I’d bet that everyone has, at some point or another in their lives, heard various urban legends. Maybe you heard it in a nursery school rhyme while playing hopscotch on the playground. Maybe it was something whispered to you at a sleepover when you were a pre-teen.
Maybe it was something that made the rounds in the hall at school that you heard from your best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend who heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with some girl.
When I was a kid living in the suburbs of Toronto, we moved down the street from the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital. By the time we lived in the neighborhood, the hospital was long closed. But that doesn’t mean the legends behind the imposing buildings didn’t still linger.
Whispers of bodies buried on-site, sinister things going on behind closed doors, secret passageways running underground – all these urban legends and more made the rounds in local lore.
But before we delve into these tales, let’s find out where it all began.
A LITTLE HISTORY
The original hospital was opened in 1889 as a series of Gothic and Romanesque-syle cottages that were built as an alternative to housing its patients in one sprawling building.
From farming, laundry, gardening and even constructing the buildings themselves, patients had a big hand in forming the foundation of the facilities and running the day-to-day activities.
Patients also constructed coffins for their fellow patients in the carpentry shop and buried a few kilometers north. Sadly after the hospital closed, the cemetery, and its 1,511 forgotten people, were abandoned. However, in 2005, a group of volunteers took over a restoration project. Volunteers continue to visit the cemetery regularly for a memorial and clean up in the spring and fall.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Unfortunately, over-crowding, forced labor and violence hung with a dark pall over the hospital. In the late ’50’s, a new superintendent took over and began to overhaul the Hospital. His first task was to reduce patient population through outpatient programs and to put an end to forced patient labor.
The hospital continued operations until 1979, when former patients were either moved to other facilities or attended to through out-patient programs in the area.
The buildings stood empty for a number of years. That, coupled with the fact that while still in operation, the grounds were mostly only accessible to those who lived and worked there, rumors, speculation and those whispered legends, lingered long after it closed.
Walking past the grounds as the new kid in the neighborhood took on an entirely new feeling after hearing hushed stories of the abandoned buildings lurking in the shadows along the lake shore.
Since our house was down a street on the block, my mom or one of my siblings often took me there to play. The grounds are massive, with tree-lined pathways and a view of Lake Ontario that is breathtaking, lending itself to the mystery and intrigue of the grounds.
The Gatehouse stood on the main street, Lakeshore Boulevard, and I would see it every day when I walked to school. Most of the other buildings were set far back on the grounds, often only seen when you were deep inside the park. It was then, when the wind came rolling in off the lake, that those little nagging tidbits of whatever my schoolmates thought went on behind closed doors would come to the forefront of my mind.
We would often ride our bikes or go for a walk through the park to the lake, and being an impressionable kid with an active imagination, it wasn’t easy to push aside those ghost stories. I remember one time, walking past one of the abandoned cottages and i swear, I saw a shadowy figure peering out at us. Was it a ghost of an unfortunate patient lingering to look forlornly out time-frosted windows? Was it some person trapped inside all this time, wandering the underground tunnels, unable to escape?
The hospital did, in fact, have tunnels that were used by staff to get to and from the various buildings. This is Canada, after all. Walking those icy paths in the winter would have been a nightmare. But, of course, there were whispers of the sinister goings-on (what were they doing? What were they trying to hide?). Local ghost hunters even got in on the storytelling.
There was also a smokestack (the Powerhouse) on the grounds, with rumors it was used to burn the bodies of deceased patients. More lore conjured up by active minds.
Although it might be fun to imagine a ghostly past, and the image of the creepy abandoned hospital is great fodder for scary stories, it does take away from the lives of those who were patients and died there.
The good news is the creepy reputation was, for the most part, put to rest when Humber College took over many of the old buildings in 1991 and renovated them for their Lakeshore Campus. The old cottages have all been utilized and repurposed for various areas of study.
Prior to that, the grounds were used for a number of notable films, including Strange Brew (which, since we lived down the street, I actually saw them filming when I was a kid!), and the Police Academy films.
LEARNING SOMETHING NEW
It’s always interesting to dig into local lore and find out where stories of hauntings first start. But going beyond the tales and discovering something about your own neighborhood can open up new doors, and maybe even inspire new stories to tell.
FIND OUT MORE
The Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital has a fascinating history. If you want to learn more about its past, and celebrate the gorgeous architecture, you should absolutely head over to the Asylum By The Lake website.
Compiled by Agatha Barc with research from former staff, archivists and other individuals, it offers a detailed glimpse at the history of the staff and former patients of the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital.