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

// November 8th, 2016 // Friendly Ghosts

Early, rare photo of Deadman's Island in Vancouver, Canada

Deadman’s Island, Coal Harbor, Vancouver

Dead Man's Island as seen from Georgia Street in VancouverLocated 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 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

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 200 women, children, and elders from the Northern tribe, the Southern Salish issued their demands – give us 200 of your best soldiers and we’ll release the hostages. The Northern Salish complied, turning over 200 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 so 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

Squatter huts on Deadman's Island in VancouverIn 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 littered 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

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

Security and other participants in the Ludgate Affair on Deadman's IslandOne 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 jobbery 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 30 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.”

Early, rare photo of Deadman's Island in Vancouver, CanadaSquatters move back to the 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

HMCS Discovery naval Base on Deadman's IslandIn 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.

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.

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

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.

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 account

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.

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.”

Early, rare photo of Deadman's Island in Vancouver, CanadaFor 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 account

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 account

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 account

Early, rare photo of Deadman's Island in Vancouver, CanadaIn 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 along 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 islands 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 file, 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)

It is dusk on the Lost Lagoon,

And we two dreaming the dusk away,

Beneath the drift of a twilight grey–

Beneath the drowse of an ending day

And the curve of a golden moon.

It is dark in the Lost Lagoon,

And gone are the depths of haunting blue,

The grouping gulls, and the old canoe,

The singing firs, and the dusk and–you,

And gone is the golden moon.

O! lure of the Lost Lagoon–

I dream to-night that my paddle blurs

The purple shade where the seaweed stirs–

I hear the call of the singing firs

In the hush of the golden moon.

Deadman's Island as seen in the modern dayFOR many minutes, we stood silently, leaning on the western rail of the bridge as we watched the sunset across that beautiful little basin of water known as Coal Harbor. I have always resented that jarring, unattractive [Page 114] name, for years ago, when I first plied paddle across the gunwale of a light little canoe, and idled about its margin, I named the sheltered little cove the Lost Lagoon. This was just to please my own fancy, for, as that perfect summer month drifted on, the ever-restless tides left the harbor devoid of water at my favorite canoeing hour, and my pet idling-place was lost for many days–hence my fancy to call it the Lost Lagoon. But the chief, Indian-like, immediately adopted the name, at least when he spoke of the place to me, and, as we watched the sun slip behind the rim of firs, he expressed the wish that his dug-out were here instead of lying beached at the farther side of the park.

“If canoe was here, you and I we paddle close to shores all ’round your Lost Lagoon: we make track just like half-moon. Then we paddle under this bridge, and go channel between Deadman’s Island and park. Then ’round where cannon speak time at nine o’clock. Then ‘cross Inlet to Indian side of Narrows.”

I turned to look eastward, following in [Page 115] fancy the course he had sketched. The waters were still as the footsteps of the oncoming twilight, and, floating in a pool of soft purple, Deadman’s Island rested like a large circle of candle-moss.

“Have you ever been on it?” he asked as he caught my gaze centering on the irregular outline of the island pines.

“I have prowled the length and depth of it,” I told him, “climbed over every rock on its shores, crept under every tangled growth of its interior, explored its overgrown trails, and more than once nearly got lost in its very heart.”

“Yes,” he half laughed, “it pretty wild; not much good for anything.”

“People seem to think it valuable,” I said. “There is a lot of litigation–of fighting going on now about it.”

“Oh! that the way always,” he said, as though speaking of a long accepted fact. “Always fight over that place. Hundreds of years ago they fight about it; Indian people; they say hundreds of years to come everybody will still fight–never be settled what that place is, who it belong to, who has right to [Page 116] it. No, never settle. Deadman’s Island always mean fight for someone.”

“So the Indians fought amongst themselves about it?” I remarked, seemingly without guile, although my ears tingled for the legend I knew was coming.

“Fought like lynx at close quarters,” he answered. “Fought, killed each other, until the island ran with blood redder than that sunset, and the sea-water about it was stained flame color–it was then, my people say, that the scarlet fire-flower was first seen growing along this coast.”

“It is a beautiful color–the fire-flower,” I said.

“It should be fine color, for it was born and grew from the hearts of fine tribes-people–very fine people,” he emphasized.

We crossed to the eastern rail of the bridge, and stood watching the deep shadows that gathered slowly and silently about the island; I have seldom looked upon anything more peaceful.

The chief sighed. “We have no such men now, no fighters like those men, no hearts, no courage like theirs. But [Page 117] I tell you the story; you understand it then. Now all peace; to-night all good tillicums; even dead man’s spirit does not fight now, but long time after it happen those spirits fought.”

“And the legend?” I ventured.

“Oh! yes,” he replied, as if suddenly returning to the present from out a far country in the realm of time. “Indian people, they call it the ‘Legend of the Island of Dead Men.'”

“There was war everywhere. Fierce tribes from the northern coast, savage tribes from the south, all met here and battled and raided, burned and captured, tortured and killed their enemies. The forests smoked with camp-fires, the Narrows were choked with war-canoes, and the Sagalie Tyee–He who is a man of peace–turned His face away from His Indian children. About this island there was dispute and contention. The medicine-men from the North claimed it as their chanting-ground. The medicine-men from the South laid equal claim to it. Each wanted it as the stronghold of their witchcraft, their magic. Great [Page 118] bands of these medicine-men met on the small space, using every sorcery in their power to drive their opponents away. The witch-doctors of the North made their camp on the northern rim of the island; those from the South settled along the southern edge, looking towards what is now the great city of Vancouver. Both factions danced, chanted, burned their magic powders, built their magic fires, beat their magic rattles, but neither would give way, yet neither conquered. About them, on the waters, on the mainlands, raged the warfare of their respective tribes–the Sagalie Tyee had forgotten His Indian children.

