burning look promising. Having virtually no knowledge of the crazy shit that went down at this site, this promised to be a good time. I find a “nautical sextant” which sounds more depraved than it is.
Our other guide, Ieva Luchs, gives us macaroons to sustain us during our horrifying journey.
As I wait with the others in the Barracks, we watch an educational video about the history of the Fort. Graphics of two-dimensional soldiers slide around on what appears to be a early version of Sid Meier’s Civilization. I learn that the British burned down the White House, which pissed off the Americans who returned to get them back. They eventually got spooked by the guns and then the war was over. More or less. It was used as a fort, then a training ground, then preserved as a heritage site.
We are corralled into the Blockhouse, and ushered past the screens because “interactive panels aren’t so spooky.” A diorama however, is. We are told the sinister tale of the lighthouse keeper on Toronto island in 1809. J.P. Rademuller was an enterprising bootlegger in addition to being the lighthouse keeper. The unofficial story was that he resisted soldiers who tried to rob him of his booze. He tried to escape, horror movie style, by running up the lighthouse steps. By the 13thstep they accosted him, smashed his head with a stone, hacked him up and buried chunks of him around the lighthouse area. Some Island residents have stories of seeing a headless man wandering about the area, moaning.
We are told tales of Phantom Balls (dances!) in the Officer’s Mess. Ghosthunters from Barrie had come with “sensitive microphones” which taped haunting violin strains coming from the empty Blockhouse.
They take us to the site of the Battle of York, where the Americans staged a large scale attack on the unwitting British.
“The Americans needed a win so they decided a symbolic attack was better than nothing,” says Luchs. “Nobody was really here. The British used this as a transitional fort.”
When some 1600-1800 Americans descended on the Fort, the British blew up their magazine. It was a rainstorm of twisted debris and gunsmoke and body parts. “People were using prisoners as shields… it was extremely devastating.” They tried unsuccessfully to bury, then burn the multitude of bodies but those bodies would resurface later in the spring, when “people were walking and seeing hands coming out of the ground.” The explosion killed 55 Americans and 82 British.
Our guides march us over the bridge to the Victoria Memorial Square. We are told the story of Battersby, the left-handed colonel, who was put on half pay and decided to go back to England. Before he could return, he was forced to slaughter his pet horses (which were too expensive to ship on half-pay salary) and bury them in the Square. It is said that some people still hear the clopping of horsey hooves “and the occasional neigh” on darkened nights. The adjacent club district and the horse cops managing the marauding weekend warriors give credence to this haunting occurrence.
The tour is a creepy way to spend an evening, albeit far less fearsome than my hormonal roommate at home.
Fort York after Dark Lantern Tours run Oct. 23-27, 7:30-9:30 pm. Complimentary refreshments. Admission is $12.50 plus tax. Pre-registration required, call (416) 392-6907 x 0. Wear walking shoes.
Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson.