Isaac Buchanan was once referred to as being a man ahead of his time. If somehow, he could see what his beloved Auchmar Estate has become, would this be reason enough to want to go back in time and change the past? Can walls re-build themselves? Can new life be breathed into the now vacant hallways that once housed so many souls?
The Castle on the Mountain
At one time, a beautifully landscaped garden and captivating architectural features used to lend beauty to the old manor on the mountain simply known as Auchmar. It was named after Isaac Buchanan’s family estate in Loch Lomond, Scotland. Buchanan (1810-1883) was a well-respected and prominent merchant and politician not only here in Hamilton, but throughout Canada.
During his time, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for both Toronto and Hamilton, helping to establish the Free Church of Scotland in Canada West. He was instrumental in setting up the Board of Trade right here in Hamilton and also served as director in the Great Western Railway. And if that wasn’t enough, Buchanan served as first commanding officer of the local 13th Militia Regiment (now the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry). Somehow he also found time to raise a family of 11 children with his wife Agnes.
Between 1852 and 1854, Isaac and Agnes built Auchmar together. A 2-storey Gothic manor located on the corner of Fennell Ave. and West 5th, currently tucked behind tall trees and crumbling stone walls that have seen better days. It has been called the “Dundurn Castle of the Mountain” but I prefer to think that Auchmar gained its own prestige due to its noteworthy history and unique past that certainly makes it an esteemed home worth preserving.
Many notable and dignified guests contributed to the allure of Auchmar, including Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, Pope John Paul II and the Prince of Wales (who would later become King Edward VII). Horse-drawn carriages transported the exclusive and elite up the escarpment, and beyond the orchard-lined laneway that led to the front steps of the mansion.
Lavish dinners aside, Buchanan’s political career distracted him from his failing business interests and he was forced to sell Auchmar in order move to a more modest home on James Street South. All the while his cherished former home on the mountain sat dark and empty with nothing left but the forgotten ghosts to occupy it. Isaac received a government appointment in 1879 which sustained him through his later years, until his death in October 1883 at the age of 73.
Several years after Isaac Buchanan’s death, Auchmar was sold to a Military man from India named Captain Trigg. One of the first items on his agenda was to convert the grand ballroom which once housed lavish parties into a spiritual setting where church services could be held every Sunday.
Auchmar returned to the Buchanan family in 1900 when Isaac’s fourth son James purchased it back from Trigg. James lived there with two of his sisters, Elsie and Helen until 1926, when it was sold to Alan Vernon Young, a local textile manufacturer. Upon her death in 1951, Helen Buchanan was the last surviving family member, thus ending the legendary Buchanan legacy at Auchmar Estate.
The home became a rehabilitation hospital in 1926 when the Royal Canadian Air Force rented it from the Young’s. Almost 20 years later, in 1945 with the War over, the Hungarian Sisters of Social Service purchased the property for $32,000. They made an add-on dormitory that served as a religious retreat and spiritual centre until 1999 when Auchmar was officially purchased by the City of Hamilton.
And this is where one chapter of Auchmar’s story comes to an end, and another one just begins.
“The Place Must Be Haunted!”
As with any old mansion, if it sits there empty long enough, word gets around that “the place must be haunted!” Stories are stirred, tales are twisted and legend becomes truth. The unusual thing about Auchmar is that nobody really talked about its ghosts, not until recently at least.
Growing up in Hamilton, I remember it being popular conviction that the creepy old mansion hidden behind the trees on West 5th was haunted! My school bus would drive past it quite often and I would press my face against the cold glass window just to try and catch a glimpse of one of the manor windows beyond the trees. And just as I thought I saw something (did that curtain just move??) the bus would start driving again and my fleeting moment to see a real-live ghost was gone.
Differentiating Auchmar from your typical haunted location is that it seems to house ghosts from various generations. There are several strong spirits present in the building, some more prominent than others. It is these entities that have a story to tell, and perhaps now is the ideal time to share them.
Stirring up the Ghosts…
One of the most common reasons a spirit will haunt a home is because it is a place that they lived in and loved. When new owners come in to their space and change things from how they knew it, feathers are ruffled and patience is tested on both sides (living or otherworldly).
You may be frustrated because your kitchen cabinets always open on their own, or your ring has gone missing only to appear days later in a completely different place from where you had left it. Both perfect examples from true, real-life paranormal cases that I’ve personally worked on.
This could be a valid reason why Auchmar is reputed to be so haunted. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that most of the reports coincide with instances of renovations, repairs or visual changes to the building, both inside and out. So it isn’t a far stretch to assume that the heavy cosmetic changes and faux details made to Auchmar during filming at the mansion definitely stirred up the ghosts! The popular Canadian “Harry Potter-esque” TV show “Black Hole High” (aka Strange Days at Blake Holsey High) was filmed here from 2002 – 2006 and this is where many of the ghost stories come from. Or at least ones that people were willing to talk about.
