At Halloween time each year, Fright Night at the Fort is held at Lower Fort Garry Historic Site. According to the advertising for the Friday and Saturday evening event that ends on October 26, during the 90-minute tour: “Visitors will be chilled-to-the-bone by Lower Fort Garry’s creepy stories and spine-tingling history, which will be terrifyingly brought to life (and death!) by Parks Canada’s cadre of skilled costumed interpreters.” It seems that Lower Fort Garry, referred to as the Stone Fort in its early days, has quite a reputation for being the haunt of “things that go bump in the night.”
Ghost Hunters International — the men and women who investigate so-called ghoulish hauntings using blurry night lens cameras that cause their own eerie effect to put viewers in the mood — even hosted a TV show about the fort that is claimed to be inhabited by figures condemned to walk the earth as spirits, as a result of a suicide, a hanging and other deaths. For brief periods, the fort had served as a prison and mental hospital, which may explain why it has become associated with ghosts.
Personally, one of my favourite ghost tales about the fort was first reported in 1903. That year, the militiamen of the Canadian Mounted Rifles allegedly had a close encounter with a mysterious spectre. Ghost Scene at the Fort: Nightly Vigils of the Sentries Made Hideous by an Apparition, read the headline in the August 29, 1903, Morning Telegram. The newspaper said “panic had seized the soldiers” at the fort as a result of the haunting. “The first owners of the Red River Valley are resenting the intrusion of the Mounted Rifles upon the grounds sacred to their dead and making their displeasure severely felt,” the newspaper continued.
A lone soldier on sentry duty outside the militia camp had been the first to be visited by the apparition. At midnight one evening, he saw a Red River cart drawn by a team of oxen passing his post. In the cart were a Métis man and woman. According to the newspaper, the cart passed the sentry’s station several times between midnight and 2 a.m.
“Finally the sentry became suspicious that the midnight drivers were not there for any good. As a sentry should, he therefore stepped over the fence and ordered them to halt. At his words, (the) cart drivers disappeared in the air.
“The guard stopped dead still and after reasoning with himself for some time finally persuaded his hair to return to its natural position on his head. He blamed his digestion and the regimental cook for the trouble.”
Although he had momentarily calmed his nerves, the sentry received another fright when the same apparition returned. He repeated the order to halt and the cart and its passengers again vanished into the air. At this point, the sentry dropped his gun and in “sheer terror” ran to the guard house. When he told his comrades about the ghostly visitation, they erupted into laughter. A night later, his comrades were less amused, as the apparition returned while another sentry was on duty. This time the soldiers regarded the appearance of the spectre more seriously and reported the sighting to officers.
“A plan was at once evolved to try and either capture the errant spirits or at least soothe their wrath and injured feelings, but with no success, and almost nightly the wraith pursued its lonely midnight parade.”
The soldiers developed their own theory behind the otherworldly visitations, including the belief that “the wraith” was from a nearby cemetery. They felt “the ghostly visitor is taking this means of showing displeasure at the desecration of the graves, many of which have been levelled off and destroyed through the process of time and the advance of civilization.”
Today, the actual location of the cemetery cited in the 1903 article remains as much a mystery as the reported apparition. Ken Green, the manager of communications and visitor activities at Lower Fort Garry for Parks Canada, said there is no evidence of a cemetery close to the national historic site. He said there are three possibilities for the cemetery near Lower Fort Garry: Little Britain United Church, PTH 9 and Little Britain Road, built between 1872 and 1874 and a kilometre to the south; St. Andrew’s on the Red, 3 St. Andrews Road to the west, the oldest stone church in Western Canada and built between 1845 and 1849; or the St. Clements Cemetery, 6159 Hwy. 9A, to the north.
One cemetery is shown on a plan of Lower Fort Garry drawn by B.A. Everitt in August 1926 and printed in May 1928 for the Hudson’s Bay Company, which built the post between 1831 and 1839. The plan shows the “supposed position of burial ground of soldiers of Wolseley expedition” — the 1928 HBC pamphlet admitted there was no definitive proof of its existence — across today’s highway and just northwest of the fort. Green said archaeological digs have yet to uncover any evidence of the cemetery. Even if it did exist, the fact that the cemetery was for soldiers originally from Eastern Canada (arriving in August 1870 with Col. Garnet Wolseley in the aftermath of the Red River Resistance) does not explain the apparition of a Red River cart containing a Métis man and woman. It is evident that the newspaper report may refer to a cemetery lost to history that had been reserved specifically for the “first owners” of the land. The reference to “first owners” could imply the “ground sacred to their dead” was a burial place initially used by aboriginal people and later in conjunction with Métis in the vicinity.
The Canadian Mounted Rifles were originally formed as a militia unit for service in the South African (Boer) War in 1901. Although the militia unit was called the Canadian Mounted Rifles, Manitoba-based elements of the Canada-wide regiment on July 1, 1903, were reformed as the 12th Manitoba Dragoons with headquarters in Brandon. During this period, the cavalry regiment commonly held its annual summer exercises at Lower Fort Garry, and stayed in tents in a field located to the south of the fort.
There were three militia regiments at the time: the 90th Winnipeg Rifles and the 13th Field Battery based in the city and the Canadian Mounted Rifles (the name persisted in newspaper accounts despite the reorganization). Periodically, the three regiments joined for a parade in Winnipeg. In July 1903, the combined force under the command of Col. Evans, CB, assembled at Upper Fort Garry and marched down city streets to the militia drill hall on Broadway. The Morning Telegram reported that 50 men of the Canadian Mounted Rifles took part in the combined parade under the leadership of Capt. Mackie, DSO. Such parades were popular and attracted hundreds of spectators.
It would be relatively easy for lone sentries facing the monotony of guard duty to let their imagination run wild. Or perhaps, as fictional Scrooge said to fictional Marley’s ghost: “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”