Major Dark Tourism Destinations In Canada
Have you had to listen to everyone around you talking about the trips they have planned for their summer vacation? Trips to tropical destinations are incredibly popular, but can also get incredibly expensive. Every story is the same – the beaches were nice, the pools were fun, and the sunny weather was beautiful. The trips are relaxing, but lack fresh, new experiences that truly make a vacation memorable. These trips are borderline forgettable.
Dark tourism is the idea of visiting tourist destinations, well known or not, that have gained notoriety through some sort of criminal activity, catastrophe, or supernatural nature. Some examples include the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp, the area around Chernobyl Nuclear Plant and Pripyat, and the peace memorial in Hiroshima. The Netflix’s series, Dark Tourist, showcased destinations from across the world, but there are plenty of places to visit within Canada. Maybe even within your home province. While this may sound like a fad, dark tourism is an emerging trend and offers destinations to the vacationer looking for something much more notable during their time off.
For the diehard dark tourist, Vancouver offers a look into the criminal history of the city with the Vancouver Police Museum. Tens of thousands of items from the evidence lockers, including confiscated weapons and counterfeit money, are on display throughout the historic coroner’s office, city morgue, and autopsy facility. The museum offers activities and educational video games for children, and a chilling True Crime exhibit for adults looking to learn more about famous cases like the infamous Milkshake Murders.
Along the West Coast Trail of Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim National Park, dark tourists interested in maritime disasters can find the “Graveyard of the Pacific” where dozens of ships have met their fate. Among these ships is the S.S. Valencia, a passenger liner that made history in 1906 as the worst disaster to happen in the Graveyard. The death toll settled at 136 lives lost, with only 37 passengers or crew surviving the sinking of the boat just over 100 meters from land. After striking a reef around midnight on January 22nd, and then purposely grounding on the rocky coast to try and hold the boat afloat, the Valencia sat for 36 hours in waters too rough for help to arrive. The rough waters and vicious winds bombarded the boat and now 113 years later the wreck remains in pieces, scattered along the shoreline. The area is part of an advanced hiking trail though, and having some hiking experience is recommended before making your way out to the shores.
For the cryptozoologist-minded dark tourist, British Columbia is the home of the mysterious Ogopogo, or the N’ha-a-itk as it was originally known. Considered by many to be the Canadian Loch Ness Monster, Ogopogo has made its rumoured home in Lake Okanagan for thousands of years according to the First Nations tribes of the Interior Salish. It is said to have a 40-50ft long, green, snake-like body with a head that looks like either a horse or a goat, and has been reported most often in the vicinity of Rattlesnake Island. A statue of Ogopogo can be found in the city of Kelowna just north of Veendam Gardens, which can even be seen in Google Street View. For the avid diver, a surprise waits just off the shores of Paul’s Tomb, an area in Knox Mountain Park, but it’s up to you to figure out what awaits.
Alberta & Saskatchewan
Moving east, dark tourists can find the site of the Frank Slide siting along the side of Turtle Mountain. The town of Frank was a coal mining town at the beginning of the 20th century, attracting 600 citizens in just a few years. Just after 4am on April 23rd, 1903, years of erosion and stress from coal mining caused a massive chunk of the mountain to break off causing a 90 second rockslide that killed a suspected 90 people. The rockslide brought 110 metric tonnes of limestone crushing down across a section of Frank, making a sound that could be heard 200km away in the town of Cochrane. So much rock came down the mountain that an area of three square kilometers at the bottom of the mountain was buried in an average of 14m of limestone, carrying dozens of bodies that were never able to be recovered. The town recovered and later expanded to ‘New Frank’, which then became ‘Frank’ after the original town was dismantled due to environmental safety concerns. The disaster is commemorated at the Frank Slide Interpretive Center, which offers information to any curious tourist.
Moving along to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, tourists can experience a maze of mysterious underground tunnels that run under the city. Presumed to have been built in the late 1800s, these tunnels offered quick transport for engineers working on the boilers underneath buildings. When electricity became more popular these tunnels became unused, leaving them free for Chinese immigrants moving to Moose Jaw for work. While the men who worked on the railroad simply lived in the tunnels to avoid racism, other immigrants operated businesses within the tunnels in order to avoid the taxation officers on the surface. When prohibition was instituted in North America, these tunnels were repurposed to be used as storage and covert transportation for illegal alcohol smugglers. Criminals would traverse the tunnels while on their way to the Soo Line Railroad, a subsidiary of Canadian National Railway, which they would use to smuggle alcohol into America. Some citizens even pass down stories of Al Capone briefly visiting and living in Moose Jaw to oversee the smuggling operation he was so infamously involved in. Now the tunnels exist as a historical experience, with tours available almost every day of the year.
