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Niagara's (Very, Very) Haunted Past

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The story of "Sobbing Sophia" cannot help but touch your heart. I heard it for the first time when my wife, Karyn, and I decided to take a couple of days and travel to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The area is festooned with history and the town itself as quaint and charming as anyone could ever hope. The area was of course the focal point for the War of 1812 -- to this day the subject of much discussion and argument between us and our American cousins as to who really won. Suffice it to say for this piece that Niagara-on-the-Lake was captured by the Americans, eventually burned to the ground and the ensuing period gave way to a number of legends still told by the town folk.

From the moment we stepped into the charming foyer of the Prince of Wales hotel it was as if we were transported back in time. The rustic panelled walls, marbled fireplace and stoic-yet-efficient bell boys and service personnel hearkened back to a time long forgotten.

Strolling along the main artery in the village, where buildings dating back over 200 years greet you with memories of past lives was where our journey into the past began. As we ventured down a side alley we came upon The Haunted Shop.

It was here that proprietor Daniel Cumerlato gave us a different history of this wonderful town -- a history of legend and myth with ghosts and spirits aplenty.

Take for example the legend of the "Watcher," the town ghost. Apparently many visitors and town folk report witnessing a strange blue light, or orb, floating nightly through the town. Speculation has it that this is the spirit of a long-dead town constable who patrols the town in the wee hours of darkness. That crime is almost unheard of in Niagara-on-the-lake gives some credence to the work of the "Watcher."

Cumerlato was a fountain of ghostly information and suggested we make our way over to the legendary Olde Angel Inn to hear of its ghost. There we were warmly welcomed by Jean the manager of one of Ontario's oldest inns. The past resonated through the oak ceiling beams and hardwood plank floors with heel marks gouged into the wood from ladies heels so fashionable in the 1800s.

The tragic inn tale tells of Captain Colin Swayze a British soldier who delayed his retreat during the outbreak of the 1812 war to rendezvous with his true love. The inn, overrun by American soldiers, led to the good Captain hiding in a barrel by the cellar. Not to be outdone, the invaders used their bayonets to slash and stab at every possible hiding place including that fateful barrel. Captain Swayze was fatally wounded and to this day people staying in the inn's "Colonel Room" swear they hear noises. Others report strange happenings in the dining room -- rearranged place-settings and the like -- all because it is believed the Captain is fated to walk the inn at night longing for his lost love. Legend has it the ghost will remain harmless while the British flag flies over the inn which it does to this day.

Daniel also directed us to the town's long-abandoned house. Built in 1823, by a town lawyer named John Breakenridge it has been empty for decades...or so it seemed. To this day, the unknown owners have refused to sell it and it is believed that 100 years ago witches lived in the home.

A story is told of a couple young boys out on a frolic one evening daring each other to enter the "witches' home." As they slowly approached, they witnessed an intense flash and then, to their horror, saw the entire roof ablaze. Hurrying home, they went straight to bed awakening the next morning with no news of the house, no fire, all was as it should be.

But the most interesting story of all was the one I mentioned at the beginning of this piece -- that of "Sobbing Sophia"

During the 1812 war it is said that the dashing British hero General Issac Brock fell in love with the beautiful Lady Sophia Shaw who resided with her parents in a home on the corner of John and Mary St. They were devoted to each other but Lady Sophia's parents refused to allow their marriage. Though an elegant hero Brock was not born of nobility. Their affair continued and General Brock swore he would return to marry her. Tragically, the general was killed in battle.

Sophia never recovered and stayed true to Brock, never marrying. She is commonly spotted wandering the halls of the manor house crying in despair, longing for the man she loved. Her sobs are heard reverberating throughout Queen Street, giving her the name "Sobbing Sophia."

The house was renamed "Brockamour Manor" and today it is a lovely B&B. You can even reserve (if you dare) the good lady's room.

Next time you journey into this lovely part of Ontario, indulge in spirits...of the ghostly variety.

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