- Leading Seaman Anne Marie Hamilton was sleeping in her
room in a 60-year-old brick building on Deadman's Island when she awoke
to the voices of two men ascending a staircase outside.
- They were officers, she guessed from their businesslike
tone, but she was so drowsy that she only wondered later what they were
doing in the HMCS Discovery naval reserve building at 1:30 a.m.
- Hamilton had received special permission to stay in the
Officer of the Day's cabin overnight, but normally no one sleeps on the
island, located off Stanley Park just east of the Vancouver Rowing Club.
The buildings are locked and uninhabited at night.
- The sounds continued up the staircase to the third "deck,"
the floor above Hamilton's. Then she heard the sound of furniture sliding
across the floor above her in what used to be the base's radar room.
- The sounds continued for about 45 minutes. "I wondered,
'Who's here working? What are they doing?'"
- The next day, Hamilton consulted the commissionaire who
had been on watch the night before at the entrance to HMCS Discovery. He
told her no one had come through the gates. When she was hearing officers'
voices and the sound of furniture moving, she was the only one on the island.
- "The noises didn't make me feel that uncomfortable,
but the fact that the commissionaire said no one was here, that kind of
creeped me out," Hamilton says. "I was like, 'What do you mean,
no one was here?'"
- Before going to bed the next night -her last in the room
before leaving for Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt -Hamilton tried to rationalize
what had happened. Maybe the commissionaire had forgotten that people were
on the island? In time, she fell asleep. At about 1:30 a.m., she awoke
to the sounds of furniture moving upstairs. At first she tried to tell
herself that it was a commissionaire doing his rounds, but that explanation
didn't add up-she would have heard footsteps and doors opening and closing,
not the sounds of heavy objects being moving across the room. "I remember
going out and standing in the hallway, and I got a really funny feeling
and went back inside."
- Hamilton isn't the only member of the Deadman's Island
naval reserve division with unsettling stories about the island. Many reservists
have heard voices, footsteps and other sounds of activity, only to discover
they have no apparent source. According to current reservists, at least
one member of the division claims to have seen an apparition, while another
said she felt a hand on her shoulder while working alone in the brick building,
known as Building No. 1, where most of the unexplained experiences have
- One thing about Deadman's Island is certain: its name
is appropriate. Once marked by cedar pickets and simple headboards, its
graves-none of which are visible today-contain early pioneers, suicides,
infants, smallpox victims, CPR construction casualties and people killed
in the Great Fire of Vancouver, among others. None has been exhumed.
- The island's morbid reputation dates back to before European
settlement. In her 1911 book Legends of Vancouver, poet E. Pauline Johnson
recounts a bloody native tale about the island, the "Legend of the
Island of Dead Men."
- Chief Joe Capilano told her that the island was once
a battleground where northern and southern tribes clashed. In order to
free women, children and elders the southern tribes had taken hostage,
200 northern warriors surrendered on Deadman's Island-and died soon after,
pierced by the southerners' arrows.
- By the time Europeans began visiting the island, it had
become a Coast Salish burial ground. The natives placed their ornate wooden
coffins on the ground or in the branches of trees, sometimes 20 feet or
more up. According to one tale, when an early pioneer named John Morton
poked an overhead casket with a pole, the rotting box broke, showering
him with bones.
- Influenced by settlers, who preferred their dead below
ground, local natives eventually gathered up the bones and interred them
in the graveyard near Lumberman's Arch.
- Burials on the island continued, however. From the early
1870s until Mountain View Cemetery opened in 1887, Brockton Point and Deadman's
Island were used as burial sites for British merchant seamen as well as
people from Moodyville (which became part of the City of North Vancouver),
Hastings Sawmill and the Granville townsite.
- According to early city archivist J.S. Matthews, workers
who were killed during the accident-prone extension of the Canadian Pacific
Railway line from Port Moody to Coal Harbour were buried on Deadman's Island,
as were some of the 21 people killed during the Great Fire of 1886. One
of the famous denizens is John "Navvy Jack" Thomas, who used
a rowboat to run the first ferry service across Burrard Inlet.
- Coffins were loaded into boats, rowed over to the island
and buried in open spots between the trees. Early settler Harold Ridley
recalls the lonely scene: "The little collection of graves was not
a cemetery; just little graves beneath the trees, with a little fence of
sharp, pointed split cedar pickets and a headboard; [over time] the name
became obliterated by the weather, and the grass grew tall and went to
- During a smallpox outbreak that began in 1888, the city
used the island as a quarantine area. In his 1985 guidebook, The Stanley
Park Explorer, Richard M. Steele writes that even though Mountain View
Cemetery was open, a number of smallpox victims were buried on the island.
- Hauntings on Deadman's Island date back to the early
part of the century. The first documented "haunting" was reported
in 1909 during a logging dispute. Police who occupied the island one night
to keep loggers at bay claimed to have heard the rattling of dead men's
bones and shrieking skeletons that threatened to haunt anyone who cut down
the island's trees.
- Perhaps suspecting that human agencies, rather than supernatural
ones, were responsible, the chief of police suggested, tongue-in-cheek,
that his men carry torches so they would be braver and the ghosts a little
- Ousted during the logging dispute, squatters returned
to Deadman's Island after 1911, building homes along the island's shoreline.
Though there's no record of whether the squatters buried anyone there,
at least one source claimed the name Deadman's Island commemorates a squatter
found dead in his shack.
- Between 1911 and World War II, entrepreneurs and civic-minded
citizens brought forward plans to turn the island into a museum, a war
memorial site, an amusement park, and a dancehall, but none went anywhere.
The federal government, which owned the island, gave it to the navy in
1942, and HMCS Discovery was constructed the following year.
- According to stories told at the base, during the war,
a worker on the island was found guilty of theft and imprisoned in one
of three cells in the main building. Despondent, the young man hung himself.
The story may or may not be true, but the cells exist, though they're now
used for storage and office space. Prison bars line not only the windows,
but also the square observation holes set at eye-level in the cells' doors.
- Jack Thornton, a former commanding officer who wrote
a history of HMCS Discovery in the late 1970s, refers to the legend of
a man who hanged himself on the island. However, Thornton writes that according
to the legend, the suicide gave the island its name. That means it would
have to have occurred during or before the 1880s, when letters between
government officials began referring to Deadman's Island, known at times
as Reserve Island and Coal Island. Thornton also relates the suicide to
the haunting of the island, writing: "could this be the ghost of Deadman's
Island reportedly seen as late as 1977?"
- According to Steele, some have observed a strange glow
that emanates from the island's trees and sharpens into human form. Steele
says people at HMCS Discovery blame the ghost, supposedly that of an anguished
seaman, when office equipment and personal effects go missing.
- One spring night in 1992, Leading Seaman Jason Eldridge
was finishing some paperwork in the HMCS Discovery office when he heard
the sound of footsteps moving at an urgent pace down a nearby staircase.
Eldridge was surprised. He thought he was alone in the building.
- Looking out the office door, Eldridge scanned the windows
in the double-doors leading to the staircase, just across the building's
entrance-hall. The lights were out in the stairwell. By this point the
footsteps had stopped.
- Calling the commissionaire at the front gate, he learned
no one had come on the island. As he hung up, he heard the sound of furniture
being moved upstairs. The hair on the back of his neck bristled. He was
surprised at how loud the sounds were, given that he didn't know of any
pipes that would transmit the sound downstairs. Any sounds coming through
the staircase doors should have been muffled, but the sounds of the furniture
scraping across the floor were clear and distinct.
- Steeling his nerves, Eldridge walked to the staircase
doors, whereupon the sounds stopped. Pushing open the doors, he flicked
on the light, illuminating the bottom section of the stairwell. No one
was there. He continued to the second floor and third floor, nerves jangling
as he reached into the dark on each floor to turn on the lights.
- "I went up, took a look," Eldridge said. "Definitely,
no one was on-board."
- Scared and puzzled, Eldridge returned to the office.
"All I know is I quickly finished up my work that night and I was
gone within a half hour."
- During the 1991 Gulf War, Master Seaman (then Leading
Seaman) Charlie Grahn was stationed on the island overnight. Due to concerns
about anti-war activists vandalizing military facilities, HMCS Discovery
posted extra security at times during the conflict.
- During a bathroom break in the wee hours, Grahn heard
familiar, but surprising, sounds-a whoosh and clap as the swinging double-doors
connecting the main building with its drill hall opened wide, then closed.
- Grahn had taken his radio with him into the bathroom,
so he called the commissionaire, figuring he'd passed through the doors
while doing his rounds. He keyed the radio and said, "What are you
doing in Building 1?"
- A cranky voice responded, "I'm not in Building 1.
I'm at the gate."
