It was a dark and stormy night…well not really, it was more dark and chilly but unnerving nonetheless as I arrived at Fort George for an interview.
The late night interview was scheduled for around 10:30 p.m. after the last ticket holders headed into Fort George for the final ghost tour of the night. As I wandered alone through the dimly lit and almost desolate parking lot, I could not help but wonder if this was the smartest idea I have ever had. I was about to interview Kyle Upton, the founder of the ghost tours at Fort George. Now I found myself in one of the most haunted places in what has been described as the most haunted town in Canada, with a nearly full moon shining overhead and too close to midnight for comfort.
The sign on the driveway indicated to park to the right and follow the path. Unsure where the path was, and armed with my cell phone flashlight, I wandered in the parking lot for a while until I heard a rustling behind a car in front of me. I decided quickly to follow the eerily lit cement path to my right. The small furry black and white creature also scurried away, thankfully heading in the opposite direction. As I headed down the path, I could make out a building with two dark figures standing in front of a dimly lit doorway. I sure hoped they were living! As I approached, I could see that it looked like one of them was wearing a dark cloak. That is when I met Kyle Upton, founder of the Fort George ghost tours, standing on the porch of the visitors centre. To my relief, Upton is most certainly alive.
I was invited into the warmth of the visitors centre, where we began the interview, accompanied by a tour security member. It is clear that Upton’s first interest in Fort George is its history. He explained that he had been a volunteer at the fort while he was in high school and participated in their youth programs. During his university years, he worked at the fort as a gardener and a tour guide.
Over the years, he explained how older staff members used to tell stories about some of the strange happenings at the fort. At the time, he was not concerned with the legitimacy of the stories but thought they were entertaining tales told in the evening during overnight stays in the barracks with other youth, or stories told among employees. He got the idea of starting a ghost tour at Fort George after he participated in a historical ghost tour in Williamsburg, Virginia. Upton thought it would be great to bring the idea back to Fort George, since he had heard his share of ghost stories over the years.
He thought this would be a way to “get people into history even if they don’t think they are.”
When he returned to Niagara-on-the-Lake, he approached Parks Canada with the idea. He was told that although it sounded like a nice idea, the federal government could not support it because they could not confirm nor deny the existence of ghosts.
Next, he approached the Friends of Fort George, a non-profit cooperative association that organizes programs and events at the fort. The Friends of Fort George said they would support the ghost tours.
His next challenge was to gather the stories. So Upton went back to some of the people that had shared their stories and experiences with the supernatural. The stories came from fort staff, people who had lived at the fort and local residents. He wanted to make sure these experiences were legitimate and had not been made up for purely entertainment value as campfire material. After being satisfied the stories were based on legitimate experiences, he established the first ghost tours in 1994.
The tours have grown since then, and the number of stories have continued to grow over the 26 years since the tours started. Upton explains that the stories still come from fort staff, but the biggest surprise for him has been that stories began to come from people on the tours. He said they have certain core stories they tell in the summer tours, but some stories and sightings have been added over the years as they noticed patterns have emerged in certain experiences.
Before introducing a new story onto the tour, staff wait to see if a pattern is established to root out any potential attention seekers or jokesters. However, when several people over the years start to report seeing the same little girl skipping around grounds or have a feeling that a child is tugging at their coats, it is hard to ignore. The story of Sarah Ann was then added to the storyteller’s repertoire.
Also, each tour guide may have had a personal paranormal experience that they share with their group. These personal stories make each tour unique and diverse enough that they often see repeat customers to the tours.
As the founder of the tours and a lover of history, Upton is concerned with maintaining the integrity of the tour. He wants to ensure the stories being told have met this criteria, because, he explains, they are living stories and hard to contain. He doesn’t want his ghost stories to turn into fish stories — as in a fish story, he does not want “the fish to get any bigger,” because it turns away from the real experience.
Unlike other ghost tours, Fort George offers a captive atmosphere. The tours take place in the actual area where the experiences occurred. You are not standing at a comfortable distance across the street or tentatively peering through a window. You are actually standing in the spot where the activity happens. Upton explains that Fort George has experienced all of the known paranormal phenomena, from glowing fog, to hearing footsteps, creaky boards, dark figures and apparitions. “Fort George checks all the boxes,” for paranormal activity, he says.
At this time of year, participants are treated to a longer and more in-depth tour than during summer evenings. The Halloween tours travel through more of the buildings, with more stories to match. Part of the reason for the change in format is practical — the weather at this time of year is colder and can be inclement. The other part is to celebrate the spooky season of Halloween.
However, Upton surmises the appeal to these stories harkens to a deeper question that is universal to all of us. He theorizes that as people move away from religious establishments, they are looking for answers as to what happens after we die. What happens after this life? This is the core connection we have to each other and the biggest mystery for all of us, he says. Upton explains that some people come to Fort George looking for confirmation of an afterlife, some are looking for a paranormal experience and some get dragged along for the ride. Whatever the reason for joining the moonlit tour through one of the most haunted places in Canada, they are sure to be entertained.
Outside, the last tour has ended. We can hear the footfalls of the participants walking a little bit too quickly to their cars in the dark, chatting excitedly about their experience.
As I conclude the interview, I cannot help be aware of my surroundings in the visitors centre. Did a shadow pass through the light shining under the door? I could have sworn I caught a glimpse of it in my periphery. It may have passed by a couple times as we chatted, or was it just as Upton said, “Fort George has an atmosphere.”
Couple that with the power of suggestion, a good storyteller and some consistent patterns of unexplained phenomena, then you have yourself the makings for a very entertaining and a spooky way to spend an evening at Fort George during this special time of year.
Halloween Tours at Fort George run Oct. 18, 19, 20, 25, 26, 27 30, and 31. Tours start at: 7, 7:15, and 7:30 p.m., and 10, 10:15 and 10:30 p.m. (excluding Sunday). Halloween tickets must be purchased in advance at Friends of Fort George by calling 905-468-6621. Tickets are $25.