Spirits Of Deadman's Island
By Chris Miller Contributing Writer
The Vancouver Courier

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 occurred.
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 seed."
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 less active.
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 it.
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 there.
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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