QUEBEC-RESEARCH-L ArchivesArchiver > QUEBEC-RESEARCH > 2004-10 > 1096934117
Date: Mon, 4 Oct 2004 19:55:17 EDT
Spirits Of Deadman's Island
By Chris Miller Contributing Writer
The Vancouver Courier
Leading Seaman Anne Marie Hamilton was sleeping in her room in a 60-year-old
brick building on Deadman's Island when she awoke to the voices of two men
ascending a staircase outside.
They were officers, she guessed from their businesslike tone, but she was so
drowsy that she only wondered later what they were doing in the HMCS
Discovery naval reserve building at 1:30 a.m.
Hamilton had received special permission to stay in the Officer of the Day's
cabin overnight, but normally no one sleeps on the island, located off
Stanley Park just east of the Vancouver Rowing Club. The buildings are locked and
uninhabited at night.
The sounds continued up the staircase to the third "deck," the floor above
Hamilton's. Then she heard the sound of furniture sliding across the floor
above her in what used to be the base's radar room.
The sounds continued for about 45 minutes. "I wondered, 'Who's here working?
What are they doing?'"
The next day, Hamilton consulted the commissionaire who had been on watch
the night before at the entrance to HMCS Discovery. He told her no one had come
through the gates. When she was hearing officers' voices and the sound of
furniture moving, she was the only one on the island.
"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," Hamilton
says. "I was like, 'What do you mean, no one was here?'"
Before going to bed the next night -her last in the room before leaving for
Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt -Hamilton tried to rationalize what had
happened. Maybe the commissionaire had forgotten that people were on the island? In
time, she fell asleep. At about 1:30 a.m., she awoke to the sounds of
furniture moving upstairs. At first she tried to tell herself that it was a
commissionaire doing his rounds, but that explanation didn't add up-she would have
heard footsteps and doors opening and closing, not the sounds of heavy objects
being moving across the room. "I remember going out and standing in the
hallway, and I got a really funny feeling and went back inside."
Hamilton isn't the only member of the Deadman's Island naval reserve
division with unsettling stories about the island. Many reservists have heard
voices, footsteps and other sounds of activity, only to discover they have no
apparent source. According to current reservists, at least one member of the
division claims to have seen an apparition, while another said she felt a hand on
her shoulder while working alone in the brick building, known as Building No.
1, where most of the unexplained experiences have occurred.
One thing about Deadman's Island is certain: its name is appropriate. Once
marked by cedar pickets and simple headboards, its graves-none of which are
visible today-contain early pioneers, suicides, infants, smallpox victims, CPR
construction casualties and people killed in the Great Fire of Vancouver,
among others. None has been exhumed.
The island's morbid reputation dates back to before European settlement. In
her 1911 book Legends of Vancouver, poet E. Pauline Johnson recounts a bloody
native tale about the island, the "Legend of the Island of Dead Men."
Chief Joe Capilano told her that the island was once a battleground where
northern and southern tribes clashed. In order to free women, children and
elders the southern tribes had taken hostage, 200 northern warriors surrendered
on Deadman's Island-and died soon after, pierced by the southerners' arrows.
By the time Europeans began visiting the island, it had become a Coast
Salish burial ground. The natives placed their ornate wooden coffins on the ground
or in the branches of trees, sometimes 20 feet or more up. According to one
tale, when an early pioneer named John Morton poked an overhead casket with a
pole, the rotting box broke, showering him with bones.
Influenced by settlers, who preferred their dead below ground, local natives
eventually gathered up the bones and interred them in the graveyard near
Burials on the island continued, however. From the early 1870s until
Mountain View Cemetery opened in 1887, Brockton Point and Deadman's Island were used
as burial sites for British merchant seamen as well as people from
Moodyville (which became part of the City of North Vancouver), Hastings Sawmill and
the Granville townsite.
According to early city archivist J.S. Matthews, workers who were killed
during the accident-prone extension of the Canadian Pacific Railway line from
Port Moody to Coal Harbour were buried on Deadman's Island, as were some of the
21 people killed during the Great Fire of 1886. One of the famous denizens
is John "Navy Jack" Thomas, who used a rowboat to run the first ferry service
across Burrard Inlet.
Coffins were loaded into boats, rowed over to the island and buried in open
spots between the trees. Early settler Harold Ridley recalls the lonely
scene: "The little collection of graves was not a cemetery; just little graves
beneath the trees, with a little fence of sharp, pointed split cedar pickets and
a headboard; [over time] the name became obliterated by the weather, and the
grass grew tall and went to seed."
