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Take a spooky trip through the CNE’s past with the Ghost Walk


Take a spooky trip through
the CNE's past

The Ghost Walk offers haunting tales about some of the grisliest events in Toronto's history

Emergency personnel in Toronto remove victims of the SS Noronic fire in 1949.

It's now best known as an annual place of pilgrimage for fun, but over the years the grounds for the Canadian National Exhibition and surrounding area have been home to some of the grisliest and most macabre events Toronto has ever seen. And while its attractions have changed over the years, there is the lesser known aspect that many have overlooked – the CNE's history with the dead and the belief in the presence of paranormal activity.

Originally opened in 1879, the Canadian National Exhibition was meant to showcase the best in Canadian culture, art, food and technology, while entertaining the masses with its midway full of rides and games.

The SS Noronic caught on fire while docked in Toronto Harbour on Sept. 16, 1949. The death toll from the disaster was never precisely determined, but estimates range anywhere from 118 to 139 deaths.

Today it's the screaming of children having fun and the smell of deep-fryer fat that fills the air in the west end of the city near Lake Ontario, but in the past it's been the howls and stench of death that has hung over the area. From a deadly storehouse explosion in the early 1800s that littered the grounds with the bodies of 200 soldiers, to the horticulture building acting as pop-up morgue for more than 140 victims of the SS Noronic fire in 1949, paranormal enthusiasts believe its location is rife with the spirits of the departed.

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At night during the end of August and start of September, the CNE offers a guided haunted walk featuring these historical stories and others. The Globe and Mail spoke with CNE Arts & Heritage director Alicia Cherayil about the heavy history of the Ex's grounds and about the CNE Ghost Walk now in its 10th year.

Morgue set up in the Horticultural Building for victims of SS Noronic fire.

What is it about the location of the CNE grounds that makes it prime property for paranormal stories?

The CNE has been here for 139 years so that alone is kind of a long time to get a lot of ghostly occurrences and appearances. The lands that we are on were actually a part of something called the Garrison Common, so before the city gave the lands over to the CNE it was a part of the military reserve. We have the Battle of York that actually happened on our grounds. After the deadly storehouse explosion at Fort York, we actually are pretty certain based on research that some of the soldiers who died are buried mostly in the vicinity of the Princes' Gates. Then there was the disaster of the SS Noronic. The horticultural building was actually used as a temporary morgue during that disaster. And of course the grounds were turned over to the military for the First World War and the CNE actually shut down for the Second World War to be a billeting and training area for the military. Many of the soldiers who were trained out of here didn't actually get to come back home, so this was the last place they were before they died in battle. So we have a long and sordid history.

The Asylum for Insane, which was located just north of the CNE grounds on Queen Street West, is pictured in 1910.

What story freaks you out the most?

It was during nighttime with one of our show people from our horse show. Horse owners actually sleep over in what is known as the Horse Palace while their horses are performing. One night this owner woke up after hearing a horse in distress. He heard it banging on the stall, really banging on the stall, and of course he ran to go check and when he got there there was no horse in that stall. So it becomes completely silent. And then a few moments later, a few aisles over, he hears it again and he goes to check and there is nothing there.

A sketch of the American Fleet arriving at York on April 27, 1813.

Have you ever experienced any strange occurrences yourself while working at the CNE?

The only thing that happened to me is this. Because I am also the CNE's archivist right now, I was in the stacks one day, and it can get pretty quiet back there because it is basically just tons of boxes. And one day I was working and I just heard this little girl giggling. Just very distinctly giggling. And I remember I came out and went to my boss to ask her about it, if she heard anything, because I was like, "Hmmm, what is going on?" And this is before I knew any of the ghost stories. And my boss told me it was normal to hear and feel things in there. And I was like. "Oh, okay then, good to know."

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Aerial view of the CNE on Sept. 6, 1948.

People who take these tours, what's their reaction while they're walking about?

For us it's not so much about trying to scare people it is more about sharing our history and sharing these stories. So a lot of the times it is disbelief, but also a little bit of skepticism. One of the things I love about the ghost stories is that we get to hear other people's stories. We always preface every tour with "even though you are a skeptic and you don't believe any of this to be true, it is a really great introduction not only to the CNE's history but to the greater Toronto area's history."

This year's CNE Ghost Walks will take place from Aug. 21 to 25 and then again from Aug. 28 to Sept. 1 from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. and from 8 to 9 p.m.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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