At Fort George with Kyle Upton

By: Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva

 

It’s the kind of atmospheric night Kyle Upton loves.

The night is dark and the moon, poking through clouds above, casts an eerie glow on the sleeping town. Every shadow seems to hide a lurking spirit, and every rustle of the leaves suggests the movement of some unseen ghoul. Upton wraps his black cape tightly around him to ward off the evening chill as he raises aloft his lantern and greets those who have ventured out into the stygian darkness to explore with him Niagara-on-the-Lake’s haunted history. It’s the perfect evening for ghost hunting, and Fort George – said to be Ontario’s most spiritually active location – is the perfect setting.

“We can’t promise you’ll have an otherworldly encounter, but they seem to happen frequently at this time of year,” explains Upton, who founded Ghost Tours of Niagara and for the past 20 years has escorted wide-eyed tourists through darkened Fort George with only lanterns to guide their way. “There’s an unusual amount of ghostly activity both at the fort and in the town itself during the autumn. It makes for an exciting evening.

Fort George, which was the scene of fighting and devastation in the War of 1812, is said to be haunted by dozens of ghosts, including spectral horses, a door that appears at night but doesn’t exist during the day, an ethereal cat in the sumptuously recreated officer’s quarters, and of course an number of shadowy soldiers.

Interestingly, it wasn’t the ghosts that initially drew Upton to Fort George.

“Initially, the tour was designed as a history project. I volunteered at the Fort as a teenager and became addicted to the history. On stormy days, with lightning crashing in the distance and dark thunder clouds rolling above, when there were no tourists, the old hands would introduce me to the fort’s ghost stories,” explains Upton. “This stayed with me and so, years later, I took a ghost tour at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and thought ‘what a cool way of getting people interested in history—why not try this at Fort George? The ghost stories were a hook to get people exposed to history.”

Inspired, Upton put together a tour itinerary and approached Parks Canada. While they were impressed and saw the potential, officials of Parks Canada couldn’t get actively involved because the Federal government doesn’t acknowledge the existence of ghosts. Instead, the tour would have to go through the volunteer Friends of Fort George. Upton wasn’t deterred, put the idea before the Friends, and was pleased when the idea met a warm reception. That was 20 successful years ago.

“Though it started as a history project, as we had experiences of our own during the tours our perceptions of ghosts changed,” says Upton. “Rather than as a hook to introduce history, the ghosts became the focus. I began to realize our ghost tours are the only way these forgotten spirits are remembered, so we have a responsibility to tell these stories and tell them properly because the dead no longer have a voice.”

If that’s the case, it’s a heavy responsibility as there are a lot of stories for Upton and his guides to relate. One of the most frequently reported spirits is that of a little girl in search of playmates to pass the time. This young girl, named Sarah Anne, trails behind the tours, following from building to building, playing peek-a-boo with visitors and playing mischievous pranks, giggling quietly to herself. Then there’s the ghostly sentinel who died of exposure one frigid night in 1811 and remains at his post to this day. He walks back and forth on the bastion, musket shouldered, with only the glowing embers of his pipe to warm him. Oftentimes, only his upper torso is present, his legs disappearing into the earth—which makes sense, since the bastion is three feet higher than it was in 1811. It seems every building on site has a spirit or two lurking within.

Upton vividly remembers the first time he experienced the paranormal for himself, and considers it a life-changing moment.

“I believed in ghosts when we started the tours, but it was a belief based on research and weight of evidence. It was an intellectual thing, not one based on feeling. That changed when I had my first ghost experience,” he recalls. “It happened one stormy night in the middle of a tour in our 2nd year. I was standing deep in the tunnel at the back of the fort and looking past the group towards the entrance when I saw a child standing outside the tunnel, peering in.”

Thinking that perhaps the kid had become separated from the tour, Kyle did a headcount and was surprised that everyone was accounted for. Maybe it was a kid from town who hopped the fence for a free ghost tour? Now his concern was that the child would be a prankster and close and bar the heavy doors, locking the tour into the subterranean tunnel.

“I kept talking but watched to make sure the door didn’t start closing,” Upton continues. “Whenever the sky was lit up by lightning, and the tunnel entrance was illuminated with a flash of white, I saw nothing. As soon as the light faded there was the kid again, clear as could be. I realized there wasn’t anyone physical there, and at that point your world changes forever.”

Since then, Upton has had numerous other experiences—some chilling, some simply unusual—that have served to reinforce his belief in ghosts and the supernatural.

He has a theory as to why Fort George is so haunted: “Powerful, emotional experiences happened here during the war and that taints the area, staining the earth with that psychic residue.”

When the midnight hour is close at hand, the ghosts of Fort George are said to seep forth from their dark haunts. Join a ghost tour and brace yourself for an evening where you question reality; that shadow flitting across the wall might just be a long-dead soldier.