During a smallpox outbreak that began in 1888, the city used the island as a
quarantine area. In his 1985 guidebook, The Stanley Park Explorer, Richard
M. Steele writes that even though Mountain View Cemetery was open, a number of
smallpox victims were buried on the island.
Hauntings on Deadman's Island date back to the early part of the century.
The first documented "haunting" was reported in 1909 during a logging dispute.
Police who occupied the island one night to keep loggers at bay claimed to
have heard the rattling of dead men's bones and shrieking skeletons that
threatened to haunt anyone who cut down the island's trees.
Perhaps suspecting that human agencies, rather than supernatural ones, were
responsible, the chief of police suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that his men
carry torches so they would be braver and the ghosts a little less active.
Ousted during the logging dispute, squatters returned to Deadman's Island
after 1911, building homes along the island's shoreline. Though there's no
record of whether the squatters buried anyone there, at least one source claimed
the name Deadman's Island commemorates a squatter found dead in his shack.
Between 1911 and World War II, entrepreneurs and civic-minded citizens
brought forward plans to turn the island into a museum, a war memorial site, an
amusement park, and a dancehall, but none went anywhere. The federal
government, which owned the island, gave it to the navy in 1942, and HMCS Discovery was
constructed the following year.
According to stories told at the base, during the war, a worker on the
island was found guilty of theft and imprisoned in one of three cells in the main
building. Despondent, the young man hung himself. The story may or may not be
true, but the cells exist, though they're now used for storage and office
space. Prison bars line not only the windows, but also the square observation
holes set at eye-level in the cells' doors.
Jack Thornton, a former commanding officer who wrote a history of HMCS
Discovery in the late 1970s, refers to the legend of a man who hanged himself on
the island. However, Thornton writes that according to the legend, the suicide
gave the island its name. That means it would have to have occurred during
or before the 1880s, when letters between government officials began referring
to Deadman's Island, known at times as Reserve Island and Coal Island.
Thornton also relates the suicide to the haunting of the island, writing: "could
this be the ghost of Deadman's Island reportedly seen as late as 1977?"
According to Steele, some have observed a strange glow that emanates from
the island's trees and sharpens into human form. Steele says people at HMCS
Discovery blame the ghost, supposedly that of an anguished seaman, when office
equipment and personal effects go missing.
One spring night in 1992, Leading Seaman Jason Eldridge was finishing some
paperwork in the HMCS Discovery office when he heard the sound of footsteps
moving at an urgent pace down a nearby staircase. Eldridge was surprised. He
thought he was alone in the building.
Looking out the office door, Eldridge scanned the windows in the
double-doors leading to the staircase, just across the building's entrance-hall. The
lights were out in the stairwell. By this point the footsteps had stopped.
Calling the commissionaire at the front gate, he learned no one had come on
the island. As he hung up, he heard the sound of furniture being moved
upstairs. The hair on the back of his neck bristled. He was surprised at how loud
the sounds were, given that he didn't know of any pipes that would transmit
the sound downstairs. Any sounds coming through the staircase doors should have
been muffled, but the sounds of the furniture scraping across the floor were
clear and distinct.
Steeling his nerves, Eldridge walked to the staircase doors, whereupon the
sounds stopped. Pushing open the doors, he flicked on the light, illuminating
the bottom section of the stairwell. No one was there. He continued to the
second floor and third floor, nerves jangling as he reached into the dark on
each floor to turn on the lights.
"I went up, took a look," Eldridge said. "Definitely, no one was on-board."
Scared and puzzled, Eldridge returned to the office. "All I know is I
quickly finished up my work that night and I was gone within a half hour."
During the 1991 Gulf War, Master Seaman (then Leading Seaman) Charlie Grahn
was stationed on the island overnight. Due to concerns about anti-war
activists vandalizing military facilities, HMCS Discovery posted extra security at
times during the conflict.
During a bathroom break in the wee hours, Grahn heard familiar, but
surprising, sounds-a whoosh and clap as the swinging double-doors connecting the main
building with its drill hall opened wide, then closed.
Grahn had taken his radio with him into the bathroom, so he called the
commissionaire, figuring he'd passed through the doors while doing his rounds. He
keyed the radio and said, "What are you doing in Building 1?"
