by Robyn Gillam
Among the many small business casualties of the Covid-19 Pandemic is Emma’s Back Porch, the storied bar and eatery on Old Lakeshore Road in Burlington. However, while the business is gone, Emma is still there, even though she died in 1943. The ghost of the former innkeeper and her two children have been known for many years, with sightings of floating figures and poltergeists’ pranks.
Emma’s establishment was sited close to land and water transportation. Such places are borderline, between land and water, places of exchange, at the beginning or end of important journeys and of what is legal or illegal. Their stories are filled with strong emotions and violent acts. The North End, old Port Hamilton, between lake and railway line, was reputed to be home to many shady activities. Where are its ghosts?
Most old North Enders claim to have never heard of such things. “You don’t believe in ghosts do you?” someone asked, but I’m not easily put off. The celebrated ‘Dark Lady’ haunts the old Customs House on Stuart Street, almost, but not quite, in the North End. She manifests in the cellars amid bone chilling cold, where she was buried following an untimely death en route to the port. A gentleman dressed in 19th century office attire has also been seen in one of the front rooms. There are several haunted places nearer the escarpment, so why not closer to home?
With Emma in mind, I focussed on old inns. Fischer’s Pier 4 Pub and Hotel at James and Wood Streets, has an eerie history, going back over 50 years. The building itself, dating to 1851-2, stands en route between the port and the railway line, an obvious first stop for newly arrived immigrants. However, there are few details about life there before 1910, when the hotel was purchased by the Murphys, who lived in an apartment on the second floor with their five children. ‘Long John’ Murphy, known as an athlete, was also celebrated in cockfighing circles throughout the Great Lakes Basin.
Later on, their grandchildren would come to play in the unused third floor of the building. One of them, Pat Murphy, described it having a weird, frightening atmosphere. She said that things would go bump or squeak, and sometimes it was just too scary to stay there. After the Murphys sold the building in 1950, the third floor remained boarded up for over 40 years.
When Ed Fisher purchased the building in1993, he discovered the staircase to the third floor hidden behind a wall. It led up to a mysterious space filled with winding passages and hidden spaces under the dormer roof. Old children’s toys and schoolbooks contributed to impression of a place frozen in time. Although the third floor is now renovated and occupied by guests of the hotel, an eerie feeling remains, especially on the staircase, one of the few unaltered parts of the original building.
You don’t need to believe in ghosts to enjoy hearing about them. Such tales are common in old haunts like the North End. We look forward to hearing your stories.
The author would like to thank Ed Fischer for his informative tour of the hotel. Stories about ghosts mentioned can be found online at HPL, WAHC and various paranormal websites.