One of Toronto’s most charming neighbourhoods for a family visit is also one of its most haunted.
By day, the Distillery Historic District is a cheerful place, a pedestrian-only zone full of couples shopping, families gathering and film crews using the 19th-century stone buildings as a period backdrop.
At night, according to legend, the proceedings get a bit spookier. Inhabitants from long ago return to walk the cobbled streets once more—at least according to local paranormal experts.
But first, back to the daytime. This former spirits manufacturing centre was renovated and reopened in 2003, and now boasts shops, restaurants, galleries, a live theatre, condominiums—and actually quite a bit more. It’s worth a day of exploring. Locals might suggest you browse for funky housewares at Bergo Designs (28 Tank House Ln.), relax with a hot drink and a croissant at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters (1 Trinity St.) or sample the rye, gin and other craft liquors at Spirit of York Distillery Co. (12 Trinity St.)—and, speaking of spirits…
Ghost tours of The Distillery
All of this happy hubbub would presumably come as a surprise to James Worts, one of the co-founders of the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, the original facility that gave rise to the site. Worts died—possibly by suicide—in 1834, shortly after his wife Elizabeth’s death during childbirth. Nowadays he is said to reappear in spectral form, as a “comforting, curious presence.”
Or so says Rowena Brook of The Haunted Walk, which gives spooky tours of the District from its Toronto headquarters there (at 30 Gristmill Lane). “We think maybe he’s curious to see what’s going on—you know, what happened to his business,” she says.
Those who take the tour will also hear about spirits that appear in a black, meowing form that flashes before one’s eyes. These are the souls of distillery cats, presumably, who were kept around to prevent mice from eating the grain. And there’s an even scarier story about a figure that was spotted swinging by the neck at one of the Distillery’s restaurants (the woman who spotted it never worked another shift, Brook says).
No matter how macabre the tales may be, Brook says a Distillery haunted tour makes for a family-friendly activity. “Sometimes you have younger kids” on the tour, she says, “and they can be braver than the adults.”
Another way to see the spectres is to book a Haunted Segway tour. Yes, you’ll hear ghost stories while zooming across the cobbles on Segways, those two-wheeled personal chariots that were all the rage during the early 2000s. Somehow they are still alive. How’s that for cheating death?
Getting to the Distillery Historic District
From Union Station, take the 121 bus (Fort York-Esplanade) to Mill Street or Cherry Street.