an intriguing look into the culture and secrets of Strathcona

review by Rachel Papulkas

Are ghosts real, and are they among us? As Halloween drew closer, and people began to prepare for a weekend of festivities, Nadine Bailey’s Ghost Tours brought back to life the lives and events of Edmonton’s past, and a chance for city goers to examine that question for themselves. Running from October 1 to November 2, each hour-long walking tour guided attendees through the ghostly streets of Old Strathcona to visit five spots with reported paranormal sightings, mysterious accidents, and murders.

“All stories told tonight are completely true,” Nadine Bailey later said. Organized around the information she’d collected through archives and interviewing local business-owners, the night Nadine promised was one both educational and bound to raise a few hairs on the back of your neck.

Deciding to take with me an open mind, one skeptic of a friend, and enough layers to protect me from the chills of a cold Tuesday night on the town, I started my night outside The Walterdale Theatre. Meeting with a group of about sixteen other attendees—comprised of a wide variety of ages—my friend and I were immediately greeted with the warming smile of our host, Nadine. Making her way over to us, Nadine donned a black cape and a megaphone, readying herself to compete with the bustle of street traffic.

“Welcome!” She called out to me and my friend, Emma. “My son will be right with you to help you both check in.”

Nadine, I came to find, had appeared to have amassed somewhat of a following of her own. Guiding not only the annual ghost tour, but a number of haunted tours around Edmonton cemeteries and Strathcona pubs, she has made a career of unearthing little-heard stories around the city, and delivering them with her trademark theatrics, infectious enthusiasm, and wit. As I waited with Emma in those few minutes before the 7 pm start time, I watched Nadine bounce from group to group, giving her own personalized hello and acknowledgement of those who she remembers from previous tours.

Walterdale Theatre and the Old Strathcona Mural

Nadine has a clear talent for performance—the cadence of her storytelling allowing for dramatic beats to heighten the suspense—but I could not help but feel underwhelmed by the first two spots of the night of the night.

We began the tour outside the Walterdale Theatre. Gathered with the others in a semi-circle, I looked at the red-bricked theatre, an intimately small looking building that I’d passed by many times but never been inside of. The red-lit sign welcoming us to the theatre, in addition to the streetlights bathing us in a softer glow against the darkened sky, set the ambiance.

 The Walterdale Theatre was once a firehall, Nadine explained, and since the death of the volunteer firefighter named Walter, employees report mysterious activity on an almost weekly basis. Often times it is the sound of distant alarm bells and horse hooves, if not items disappearing and reappearing shortly before a crew’s showtime.

Nadine led us shortly afterwards to the north wall of Crawford Block, reminding us over her megaphone to keep an eye out as we began to start navigating Whyte Avenue. She parked us across from an eye-catching piece of art, painted on the side of an apartment building. Set on a purple background, colourful geometric shapes form the image of a dog’s head resting atop a human body.

It’s a grassroots art piece created by Okuda San Miguel. While originally taken aback by the curious nature of a geometric dog being painted on the side of a building, learning the symbolic nature behind each of the colours used made me examine the piece from a more appreciative standpoint.

Nadine must have sensed our curiosity, however, as to why this was the second stop of the night. She ends her story with a note that although it actually has no mysterious element to it, the piece itself is interesting and she wanted to bring attention to it. The piece is beautiful but considering it’s the stop we would later spend the most time at, I wonder if the piece would be better off in a different tour of its own. 

Strathcona Hotel

“What you just walked through is referred to as Edmonton’s own Murder Alley.”

The statement was the first chill of the night not attributed to the impending winter. Right around the corner from Murder Alley is Strathcona Hotel, an unassuming, modest building, with fairy lights that lit the back entrance aglow. I wouldn’t have thought much deeper than that about the hotel, had it not been situated alongside an area called Murder Alley.

Strathcona Hotel, of course, reported its own apparition and murder-tale. The tale, dating back to 1982 and telling of a murdered woman who walks the halls in search of her missing head, is gruesome, saddening, and horrifyingly on-theme for the area it’s located in.

I don’t miss the way couples inch just a bit closer together during the tale, and how the group of women in front of me cast discreet glances around the area.

“Stay close to us.” One of them casts a laugh my way, as our group make our way away from the hotel.

Princess Theatre and Cinnaholix:

Carefully making my way across through the streets of Whyte Avenue, I found myself examining a building I’d visited many times before: The Princess Theatre. The cinema is a staple of Whyte Avenue, the exterior retro-like and classic in its red-and-white signage out front. It’s a building that brings back a feeling of familiarity and coziness each time I look upon it. It also, Nadine points out, homes the story of Sarah Ann, a jilted bride who was abandoned by her groom three days before their wedding. The story, however, made me feel saddened for Sarah Ann, more than it made me feel spooked.

Nadine then shifted gears onto the Cinnaholix, located only a few doors down from the Princess Theatre. Cinnaholix, Nadine pointed out, has a much stranger history than most realize: it is the sight of one of Edmonton’s unsolved murders. Originally constructed as a cigar shop and newsstand, it used to host a rather strange-smelling well. When lowered into the well by his uncle to investigate (“clearly he wasn’t the favourite nephew” Emma remarked), it was at the bottom of the well that he found a deceased man with a bullet wound to the head.

Unfortunately, it was in this segment of the evening that the downsides to a walking tour presented itself. Curious bystanders walking to and from the buildings around us, loud motorcycle revving that caused multiple pauses in storytelling—Whyte Avenue is home to some spooky history, but it is not an environment always conducive to immersive storytelling.

Old Scona Academic High School

Nadine began to wrap up the night outside Old Strathcona High School. The legend of Old Scona claims that a construction worker, working on building the school in the 1950s, died and was covered up by a negligent supervisor in the foundation of the building. Supposedly, male teachers now warn of a staircase that garners suspicious accidents, and of classroom lights flickering on and off.

Also located on Scona property, just underneath the feet of event attendees, are the remains of hundreds of deceased animals. In one of the more unsettling stories of the nights, Nadine shares how an unidentified male, living across the street from the high school, turned to conducting his own surgical experiments on animals after being rejected from the University of Alberta’s medicinal faculty.

After one short, anti-climatic stop at the ATB Financial Arts Barn (right beside Orange Hall, a tiny white woodened assembly hall Nadine giddily described as a filming location for one of Brad Pitt’s movies), Emma and I said one final goodbye to the group.

While the Old Strathcona Ghost Tour is not likely to change anyone’s mind regarding belief in the paranormal, and the mentions of the city and building’s histories are a bit too vague for me to consider the event ‘educational’, Nadine Bailey’s tour instead offers an intriguing look into the culture and secrets of Strathcona.

see also Carelyn Kostyk’s edmontonscene review of the University of Alberta campus ghost tour

Edmonton Ghost Tours