Paranormal enthusiasts will be most attracted to Ontario, arguably the most haunted province of them all. In Southern Ontario, there are a few folktale fueled ghost stories that will attract dark tourists passing through. In London, Ontario, the Grand Theatre is said to be haunted by the ghost of a theatre tycoon who once owned the building as part of his theatre monopoly before he disappeared without a trace. Ambrose Small, a multi-millionaire who was adept in the world of theatre management, worked his way to the forefront of the theatre industry and owned almost three dozen theatres at the height of his career. In 1919, though, the theatre business was in decline for various reasons and Small struck a deal with the Trans-Canada Theatre Company to sell his six largest theatres for $1 million, with an additional $750,000 over 20 years. Small is said to have pushed for a sale deadline of December 1st while Trans-Canada Theatre proposed a December 15th deadline, only to make the deal on December 2nd. Small accepted his million dollar cheque ($14.5 million in 2019 after inflation) and gave it to his wife to be cashed. The following day Small disappeared, his whereabouts still unknown to this day, with the money to sit untouched in his bank account. Stories from audience members at the Grand Theatre in London say that his ghost haunts his old property, a promising claim to any curious dark tourist passing through.
A couple hundred kilometers away in Thorold, Ontario is the Screaming Tunnel, not to be mixed up with the now walled-off Merritton Tunnel close by. The Screaming Tunnel has a much less documented past, but many stories revolve around a woman burning to death in the tunnel. Some folk stories say that the woman ran aflame from her nearby house which had caught fire only to succumb to her burns in the middle of the tunnel, while other stories say she was set on fire by her enraged husband. Any dark tourists visiting can test out the legend that if a match is lit in the middle of the tunnel, a scream can be heard and the match will be blown out.
In Canada’s capital city of Ottawa lies the Ottawa Jail Hostel, a heritage site turned youth hostel that is considered to be one of the spookiest places in the world. The jail opened in 1862 as the Carleton Country Gaol (another word for jail) as a replacement for the previous jail which had been deemed unfit for use. The jail proved to be just as unsatisfactory though, as the small, simple cells were considered uncomfortable and unsanitary even by the public. It remained in use until 1970, though, over which time many inmates either died or had been put to death and were buried in the jail’s yard. One of these inmates was Patrick Whelan, known for the assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee (the site of which is memorialized and open for dark tourists). After being bought by Hostelling International and turned into the youth hostel it is known as today, reports of ghosts began coming in, a few sightings even describing the ghost of Patrick Whelan. Tourists are welcome to book a cell for the night and explore during their stay.
New Brunswick & Quebec
The small town of Pineville, New Brunswick sits on the shores of the Dungarvon River, the forest along which is home to one of Canada’s most notorious folk tales. The forest is said to be home to the Dungarvon Whooper, the spirit of a young cook whose death was full of foul play. The legend goes that a young cook named Ryan joined a camp of lumberjacks, and that he was carrying everything he owned when he arrived. Among his possessions was a money belt loaded with cash which he was not shy about showing off. Ryan was always up the earliest to begin making breakfast and would alert the other men when food was ready with a loud whooping or yelling. One day while the lumberjacks went off to work, their Captain decided to stay back with Ryan. When the men returned Ryan was dead, the Captain claiming the cook suddenly became violently ill and died. Ryan’s belt was missing from his body, but the men hesitated to accuse the Captain in case it cost them their jobs. The harsh weather prevented the men from bringing Ryan’s body to a cemetery for burial, so the lumberjacks brought Ryan into the forest and dug him a quick, shallow grave. That night, and every following night, the men could hear Ryan’s signature ‘whooping’ coming from the forest and were eventually driven from their camp. Residents from around the area (and in some stories, from the town Mirimichi upstream) were so haunted by the whooping that they called in a priest to put Ryan’s spirit to rest. Tourists who hope to hear the ghastly whooping can visit the forest just after dusk and listen for the whooping some residents say continues to this day.