“After many months, the warriors on both sides weakened. They said the incantations of the rival medicine-men were bewitching them, were making their hearts like children’s, and their arms nerveless as women’s. So friend and foe arose as one man and drove the medicine-men from the island, hounded them down the Inlet, herded them through the Narrows, and banished them out to sea, where they took refuge on one of the outer [Page 119] islands of the gulf. Then the tribes once more fell upon each other in battle.

“The warrior blood of the North will always conquer. They are the stronger, bolder, more alert, more keen. The snows and the ice of their country make swifter pulse than the sleepy suns of the South can awake in a man; their muscles are of sterner stuff, their endurance greater. Yes, the northern tribes will always be victors. But the craft and the strategy of the southern tribes are hard things to battle against. While those of the North followed the medicine-men farther out to sea to make sure of their banishment, those from the South returned under cover of night and seized the women and children and the old, enfeebled men in their enemy’s camp, transported them all to the Island of Dead Men, and there held them as captives. Their war-canoes circled the island [Page 120] like a fortification, through which drifted the sobs of the imprisoned women, the mutterings of the aged men, the wail of little children.

“Again and again the men of the North assailed that circle of canoes, and again and again were repulsed. The air was thick with poisoned arrows, the water stained with blood. But day by day the circle of southern canoes grew thinner and thinner; the northern arrows were telling, and truer of aim. Canoes drifted everywhere, empty, or, worse still, manned only by dead men. The pick of the southern warriors had already fallen, when their greatest Tyee mounted a large rock on the eastern shore. Brave and unmindful of a thousand weapons aimed at his heart, he uplifted his hand, palm outward–the signal for conference. Instantly every northern arrow was lowered, and every northern ear listened for his words.

“‘Oh! men of the upper coast,’ he said, ‘you are more numerous than we are; your tribe is larger, your endurance greater. We are growing hungry, we are growing less in numbers. Our cap- [Page 121] tives–your women and children and old men–have lessened, too, our stores of food. If you refuse our terms we will yet fight to the finish. To-morrow we will kill all our captives before your eyes, for we can feed them no longer, or you can have your wives, your mothers, your fathers, your children, by giving us for each and every one of them one of your best and bravest young warriors, who will consent to suffer death in their stead. Speak! You have your choice.’

“In the northern canoes scores and scores of young warriors leapt to their feet. The air was filled with glad cries, with exultant shouts. The whole world seemed to ring with the voices of those young men who called loudly, with glorious courage:

“‘Take me, but give me back my old father.’

“‘Take me, but spare to my tribe my little sister.’

“‘Take me, but release my wife and boy-baby.’

“So the compact was made. Two hundred heroic, magnificent young men [Page 122] paddled up to the island, broke through the fortifying circle of canoes, and stepped ashore. They flaunted their eagle plumes with the spirit and boldness of young gods. Their shoulders were erect, their step was firm, their hearts strong. Into their canoes they crowded the two hundred captives. Once more their women sobbed, their old men muttered, their children wailed, but those young copper-colored gods never flinched, never faltered. Their weak and their feeble were saved. What mattered to them such a little thing as death?

“The released captives were quickly surrounded by their own people, but the flower of their splendid nation was in the hands of their enemies, those valorous young men who thought so little of life that they willingly, gladly laid it down to serve and to save those they loved and cared for. Amongst them were war-tried warriors who had fought fifty battles, and boys not yet full grown, who were drawing a bow-string for the first time; but their hearts, their courage, their self-sacrifice were as one. [Page 123]

“Out before a long file of southern warriors they stood. Their chins uplifted, their eyes defiant, their breasts bared. Each leaned forward and laid his weapons at his feet, then stood erect, with empty hands, and laughed forth his challenge to death. A thousand arrows ripped the air, two hundred gallant northern throats flung forth a death-cry exultant, triumphant as conquering kings–then two hundred fearless northern hearts ceased to beat.

“But in the morning, the southern tribes found the spot where they fell peopled with flaming fire-flowers. Dread terror seized upon them. They abandoned the island, and when night again shrouded them they manned their canoes and noiselessly slipped through the Narrows, turned their bows southward, and this coast-line knew them no more.”

“What glorious men!” I half whispered as the chief concluded the strange legend.

“Yes, men!” he echoed. “The white people call it Deadman’s Island. That is their way; but we of the Squamish call it The Island of Dead Men.” [Page 124]

The clustering pines and the outlines of the island’s margin were now dusky and indistinct. Peace, peace lay over the waters, and the purple of the summer twilight had turned to grey, but I knew that in the depths of the undergrowth on Deadman’s Island there blossomed a flower of flaming beauty; its colors were veiled in the coming nightfall, but somewhere down in the sanctuary of its petals pulsed the heart’s blood of many and valiant men.

Photos of bones and graves on Deadman’s Island (Vancouver)

Below are rare photos of graves and bones that have been unearthed on Deadman’s Island in Vancouver.

Sources: Wikipedia, Vancouver Courier, Vancouver Archives, Vancity Buzz, HCMS Discover, Stanley Park, Trip Advisor, Penn State University

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