Quiet!! Ghosts on the Set!!
Back when Black Hole High started airing on NBC and Discovery Kids here in Canada, a public discussion forum was created specifically for just this TV Show. Filming locations started to be discussed and Auchmar was brought up. More specifically, its ghosts.
Apparently numerous actors and crew alike started having strange experiences, many of them sounding eerily similar! At first, people were catching glimpses of shadows dodging past them while standing in the main hallway on the first floor, until occurrences like that escalated into full-fledged apparitions. One incident tells of two crew members that were carrying some rather heavy equipment from the basement up to the main floor. Just as they reached the final step before the main floor landing, they both looked up to witness a little girl standing there above them in a beautiful vintage dress, only to vanish into thin air a few seconds later.
Staff and crew reported hearing shrilling sounds of a young girl screaming, while others claimed that they heard a young girl giggling and laughing within close proximity. A full crew of set designers heard a scream from the second floor, but when they ran upstairs to check, the entire floor was empty with not a soul in sight.
Years ago, a local woman recounted her creepy tale about the time she visited Auchmar as a child with her father, an aspiring politician who had been invited to take a tour of the building just after the Nuns moved out. She ventured off from her father to explore on her own and found herself standing on the second floor of the mansion when suddenly, from the other end of the hallway she heard the soft giggle of a child, almost sounding like another little girl. She just stood there and distinctly remembers hearing the giggles getting closer and closer until suddenly she heard a voice whisper “play with me” right in her ear. It frightened her enough to quickly run down the stairs and jump into her father’s arms to recount the experience!
Much credit can also be given to my friend Jeff Mahoney, columnist for The Hamilton Spectator, who in 2002 first shed some light on the ghosts of Auchmar by interviewing the cast from Black Hole High. One notable quote comes from actor Lawrence Bayne, who played the devilish Victor Pearson. He simply had this to say when questioned about the ghosts:
“Well, you tell me, how does a door that is locked and bolted suddenly swing open in the middle of the night?”
The Ghostly Nun in the Basement
Mitchell T. Ness, Director for several episodes of Strange Days at Blake Holsey High, was very open about his paranormal experiences at Auchmar, along with the stories he has heard from others. The following is his account as relayed to Haunted-Hamilton years ago, and probably one of the most spine-tingling reports to ever come out of Auchmar:
“For one of our episodes, we built an old furnace in the basement (the furnace caught a cold and blew snot all over!).
Part of our effects team, Sean and Gary, were down there one day in the middle of the afternoon. Sean left for a short break and when coming back he saw Gary running up towards him. He took the stairs two at a time and almost ran him down.
“Going For a smoke”, he replied when Sean asked, and Sean thought nothing of it.
A white figure moved past him in the distance, slowly moving across the hall into another room. It was obviously female and moved in the air with no feet. Sean froze on the spot and tried to make sense of what he’d just seen.
When his legs came back to life, Sean ran out of the basement. Outside he found Gary and confirmed what had spooked him. They agreed the apparition looked like a nun. They both noticed that she had no feet and seemed to float along the stone floor.
After agreeing on what they saw, it confirmed that this wasn’t one of those crazy moments due to all the late nights.”
So what now?
There are many reasons why a spirit is prone to unrest, but in circumstances like this I can’t help but think that the spirit of Isaac Buchanan MUST be haunting Auchmar too. After all, he has a very good reason to be!
Crumbling walls, peeling paint and sinking structures, all amidst a home that sits at the mercy of Mother Nature and well, plain old time.
There she stands, tall and proud at the corner of a soon-to-be bustling intersection where the new St. Joe’s Healthcare hospital now stands. Auchmar is a building that has stood the test of time and is currently recognized by the Ontario Heritage Trust as having significant historical value. It’s just waiting for the perfect person to come in and breathe a brand new life into her.
Hamilton City councillors recently turned down a proposed offer from a secret non-profit organization that wanted to negotiate a private offer behind closed doors. Why so secretive? It’s that mentality that is going to push Auchmar further away from the community, regardless of how amazing the proposal might have been.
I wish I could say this secret offer was mine, with the grand proposal of turning it into a Museum devoted entirely to Hamilton’s history… featuring a uniquely spooky twist, of course!
And hey, if there are any investors out there, or folks with bucket-loads (more like bushel-loads!) of pennies they want to spare, give me a ring!
Until then, Auchmar stands overlooking a City that hasn’t quite given up on her just yet.
Stay Spooky Hamilton!