History and Haunts in Old Strathcona

Spooky stories on the steps of Old Scona High School.  Photo: Erin Wallace
Spooky stories on the steps of Old Scona High School. Photo: Erin Wallace

I used to work with a ghost.

At least, there were stories about a resident spirit when I worked for the Provincial Archives, many years ago. Aside from the occasional puff of cigar smoke seemingly from nowhere, and one particularly spooky moment when the sounds of a co-worker whistling in the quiet warehouse made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, I never had any experiences with Archie, the archives ghost. But my co-workers had stories, and hearing about them sharpened my interest in ghost stories and in the history of where I worked. It was in this same “spirit” that I, along with my husband and two intrepid friends, decided to learn more about our paranormal city by taking a ghost tour.

A quick search online brought up the website for Edmonton Ghost Tours. There were several options available: regular tours through Old Strathcona and the university area, plus a special Halloween Haunt at Rutherford House available on specific days. We decided to try the Old Strathcona tour.

Our group gathered at The Rescue statue next to the Walterdale Playhouse on 103 Street and 83 Avenue. The sun was beginning to set as we looked at the firefighters’ memorial and waited for our guide. By the time the 7 p.m. start time arrived, there were 15 of us. Our guide, Nadine Bailey, introduced herself, collected the $10 per person fee, and just like that, we were off.

We began the tour at the Walterdale Theatre, with stories of ringing bells from long ago and ghostly fire horses “getting ready for work into eternity.” Nadine personally researches the stories she tells, and her passion for the subject matter and dramatic flair come through in the telling. Originally from Newfoundland, she’s been leading these tours for more than 11 years, rain or shine, through the summer and fall. The pace of the tours is brisk — maybe to enhance the spookiness, or maybe because Nadine had another tour at the university due to start in a couple of hours — and so soon we were whisked away to the alley behind the Strathcona Hotel.

Having grown up in Edmonton, I felt that I knew my city fairly well, but I definitely hadn’t heard the story of the grisly murder at the Strathcona Hotel in the early 1980s, and the ghost that apparently still lingers there. The ghost tours are acceptable for children (at the parents’ discretion), but since our group was made up of adults only, Nadine was free to share some of the more “salty” tales with us.

As we headed to our next stop — across the street from the Princess Theatre — the streetlights cast a yellow cozy glow, and I found myself taking a moment to really look at Whyte Avenue. Driving down the street during the busy weekend, or even searching for shops on foot, you can miss the real beauty of this historic piece of south Edmonton. I didn’t have too much time to think about it, though, as we were soon off again, away from the avenue to the Old Strathcona High School.

Despite Nadine patiently waiting for stragglers to catch up, at this point in the tour we lost a couple of our group members. Maybe it was the quick pace, or maybe the stories were a little too spooky. The rest of us were treated to tales of an entombed construction worker, a diabolical medical student and a mysterious animal burial ground. According to Nadine, strange things happen in this quiet neighbourhood after midnight. I found myself staring at the doors of the high school, half-expecting, half-hoping that they would fly open, or that a ghost would make its presence known in some other way. A sighting was not in the cards for our group that night, but guests are encouraged to share any experiences they have with Nadine. The Edmonton Ghost Tours website even has a section, called “Sightings,” where guests can post photos of possible paranormal phenomena.

We finished our tour near the beginning point, at the Orange Hall and the Arts Barns. Nadine kept the stories fun and intriguing to the end. She’s constantly researching to flesh out the stories and gathering new ones from tour guests, so the content of the ghost tours changes every year. Having taken ghost tours in other cities (notable tours include Quebec City and Drumheller), I can honestly say that the Old Strathcona tour was one of the most enjoyable. I learned about the history of my city and got some shivers in time for Halloween.