The Real History of the Blue Ghost Tunnel and the Surrounding Area
The Niagara Region of Ontario was beginning to see growth and prosperity in the late 1800s and in 1871 the Dominion of Parliament authorized the second phase of the Welland Canal to be built to suit large cargo and passenger ships.
The work commenced in 1873 and the new route now bypassed its traditional route in the natural river valleys next to St. Catharines. The new canal was aligned on a direct route from Port Dalhousie to Thorold, which necessitated a new rail crossing.
The railway would not accept the early plans for a swing bridge over the canal as they anticipated long delays and the potential for danger and accidents and therefore they insisted that a tunnel be built under the waterway to ensure safe and efficient passage of rail traffic. It was a grand proposition and many were opposed to the idea as it would take a great deal of engineering and hard labor.
As the Welland Canal was slowly being constructed it was clear the landscape would need to change significantly. When the land surveyors completed their first task, they came to agreement that an old burial ground near St. Peter's Anglican Church, as well as the church itself needed to be moved to accommodate the canal system.
Previously, a log-built Lutheran Church resided on the consecrated land and burials as early as 1752 had taken place within the churchyard. As the land was being surveyed and construction crews hired from nearby Slabtown (Merritton), the cemetery and church were spared, but future plans insisted that the land be used for the canal.
Meanwhile the canal developers and railway companies came to agreement of where the tunnel would be constructed and work began in the spring of 1875 with loads of Queenston rock being cut and delivered to the construction yard. Several hundred workers labored on the stone cutting and fitting while Irish immigrants, numbering near a thousand, entrenched the land and tunnel area. Teams of horses brought heavy limestone from the Queenston Quarry to the site.
There were several serious accidents at the construction site, including three reported deaths. In one report from 1875 a young Irish immigrant, aged 14, was crushed under the weight of the large stones. Other injuries occurred on a daily basis, but none serious enough to stop construction.
The tunnel curving on a gentle arc is 665 feet in length providing a semi-circular arch 16 feet wide and 18 feet high. A single track ran its length connecting lines of the Great Western Railway. The railway, now connected with points in the Niagara Region, could express cargo and passengers from New York to Toronto and almost all points in between.
During this time the Welland Canal construction was completed and several men perished building its walls and reinforced lock system. Many of the injuries and deaths occurred in the Thorold area, within miles of the tunnel.
The first train, loaded with dignitaries and engineered by Harry Eastman, ran through the tunnel in February 1881. Harry Eastman was also the last Engineer to blow the whistle and pilot a train through the tunnel.
To prevent cows and other grazing animals from entering the tunnel and causing a derailment, a post-guard was set up on each side of the tunnel. These men watched the rail, chased away animals and kept the track clear. Their wages were extremely low and they were often paid in pints of ale as well as wages.
Amalgamation of the Great Western Railway and the Grand Trunk Railway was approved by the Great Western Railway shareholders in 1882 and the post-guards received better pay as well as uniforms and small shelters which were built on either end of the tunnel.
These improvements, however, did not prevent a tragic accident occurring in 1903 just 100 metres shy of the western entrance to the tunnel. At 7:03am a light mogul train weighing 80 tons collided head-on with the Number 4 Express running at full-steam. The engines smashed into each other and the cars followed into an entanglement of iron and fire. Both train engineers survived the wreck and only suffered minor injuries.
BAD TRAIN WRECK, No.4 Express Collides with a light Mogul Near Merritton Tunnel.
Charles Horning, the fireman on the express train, was killed instantly when his body was pinned between two massive pieces of ironwork, the flaming hot boiler and the tentler. Attempting rescue, his badly mangled body was pulled on by engineers and post-guards, however, when they pulled at him, his arms and legs pulled from his body. One train worker commented that Horning's watch still ticked while he held the severed arm in his hands. His body was never fully recovered from the wreck.
The fireman for the mogul train, Abraham Desult, was smashed into the boiler of the train. He was rushed to hospital only to die of his terrible burns five hours later.
Mr. Armstrong worked in the express car that followed the engine of the Number 5 and regained consciousness in the roofless, upturned car. Covered in ruined goods he managed to crawl through the rubble to safety. He recalls that they were given clearance in Merritton by the dispatcher to enter the line and blamed the wreck on misinformation, a single track and poor visibility.
The line and the tunnel, however, were continuously used until plans for a double-track were developed. The track was returned to its original alignment when the Fourth Welland Canal was being constructed.
A double-tracked swing bridge was built in the late 1880s and the tunnel was used sparingly until the 1930s when the track was removed altogether.
The burial ground, now in disuse by Thorold citizens, was moved to the New Lakeview Cemetery (now called the Old Lakeview Cemetery). The land was needed to establish a pond area for excess water from the canal and in July 1923, Thorold residents were asked to pay and make arrangements for their interned family members to be moved. Only 253 of the 842 bodies interned in the burial ground were actually moved. Families simply could not afford the re-internment and many graves had no family members to care for them.
When excavation and re-internment of the bodies occurred, some corpses were misidentified and some went missing altogether. Adding to the confusion is the fact that some remains were not recoverable and only some body parts and coffins were moved to the new location.
According to the superintendent of Lakeview Cemetery, there were 118 graves full with no record of whom they contained and another possible 72 which may have contained only body parts with no further records. He also stated that a number of the monuments were damaged or destroyed when they were moved to the new location.
During construction of the Fourth Welland Canal several more men lost their lives, including ten during the worst accident in the history of the Welland Canal System.
On August 1, 1928, a roar was heard for miles around when at Lock 6 a large locomotive powered crane fell into the lock chamber taking with it a 500 ton steal lock gate. In less than a minute eight men lay dead while two others were dying from massive chest and head wounds. The two seriously injured men were sent to St. Catharines General Hospital and Homer Construction Hospital only to die of the terrible wounds two days later. Twenty-two others were seriously wounded and rushed to each of these hospitals. Thirteen would never return to work on the canal.
On August 1, 1930, exactly two years to the day, another accident occurred at Lock 6 and like the previous accident this one was fatal—eight men were killed while twenty others were seriously injured. It was rumored that the canal was cursed and some abandoned their positions, refusing to work on its construction and maintenance.
In total, the Welland Canal claimed the lives of 107 men and injured thousands of others during its construction.
Could the train wreck victims be haunting the tunnel? Or could it be the victims of the Welland Canal construction? What of the forgotten spirits of the cemetery? Could they be the source of the paranormal activity?