As Halloween draws near, we shine a light on some of our city’s gloomiest ghost stories
Any Calgarian worth their cowboy boots has heard of the Deane House, the Lougheed House, the Prince House, and the Cross House — all local historical haunts, each with backstories that can make even the most cynical skeptics shiver.
Rumours are resurfacing that the Deane House in Inglewood will once again re-open its popular restaurant under new management just in time for Halloween, to the delight of local fright-enthusiasts and history buffs alike.
But as the witching hour approaches, how can Calgarians hope to keep themselves entertained in the meantime?
As it turns out, our city is brimming with spooky stories — though some are more fabrication than fact.
One thing’s for sure, from tales of rowdy cowboys of the wild, wild west, to deadly fires of otherwordly origin, to a bridge that bellows in the night — regardless of their veracity, these tales of Calgary’s haunted history will surely get in you the Halloween spirit!
Symon's Valley Ranch — 14555 Symons Valley Rd., N.W.
A farmers’ market full of friendly vendors and fresh produce. A beautiful former ranch of modern antiquity. A hoard of unsuspecting shoppers looking to stock their pantries with locally grown goods from the Symon’s Valley Ranch Market, oblivious to the tales rooted in its cellar.
Although the market has only been in operation since 2013, the barn which is its home was built in 1968, by the Jones family, as a barbecue ranch. Over the years, the property was expanded to include three banquet halls, the Ranch House Restaurant and Lounge, and an RV campground in 1988. But it all took a turn for the worst the following year when a fire burned the three banquet halls to the ground.
That’s how Dori Davidson-Revill first heard of the ranch. The director, producer, and editor at ParaShorts, a local documentary group which produces short films demystifying Calgary’s paranormal phenomena, first came across Symon’s Valley Ranch through tales linking it to another terrifying local legend, the Devil’s Playground. Some sources (incorrectly) attributed the ranch as the location of the fabled site of a schoolhouse fire that caused mysterious casualties in the early 1920s. Though it shares no relation to the school in question, in their search for answers, Davidson-Revill’s crew discovered that the ranch held a haunted history of its own.
“I hear things happening here all the time,” Symon’s Valley custodian Adrian Robins insists when asked about proof of the paranormal. “Sometimes, when I’m working downstairs, I hear kids, upstairs playing inside the building. Sometimes I’m upstairs and I hear people downstairs talking, doors slamming downstairs... people chatting and making conversation.
“But always when I come around, there’s nothing there.”
The market operates on the upper level of the ranch’s main building. According to Robins, when the market first opened in 2013, about 15 to 18 vendors had set up their booths in the lower forum of the barn. However, that portion of the market was closed, presumably after employees in the candy store in the basement started complaining about sealed containers of candy popping open all the time, glass display jars crashing to the floor every other week, and even water flooding their booths seemingly out of nowhere.
“We would be just sitting at the desk or serving a customer and all of a sudden the lids will fly off the top of the jars and they would smash on the ground,” recounts one employee in an interview conducted by Davidson-Revill’s team.
“A lot of times when I’m working in the evening, I hear sounds upstairs — really, really odd sounds. I can’t even tell you what they sound like. It’s like something going across the floor, rolling across the floor. I’ll run up the stairs to take a look and there’s absolutely nobody around,” says another.
“I came to shut off the water one night,” reports another custodian in Davidson-Revills recordings. “We were having water problems. I take a look at the camera [monitor] to see if there was anyone else in the vicinity or if there was anyone in the building... and there was an orb.”
The space downstairs is still open to the public, and available for use as a banquet hall for weddings, parties, and corporate functions.
“It’s pretty eerie down there,” said market employee Taylor Stocker. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was haunted. It kind of gives me the creeps. I try to avoid going down there already if I can help it.”
Though very little in the building’s history suggests any sort of malicious death occurring on the premises, Davidson-Revill recounted the tellings of a medium from the Calgary Association of Paranormal Investigations, who spent time looking into the veracity of the tales together with ParaShorts.
“She moved about the grounds trying to get a reading off the building,” say Davidson-Revill’s investigation notes. “In one area of the market she came across a loading entrance in the lower level. There she mentioned that she felt that someone at some time tried to steal kegs of beer in that location. She described [the person] rolling them out the large wooden doors to a group of nefarious looking men outside... she felt that the deal may have gone sour.”