- Today, Grahn insists he was more bemused than worried
by the response. Though his skepticism towards the supernatural waned in
that moment, he reassured himself that even if a restless spirit was wandering
the building, it wasn't malignant or violent, according to the stories
he'd heard. Still, it was a delicate time for a visit.
- "I figured, 'Here's the ghost coming and I've got
my pants down around my ankles.'"
- A little spooked, Grahn vacated his bathroom stall, still
half-expecting to find someone when he searched the premises. But no one
was inside the building and the exterior doors were locked. If there's
a good explanation for what he heard that night, he still hasn't found
- Others have had similarly strange experiences. During
a search and rescue operation aided by HMCS Discovery in 1994, Petty Officer
Rob Low was one of many reservists stationed on the island.
- Lying in a cot upstairs at the base's mess hall early
one morning, he heard voices and the sound of people stomping around downstairs.
Everyone inside the building, used as both a mess hall and barracks during
World War II, was accounted for, so he figured reservists from Building
No. 1 had come in and were making a ruckus. However, when he went downstairs
to give the people a hard time, he found the hall deserted. A while after
he returned to his cot, he heard the same sounds and got up a second time.
Again, he found the main floor quiet.
- Aside from a pop machine, there was no reason to visit
the building, he says. Low and Eldridge both consider it unlikely that
someone would have braved the buckets of rain that fell that night just
to get a Coke.
- Most of the unexplained phenomena on the island involve
sounds, but at least one reservist claims to have seen the apparition of
someone entering a washroom. When the woman turned to look, no one was
- Another woman felt a hand on her back while working alone
upstairs in Building No. 1. The frightened recruit reported what had happened
to her supervising officer, who laughed and said he wasn't surprised.
- Normally, the only disturbances during the night occur
when the commissionaire does rounds on the island every few hours. Eldridge
and Hamilton said the commissionaires' visits produce distinctive sights
and sounds. First of all, they drive from the gate across a short bridge
onto the island, so you can often hear their vehicles' engines, or see
their headlights. Once they're on the island, the commissionaires go from
building to building, opening and closing doors as they scan each room
in quick succession.
- Sometimes boaters land on the island, not knowing it's
off-limits to the public, but few have had the audacity-or the break-and-enter
skills-to get inside the buildings.
- Neither Hamilton, nor Grahn, nor Eldridge have heard
from anyone who's seen the glowing ghost Steele referred to in his book.
Nor have they heard about office equipment or personal effects inexplicably
going missing. But they have no explanation for the sounds they heard while
they were in the building alone at night.
- "I'm a skeptic about the whole thing," Grahn
says. "But when you're by yourself, you have a crisis of faith. The
next thing you know, you're running out of the building."
- One weekday evening in October, Deadman's Island seems
full of life rather than death. Uniformed reservists greet each other in
the hallways with banter about everything from meal plans to the upcoming
Halloween party to procuring ammunition for a rifle range excursion. On
one side of the drill hall, a good-natured reservist shows a batch of recruits
how to handle their assault rifles.
- Past the buildings near the edge of the island, evergreens
and deciduous trees perform double-duty, obscuring the straight-edged peaks
and crags of the downtown Vancouver skyline and shading picnic tables from
the dim starlight. The air is still and crisp. The quiet, scenic island,
filmed for episodes of Danger Bay and MacGyver, as well as the Arnold Schwarzenegger
flick The Sixth Day, feels removed from the city.
- On the side nearest the Stanley Park causeway, the surface
of a helicopter landing pad is raised a few feet, in part to avoid disturbing
the ground beneath it. No one knows exactly where the island's graves are,
so the navy has adopted a "better safe than sorry" approach.
HMCS Discovery has been a careful custodian, Grahn and Eldridge note. Only
two of the buildings-both built during World War II-have rooms that go
below grade. Both are boiler rooms; one descends just a few feet into the
earth, the other less than that.
- The commanding officer of the base, Lt. Cmdr. King Wan,
has been with the unit since enrolling as an officer cadet in the 1970s.
He remembers Discovery's "old-timers" telling stories about mysterious
occurrences at the base-such as switched-off lights coming back on again
-but never put much stock in them.
- "It could have just been the older hands trying
to scare the younger kids. Hopefully the ghosts will all rest in peace
and not bother anyone here."
- As for Grahn, he wouldn't mind another encounter with
the unknown. Though his experience was unsettling, it wasn't enough to
convince him there's a ghost on the island.
- "If I have an encounter with ghosts, I want chains.
I want the whole Ghostbusters effect."
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