A cranky voice responded, "I'm not in Building 1. I'm at the gate."
Today, Grahn insists he was more bemused than worried by the response.
Though his skepticism towards the supernatural waned in that moment, he reassured
himself that even if a restless spirit was wandering the building, it wasn't
malignant or violent, according to the stories he'd heard. Still, it was a
delicate time for a visit.
"I figured, 'Here's the ghost coming and I've got my pants down around my
A little spooked, Grahn vacated his bathroom stall, still half-expecting to
find someone when he searched the premises. But no one was inside the
building and the exterior doors were locked. If there's a good explanation for what
he heard that night, he still hasn't found it.
Others have had similarly strange experiences. During a search and rescue
operation aided by HMCS Discovery in 1994, Petty Officer Rob Low was one of
many reservists stationed on the island.
Lying in a cot upstairs at the base's mess hall early one morning, he heard
voices and the sound of people stomping around downstairs. Everyone inside
the building, used as both a mess hall and barracks during World War II, was
accounted for, so he figured reservists from Building No. 1 had come in and
were making a ruckus. However, when he went downstairs to give the people a hard
time, he found the hall deserted. A while after he returned to his cot, he
heard the same sounds and got up a second time. Again, he found the main floor
Aside from a pop machine, there was no reason to visit the building, he
says. Low and Eldridge both consider it unlikely that someone would have braved
the buckets of rain that fell that night just to get a Coke.
Most of the unexplained phenomena on the island involve sounds, but at least
one reservist claims to have seen the apparition of someone entering a
washroom. When the woman turned to look, no one was there.
Another woman felt a hand on her back while working alone upstairs in
Building No. 1. The frightened recruit reported what had happened to her
supervising officer, who laughed and said he wasn't surprised.
Normally, the only disturbances during the night occur when the
commissionaire does rounds on the island every few hours. Eldridge and Hamilton said the
commissionaires' visits produce distinctive sights and sounds. First of all,
they drive from the gate across a short bridge onto the island, so you can
often hear their vehicles' engines, or see their headlights. Once they're on
the island, the commissionaires go from building to building, opening and
closing doors as they scan each room in quick succession.
Sometimes boaters land on the island, not knowing it's off-limits to the
public, but few have had the audacity-or the break-and-enter skills-to get
inside the buildings.
Neither Hamilton, nor Grahn, nor Eldridge have heard from anyone who's seen
the glowing ghost Steele referred to in his book. Nor have they heard about
office equipment or personal effects inexplicably going missing. But they have
no explanation for the sounds they heard while they were in the building
alone at night.
"I'm a skeptic about the whole thing," Grahn says. "But when you're by
yourself, you have a crisis of faith. The next thing you know, you're running out
of the building."
One weekday evening in October, Deadman's Island seems full of life rather
than death. Uniformed reservists greet each other in the hallways with banter
about everything from meal plans to the upcoming Halloween party to procuring
ammunition for a rifle range excursion. On one side of the drill hall, a
good-natured reservist shows a batch of recruits how to handle their assault
Past the buildings near the edge of the island, evergreens and deciduous
trees perform double-duty, obscuring the straight-edged peaks and crags of the
downtown Vancouver skyline and shading picnic tables from the dim starlight.
The air is still and crisp. The quiet, scenic island, filmed for episodes of
Danger Bay and MacGyver, as well as the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick The Sixth
Day, feels removed from the city.
On the side nearest the Stanley Park causeway, the surface of a helicopter
landing pad is raised a few feet, in part to avoid disturbing the ground
beneath it. No one knows exactly where the island's graves are, so the navy has
adopted a "better safe than sorry" approach. HMCS Discovery has been a careful
custodian, Grahn and Eldridge note. Only two of the buildings-both built
during World War II-have rooms that go below grade. Both are boiler rooms; one
descends just a few feet into the earth, the other less than that.
The commanding officer of the base, Lt. Cmdr. King Wan, has been with the
unit since enrolling as an officer cadet in the 1970s. He remembers Discovery's
"old-timers" telling stories about mysterious occurrences at the base-such
as switched-off lights coming back on again -but never put much stock in them.
"It could have just been the older hands trying to scare the younger kids.
Hopefully the ghosts will all rest in peace and not bother anyone here."
As for Grahn, he wouldn't mind another encounter with the unknown. Though
his experience was unsettling, it wasn't enough to convince him there's a ghost
on the island.