It’s the same loading area that Robins says he finds most suspicious of any part of the property. Robins, who has been working at the market for the past four years, is on site around the clock, as he also lives on the land. Time and time again, he says the voices he hears are most prominent in that area.
“I always hear them in the shed,” he says. “Somebody banging on that door, saying ‘Mommy, let me out. Mommy, I’m thirsty. Mommy I need something to drink.’”
Betty Anne Buchner, another market employee of the booth A Little Taste of Country, says that although she’s skeptical of the whole idea, she supposes the ranch’s history as a cowboy’s party paradise does make for some intriguing possibilities.
“I have never come across [a ghost] or had any experience with it, but you have all those parties happening and such, back in the 60s... it’s not like it’s out of the realm of possibility that there’s an incident and somebody passes [on] and then decides to hang around after.”
The Devil's Playground — 8112, 8220 9th Ave., S.E.
Located on what used to be the far eastern border of Calgary, much of the initial scare-factor of the Devil’s Playground used to come from the fact that the place was terrifyingly difficult to pin down, at least from what online chat boards describe. The winding roads that lead to the property were hard to navigate, and with no noteworthy landmarks nearby, Calgary’s ghost-chasers of the last few decades were left to spend hours scouring the outskirts of the city for the ghost of a schoolhouse that may never have existed in the first place.
The playground itself and the tale it tells is a conundrum of contradicting myths and histories, some dating as far back as the late 1800s. Originally the site of a schoolhouse in 1915, one story recounts that the school mysteriously burned to the ground one summer day in the early 1920s with all of its schoolchildren still inside. Others say a nun who taught at the school was possessed by the devil himself, and torched the place in a demonic rage. Years later, when demolition crews came to clear the property of the building’s charred remains, they found that none of their equipment would work, and they all fell ill shortly after their visit to the site. When the City of Calgary sent a wrecking ball to finish the job, the chain broke, allegedly killing a worker.
Many an eyewitness account online recalls hearing children’s laughter, seeing spectres stalk the rooms of abandoned buildings, and even feeling a sensation akin to bursting into flame once stepping onto the property.
Each anecdote is equally as bone-chilling as the last, and especially so for urban Calgary residents, who tend to be most easily gripped by supernatural tales of an isolated, rural nature, says Dori Davidson-Revill, who together with ParaShorts, has recently made the Devil’s Playground the crew’s latest pet project. But as Davidson-Revill sees it, much of the playground’s mysticism comes from the human tendency to make stories our own, our psyche customizing them to play off of our worst fears.
“I can’t give too much away from the documentary,” Davidson-Revill says. “But pretty much what we found here was it was an old school, and someone saw something scary on TV and just decided —because it was a lesser known informational TV show out of the States and there was no Internet so it’s not like you could just look this story up online and confirm — they decided to tell all their friends that this story happened in Calgary, specifically at this ‘scary school’ out on the outskirts.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Davidson-Revill continues, “we saw some creepy stuff there. [The property] was just derelict. There was evidence of squatters, transients, drug use, used condoms, old food, vandalism. People were actually building makeshift fire pits inside the houses when they stayed, so all of them were huge fire hazards.
“Handprints appeared on our windows and car doors. We found a really old Bible just sitting there on a chair one of the days, that hadn’t been there before. There were a ton of dead animals in the place too. People would actually go there and kill animals in sacrifice, cause you know, pagan worships, summoning the devil — I guess that’s part of it. But it was nothing like what people say it is.”
Davidson-Revill spoke with several members of the Ellis family, who have lived and worked on the land for generations, in a bid to clarify this sordid history.
“Audrey Ellis put us in touch with some of the kids who went to the Rockland school, none of whom actually died there. They all graduated. We also got to talk to some of the kids of the one’s who’ve since passed away,” Davidson-Revill says.
In fact, Davidson-Revill adds, even the supposedly lethal fire itself is more or less fictional; a sizable fire occurred in recent years, but it was not large enough to bring down any of the buildings, and was not set by unwelcome visitors from an otherworldly dimension.
