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Deadman’s Island – haunted slash of rock in Vancouver earns sinister but befitting name

Devil's Island Vancouver 1865

Deadman’s Island, Coal Harbor, Vancouver

Located just south of Stanley Park in Coal Harbor, Vancouver, it’s a tiny slash of rock just 7 ½ acres in size. Today a Canadian naval base is located on the island. Soldiers stationed on the base will attest to the continuation of a dark sequence of events stretching back to pre-European settlement days that earned the island its sinister name – Deadman’s Island.

Native American occupation of Deadman’s Island

Deadman's Island in Vancouver's Coal Harbour, as seen from the Stanley Park seawall

The island’s first recorded history began with the Coastal Salish Indian tribes who occupied the area since 600 AD. The Northern and Southern Salish tribes were embroiled in a bitter war when the Southern Salish initiated an incredibly evil deception.

After kidnapping two hundred women, children, and elders from the Northern tribe, the Southern Salish issued their demands – give us two hundred of your best soldiers and we’ll release the hostages. The Northern Salish complied, turning over two hundred of their finest soldiers only to be ruthlessly massacred by a hail of arrows and knives during the exchange.

Per legend, in the days following the massacre, menacing flaming flowers sprouted on each spot where a dead Salish fell. The sight terrified the Southern Salish, they fled the area and declared it cursed. In the 1800’s, Chief Joe Capilano wrote,

“In the depths of the undergrowth on Deadman’s Island there blossomed a flower of flaming beauty… but somewhere down in the sanctuary of its petals pulsed the heart’s blood of many and valiant men.”

Squamish people use island for a graveyard

After the Native American people declared the island forsaken, the Squamish began using the island as a burial ground. As per tradition, bodies were placed in wooden coffins and lofted into the tree branches, some as high as thirty feet above the ground. They named the island, Island of Dead Men.

Europeans discover morbid graveyard in the trees

Deadman's Island, Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

In 1862, one of Vancouver’s earliest settlers, John Morton, visited the island. He found thousands of deteriorating, crumbling cedar boxes dangling from the upper boughs of the trees like macabre Christmas ornaments. When he poked one of the boxes with a pole, the rotting box broke, showering him with human remains.

Despite the horror, Morton continued exploration of the island. He found bones, skulls, and tufts of mangled hair littering the ground all over the island.

Over time, more white settlers colonized the area. They moved the bones off the island and buried them inland according to European traditions (in a graveyard near Lumberman’s Arch).

Deadman’s island again becomes an active graveyard

Squatters shacks on Deadman's Island

By 1870, the English themselves began using the island to bury their dead, a tradition they continued for nearly two decades. The bodies of dead seamen, workers killed during the perilous construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway line as well as the twenty-one victims of the Great Fire of 1886 were all buried on the island. Soon, the island was used to bury vagrants, prostitutes, outlaws, lepers, immigrant workers, social outcasts, and anyone else who could not afford a proper burial.

Unfortunately, English burial methods were not much better than Native Americans’. Shallow graves, most marked with nothing more than a simple wooden cross, fell into disarray until most of the markings were lost altogether. An early settler on the island wrote,

“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.”

Burials continued on the island until 1887 when the Mountain View Cemetery opened on the mainland.

More bodies added during smallpox epidemic

One year after Mountain View Cemetery opened, Vancouver was struck with a devastating smallpox epidemic. The island was quickly converted to a quarantine (called a “pest house”). At the time, there was no cure for smallpox and thus, most people ferried to the island died there. Richard M. Steele, a Stanley Park Explorer, wrote that even though the Mountain View Cemetery was in operation, most of the smallpox victims were buried on the island.

The Ludgate Affair

In 1899, the federal government leased the island to American industrialist Theodore Ludgate. Ludgate planned to log on the island while locals vowed they would die before letting him sink an axe into a tree. Even Civic leaders were angered by the agreement. They had assumed the land was included in the original Stanley Park land grant. Per historical accounts:

“Our belief is that a gross piece of indefensible robbery has been perpetrated in connection with this affair.”

Ignoring the uproar, at 6:30 AM on April 24, 1899, Ludgate headed to the island with thirty men to log the area. Mayor James Garden anticipated Ludgate’s move and took a police force to the island to intercept them. When Ludgate’s men raised an axe to chop down the first tree, officials attempted to arrest them. In the turmoil, Ludgate slipped past the police line and escaped.