On the coast of Quebec, just before the St. Lawrence River opens up, dark tourists can find the city of Rimouski which was the scene for one of the worst boating accidents in history. Late on the night of May 29th, 1914, the massive R.M.S. Empress of Ireland was about to leave on a voyage across the Atlantic, just as the coal-loaded collier, the Storstad, was coming into the harbor. As the Empress was beginning to embark, a thick fog rolled over the water, completely obstructing the view of the two ships. Both the Empress and the Storstad took precautionary measures and altered their courses, unbeknownst to the other ship, causing the Storstad to strike the side of the Empress between the liner’s steel ribs. Water came rushing in through the massive hole, filling compartments so quickly that the ship began to list to its side in a matter of minutes. The warm weather led to many of the passengers to leave their portholes open, giving the ship even more sources to take on water. In a mere 10 minutes, the Empress was completely on its side, and four minutes later the ship had been engulfed by the waters of the St. Lawrence. Due to how fast the ship listed and sank, giving time for only five lifeboats to be deployed, and the fact that the impact with the Storstad was deceivingly gentle, 1012 of the 1477 people on the ship died. 840 of these people were passengers, compared to the Titanic’s 818. Though the mail, a safe, and $150,000 of silver ($3.8 million in 2019) was salvaged from the sunken ship, the wreck of the Empress of Ireland still sits at the bottom of the St. Lawrence. The wreck is 3.6km from shore and under 130ft of water, but is considered to be incredibly dangerous to explore because of the unpredictable river currents, low visibility, and frigid temperatures of the water.
Though the Titanic was en route from England to New York, many of the bodies recovered from the wreck were brought ashore in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The city was forced to transform their curling arena into a temporary morgue in order to properly process and bury the 150 bodies recovered that could not be identified and sent to a family. These remaining bodies were buried in five different locations across the city, including the Fairview Lawn Cemetery which holds the once “unknown child” (identified in 2002 by forensic technology). The Nova Scotia Archives holds various records concerning the Titanic disaster for any bibliophilic dark tourist, while the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic appeals to all dark tourists. While not focused on the Titanic, the Maritime Museum holds thousands of artifacts that either were salvaged or washed ashore in the months following the sinking. Even the mortuary bags used to transport the bodies found at sea back to land can be found with name tags still attached.
While at the Fairview Lawn Cemetery and the Maritime Museum, dark tourists can also visit locations related to the historically terrifying Halifax Explosion. Early on the morning of December 6th, 1917, the S.S. Mont-Blanc, a cargo ship carrying over 2500lbs of explosives for use during World War 1, collided with the Norwegian passenger ship, the S.S. Imo. The 246 barrels of Benzol on the deck of the Mont-Blanc caught fire as the ship slowly drifted towards the shore of Halifax’ bustling Richmond district. Crowds gathered to watch the ship burn, as the cargo was kept secret from the public in order to prevent any unwanted attention from enemy submarines. At around 9:05am the fire ignited the explosives aboard the Mont-Blanc, causing what was considered the largest man-made explosion until the atomic bomb. With an equivalent to 2989 tonnes of TNT, the explosion took the lives of 2000 people, injured 9000 more, and either damaged or destroyed 12000 buildings in Halifax’ downtown core and nearby Dartmouth. Parts of the ship were found up to three miles away, including the 3 tonne anchor, and a 16 meter tall tidal wave was sent outwards, even to be felt by nearby ships in the Atlantic. In Downtown Halifax, and along the harbor, dark tourists can find multiple memorials for the Halifax Explosion. While it is not official, a window in St. Paul’s Anglican Church that faces the site of the explosion is said to have the imprint of an ill-fated pastor etched onto the glass from the heat of the blast.
For dark tourists, Canada holds a variety of sites that hold a criminal, spooky, or tragic atmosphere. While this list covers some of the main locations, there are dozens of other places you can find by looking around and exploring while on vacation. Even for the normal tourist going on a road trip, these locations offer a little spice that adds to a journey, making your vacation more memorable and exciting to talk about. After you hear the same few stories about Cuba and Florida, you can impress friends and family with your experiences around shipwrecks, haunted places, and criminal museums.