“There was a small fire caused by the fire pits that people had built there. It was actually caused by a séance that someone had tried doing in [what used to be] the school. It caused a small fire that was easily put out, and then they were chased away by shotgun blasts. So later people would come in and they would see the burn marks from where the fire was, and their immediate thought is, ‘Oh, the school must’ve burnt down.’ But that’s not at all what happened — it fell apart on its own.
“What happened was, [as the school aged] the construction teams from Calgary came in to recycle the brick, and much of that was used in the construction of Kensington. They took all the bricks . . . so what happened was that all that was left was the skeletal structure, and it just started falling apart,” Davidson-Revill explains, divulging information uncovered in the city archives the ParaShort team dug up.
The property is now nothing more than an empty lot still owned by the Ellis family. However, it is believed that the site will soon be consumed by the ever-expanding East Hills strip mall being built across the road, with musings of a haunted movie theatre being erected already bubbling up online. Meanwhile, says Davidson-Revill, the Devil’s Playground myth, in absence of a home to cling to, is now being attributed to the David D. Oughton School in Forest Lawn, which closed due to contamination in 2006.
“Interestingly enough,” he says, “Oughton’s kids attended the Rockland School at the Devil’s Playground, so maybe that’s where the connection comes from.”
Meanwhile, Davidson-Revill is positive that ParaShort’s investigation was a key factor in the Devil’s Playground eventually being torn down.
“Along with all the cheap Halloween stuff we found out there, we found a pit that was about a five-foot drop onto broken glass and rusted metal. That’s when we asked ‘How? People have been coming here for the last 25 years in the dead of night, and no one has been injured or killed.’ So when we took all these pictures, and went to interview the city about it, we kind of inadvertently tipped them off. Apparently other people had been complaining about it as well, and so the city went out and took a look at it and just said, ‘No, this needs to be torn down.’ So inside two weeks they just completely cleared the place out.”
We’re sure those early-century construction workers from the legend are glad to hear it!
Zoo Bridge — 12th Street S.E. Bridge, Inglewood & St. George’s Island
Perhaps there is something to be said for the way the sound of rushing water is transformed as it sweeps beneath a bridge — or maybe, those really are screams you’re hearing. Who knows for sure, but there certainly have been enough tragic happenings at the 12th Street S.E. bridge over the years to rear some ghoulish figures.
Commonly referred to as the Zoo Bridge, or St. George’s Bridge, the structure connects the Calgary Zoo with the city’s oldest neighbourhood, and arguably the most spook-tacular after dark: Inglewood. If the nearby Deane House, Cross House, and Hose and Hound restaurants aren’t enough to satisfy your ghosthunting appetite, take a jaunt down to the Bow River and hear the hollow echo of the bridge’s undercarriage for yourself. Try not to think of the several horrific accidents, and in particular, gruesome murder, that took place there at the water’s edge.
Police records show that in 1946, six-year-old Donnie Goss was playing on St. George’s Island, where the zoo security building now stands, when an older man promising candy and toys caught his attention. The man reportedly lured Donnie to a pathway beneath the bridge, where he executed his unspeakable crimes. It is believed that the man hid Donnie’s body in some nearby bushes, although the boy has never been found.
Davidson-Revill has heard the tale many times, but little Donnie may not be the only probable cause for the bellowing beneath the bridge.
“There’s actually a connection between the Zoo Bridge and the Hose and Hound,” Davidson-Revill explains. Cappy Smart, Calgary’s fire captain from 1898 to 1933, had a penchant for keeping exotic animals at the old Fire Hall #3 that is now the Hose and Hound, and helped start the Calgary Zoo as a place to house his peculiar pets. Unfortunately, as Davidson-Revill describes, while responding to a call that saw one of the fire hall’s horse-drawn wagons crossing the Zoo Bridge to reach their destination, “the wagon crashed on the bridge, and it, along with the horses pulling it, fell into the water and drowned.”
More recently, Davidson-Revill has been hearing stories of a woman who met her untimely demise on the bridge, when she became trapped in her car during a major flood.
“She drowned, and tragically, too, because she was on the phone to her mom when it happened, and was telling her, ‘The water is rising, I can’t get out.’”
Every now and then, Calgary city police say they receive calls drawing them to the bridge and its surrounding pathways; people say they hear a little boy, a woman, or something else entirely, shrieking in terror from beneath that bridge. Then again, it could just be the ringing of the rushing waters.
- By Michaela Ritchie