Ghostly lights on Deadman’s Island

It was during the Ludgate legal battle that reports began to emerge regarding ghostly lights and ethereal entities moving about the island. Records show that in 1909, police who were encamped on the isle to prevent Ludgate’s logging operations, reported hearing unearthly moans, chains rattling, and disembodied screams. When officers reported the noises to their chief, he blamed the sounds on nerves. The Vancouver Courier wrote:

“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.”

Squatters move back to the island

Siege on Deadman's Island

In 1911, Ludgate’s lease expired, and he lost his bid to retain logging rights on the island (he died a few years later). The island stood virtually unused for more than a decade. In 1929, the federal government handed Deadman’s Island to the city of Vancouver on a 99-year lease agreement. During this time, squatters moved back to the island building ramshackle homes along the island’s shoreline. Isolated from the mainland, as with those who came before them, anyone who died one the island was buried there.

With a 99-year lease in hand, various attempts were made to give the island a purpose. Proposed plans included turning the island into a museum, a war memorial site, an amusement park, and even a dance hall. None of the plans came to fruition. The island seemed destined to serve as nothing more than a burial plot.

Canadian Royal Navy takes over Deadman’s Island

In 1942, just five years after the Geographical Names Board of Canada officially designated the island as “Deadman’s Island”, Mayor James Cornett offered the island to the Canadian Royal Navy for a training base. The navy took control of the island and built HMCS Discovery Naval Base. The base was to be a day base with no overnight personnel. Its purpose was to support the security of Vancouver Harbor.

HMCS Disovery on Deadman's Island in Vancouver, British Columbia

Almost immediately, reports of ghosts and paranormal phenomena began. Soldiers in droves reported anomalous sounds such as breaking glass, furniture moving, voices, footsteps, and blood curdling screams.

Navy personnel reported being tapped or pushed by unseen hands. Many witnessed various apparitions and mysterious lights.

One common sight was an eerie glow emanating from the trees near the edges of the base. Witnesses reported the lights appeared to flicker and writhe like flames before congealing into a human form.

Others noticed their personal objects would go missing only to show up in the oddest of places such as the roof, pinned to a wall, or stuffed into the back of the stove.

Given the nature of the official government business that was conducted on the island, the reports of paranormal phenomena were carefully documented providing us an accurate commentary of the many otherworldly incidents that were said to have taken place there.

Most of the unusual activity took place in a building known as Building No. 1.

Commanding Officer Jack Thornton records the first unusual incident

The first officially recorded incident was reported by Commanding Officer Jack Thornton who wrote of a man that had been found guilty of theft. The man was imprisoned in one of the three cells in Building No. 1. The man was left overnight in a barren cell. The next morning, he was found hanging from the light fixture high above the room.

Anne Marie Hamilton tries to stay overnight on the island

In order to complete a project, Anne Marie Hamilton requested permission to stay overnight (Navy personnel rarely slept on the base – the doors and gates are locked, and personnel go home for the night). Hamilton stayed on the second floor of Building No. 1. She fell asleep and woke to the sound of two men walking up a staircase. According to Anne, she could clearly hear them talking as they walked up the stairs to the floor above her.

Devil's Island Vancouver 1865

She then heard the men moving furniture about the “third deck”, the floor above her that used to serve as the base’s radar room.

“I remember going out and standing in the hallway, and I got a really funny feeling and went back inside.”

For about an hour, she heard the men moving about, doors opening and closing, and low mumbles of conversation as they carried on their tasks. She never went to look on the men, assuming like her, they were other personnel who had stayed the night.

The next morning, as Anne left the base, she asked the gate guardsman about the men who had been making so much noise during the night. The watchman was puzzled. He told her that she was the only other person on the base – no one else had been allowed inside all night.

“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. I was like, ‘What do you mean, no one was here?”

Seaman Charles Grahn has a crisis of faith

In 1991, Leading Seaman C. Grahn was stationed at the base as a security guard. At the time, terrorist attacks were a concern, and the base was never left unguarded. One night, he left the guard gate to enter the base to use the bathroom. Inside the bathroom, he heard the distinct whoosh and clap sound of the double doors between the main building and the drill hall opening and springing closed. Grahn knew he was the only person on the base, so he was justifiably alarmed by the sounds.

Grahn radioed the second watchman and asked, “What are you doing in Building No. 1?” The guard responded, “I’m not in Building 1, I’m at the gate.”  The second guard then confirmed that nobody had entered the building.

Grahn went to investigate the sounds. As he approached the familiar double doors, he was stunned to see they were closed – chained and locked.

“I’m a skeptic about the whole thing. But when you’re by yourself, you have a crisis of faith. The next thing you know, you’re running out of the building.”

Leading Seaman Jason Eldridge leaves his skepticism behind

Leading Seaman Jason Eldridge was in an office when he heard footsteps hurrying down the stairwell. He thought he had been the only person in the building. He moved to the window and looked out to see who would exit the stairwell. He noticed that all the building lights were out.

Eldridge called the guard at the front gate to ask who else was on the property. The guard told him he was the only person inside the base. As he was talking on the phone, he suddenly heard furniture being moved about loudly and roughly across the floor above his head. He later recalled that he was surprised by the loudness, assuming that maybe the pipes in the building somehow amplified sounds. He described the sound of furniture moving as clear and distinct.

Eldridge ran to the stairwell but just as he opened the doors, the sounds suddenly stopped. He climbed the stairwell and investigated the floor above. The room was completely empty.

“All I know is I quickly finished up my work that night and I was gone within a half hour.”

Petty Officer Rob Low plays cat and mouse

In 1994, Petty Officer Rob Low was laying on a cot in the upper floor of the mess hall when he heard the clear sounds of voices and heavy footsteps downstairs. There were others about the base at the time – a search and rescue training exercise was being conducted on the beach, so he ignored the sounds. Soon, however, the noises grew so loud he felt something must be wrong. He ran down the stairs to check on the men but found the hall deserted.

Baffled, he walked back up the stairs to return to his cot. As soon as he entered the mess hall and closed the door, the sounds began again. He turned and rushed back down the stairs but as before, found the area completely abandoned.

Other Navy personnel accounts of odd happening on Deadman’s Island

The Island’s creepy cacophony of bizarre sounds is not the only paranormal phenomena reported on the island. One reservist claims to have seen an apparition entering a washroom on the base. Another reported feeling a hand placed on her back as she worked alone upstairs in Building No.1. The woman reported the occurrent to her supervising office who laughed and told here, “That’s not surprising.”

Additional information

Movie location

The island’s relatively benign demeanor during daytime hours and its obscure location just outside Vancouver’s busy streets make it a popular filming location for movie producers. The quiet, scenic island has been used for filming of Danger Bay and MacGyver as well as the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, The Sixth Day.

Location of the graves

The location of the graves on the island is unknown. In fact, nobody is even sure how many people have been buried there. The navy adopted a “better safe than sorry” approach to construction. Only two of the buildings on the island, both built after World War II, have rooms that go below grade – and neither descend more than a few feet into the ground.

Vancity Buzz award

In 2015, the Vancity Buzz listed Deadman’s Island as the number one most haunted place in Vancouver.

An early writing about Deadman’s Island

“Deadman’s Island” by E. Pauline Johnson [Tekahionwake] (1862-1913)

Photos Deadman’s Island (Vancouver)

Below are rare of Deadman’s Island in Vancouver.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Deadman's Island, Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada via Wikipedia Commons by City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Deadman's Island in Vancouver's Coal Harbour, as seen from the Stanley Park seawall via Wikipedia Commons by Usgnus with usage type - GNU Free
HMCS Disovery on Deadman's Island in Vancouver, British Columbia via Wikipedia Commons by Steve Gregory with usage type - Creative Commons License
Devil's Island Vancouver 1865 via City of Vancouver Archives by Hastings, George Fowler with usage type - Public Domain. 1865
Rare early photo of Deadman's Island Vancouver via Altered Dimensions
Deadman's Island after squatters removed via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain. July 1931
View of squatters shacks on Deadman's Island 2 via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Showing Squatters Houses on Deadman's Island via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain
Deadman's Island, looking east, 1899, squatters' shacks and bridge via City of Vancouver Archives by Wright, John H. with usage type - Public Domain. 1899
Squatters shacks on Deadman's Island via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain
View of the squatters shacks on Deadman's Island via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain. 1895
Deadman's Island showing squatters' houses via City of Vancouver Archives by Philip T. Timms with usage type - Public Domain. 1903
Siege on Deadman's Island via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain. 1910
Deadman's Island and Inlet, Vancouver, B.C. postcard via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain. 1927
Deadman's Island before the "slaughter", 1905, Vancouver, B.C. via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain. 1905
Deadman's Island 1910 via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain. 1910
Siege on Deadman's Island labelled via City of Vancouver Archives with usage type - Public Domain. 1910

Featured Image Credit

Devil's Island Vancouver 1865 via City of Vancouver Archives by Hastings, George Fowler with usage type - Public Domain. 1865


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