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Nova Scotia's abandoned islands have a legacy of restless spirits and spooks

Despite Nova Scotia's diminutive size, the waters surrounding the province have some 3,800 islands—indeed, the mainland itself would be an island if not for a narrow isthmus linking it to New Brunswick. As many a traditional storyteller crouched around a bonfire will tell you, there’s a misty aura that cloaks islands in mystique, stirring the imagination. Tales of storms and shipwrecks abound, as do whispers of pirates and buried treasure, smugglers and rum runners, spies and secret passageways, lost settlements and forgotten cemeteries, murderers and contagious diseases. Many of Nova Scotia’s islands were once home to thriving fishing communities with lighthouse keepers, life-saving crews and wireless operators, forts, prisons and quarantine stations—even amusement parks. But most of these are abandoned today, the only inhabitants being the souls of their dead.

In the 1920s, 28 families were living on Devils Island, a windswept plot of ground at the mouth of Halifax Harbour. Fishing was the mainstay of the island; people carried on subsistence farming, planting small vegetable gardens, some keeping a cow or chickens. From 1941-42, the 20 families then living on the island had a front row seat for the Battle of the Atlantic, as German U-boats sank vessels at the approaches to the harbour. As the war intensified, so did the potential dangers for island residents, and the government relocated them to the mainland.

Few Islanders returned, but a number of people have temporarily lived on Devils Island since then, predominantly folks looking to get away from it all. The last known resident appears to have left some time around 2000.

There are several theories as to how it came to be called Devils Island. Some are rooted in spooky tales, but the accepted explanation comes from the anglicized spelling of Deval (or Devol or DeVille), the family name of an early French settler on the island.

But although Devils Island probably wasn’t named for ghostly goings-on, there have been many sightings of unexplained fires and lights, one in the 1990s, when a student of the paranormal spent a chilly night tenting on the island. When he walked the shoreline prior to turning in, every indication was that he was alone on the island—until he noticed a light burning in a window of the long-abandoned keeper’s residence.

Summoning the courage to enter, the youth found a still-warm candle on the windowsill, as though it had just been snuffed out. Not another “living” soul was out and about, making for a long night until sunrise brought welcome relief.

Folklorist Helen Creighton visited Devils Island often, collecting tales for her book Bluenose Ghosts. She writes about the haunted house with mysterious footprints appearing on freshly painted floors, fires that gave the illusion of burning but did not consume anything, sounds of knocking and dragging, foul smells, apparitions of a man in oilskins and a baby dressed in white. Creighton described the house as “bleak and unfriendly… and I was glad to leave it to the wind and the weather and any family unfortunate enough to have to live there.”

Spirits and spooks remained restless until islanders tore down the demonized structure. Perhaps they should have burned it—those who scavenged lumber to reuse “almost immediately had bad luck.”

Nearby Sambro Island, three kilometres off the entrance to Halifax Harbour, had military personnel stationed there in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of these men, Alexander Alexander, a Scot, is said to have committed suicide rather than face charges of stealing an army payroll. Double Alex’s ghost apparently haunts the island—walking loudly, turning lights on and off, flushing toilets.

Some claim to have seen and smelled him. According to lightkeeper John Fairservice, if Double Alex was close by, a “peculiar odour” permeated the air.

When one of the empty lightkeeper’s houses was moved off its foundation and floated to the mainland, Double Alex apparently hitched a ride, leaving the island in peace. The new homeowner put up with the ghost’s shenanigans for a while, then told the wayward spirit to leave. Being a dutiful ghost, Double Alex did just that, catching a lift back to Sambro Island in John Fairservice’s boat.

How did the keeper know Double Alex had returned? He smelled the odour, and the hauntings began again.

For its part, St. Paul Island—in the Cabot Strait at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence—has a reputation similar to Sable Island: both have long, unbroken periods of pea-soup thick fog, and both are considered graveyards. However, unlike Sable, which entrapped vessels on its tentacle shoals, St. Paul slammed ships into kindling at the jagged base of its sheer cliffs—laying claim to more than 350 shipwrecks.

When winter pack ice surrounded the island in the days before a lighthouse and life-saving station were built, to be marooned on St. Paul was a death sentence. At least 1,000 shipwreck victims, who either drowned and washed ashore, or survived to later perish from starvation and exposure, are buried in unmarked mass graves at Atlantic Cove, on the east coast of the island.

By the early 1900s, St. Paul had two lighthouses, life-saving and wireless stations, a lobster canning factory that employed 50 seasonal workers, a school, post and telegraph office, regular mail delivery, and was on a circuit to have a minister visit.

Kate Redmond spent time there as a child and remembers strange goings-on. “Mama used to have Sunday school,” she says. “She’d invite all the people on the island, and they’d read the Bible and sing.

“One afternoon after Sunday school we were all sitting around, and the wind sort of opened the front door. There was the most beautiful music you ever heard. Just like a choir, the voices came in. And we all looked around. There was no radio or anything then.

“And Mama said, ‘Oh, I’ve heard that often.’ Mama used to go for a walk and oftentimes she heard music.”

Billy Budge lived on St. Paul from 1955 to 1960, when his father tended the southwest light. “The stage was set for the superstitious when the [lightkeeper’s] house was built, in 1916,” he writes in Memoirs of a Lightkeeper’s Son.

“During construction, builders claimed to have unearthed human bones while excavating for the basement…. There were no obvious defects in the doors of our house, and due to the severe weather we experienced, Dad inspected them regularly. Neither the winter gales that whistled around outside nor the strong gusts of wind that rattled the dishes in the cupboard were ever successful in opening one single door.

“But on calm and quiet evenings, doors would start to open. The basement door was usually the first. We would be in the living room listening to the radio, and hear the creaking of the hinges, followed by the thud when the door came to rest against the adjacent wall.

“It happened often enough that my mother noticed specific timing: the door always opened at eight in the evening. Someone would close the door, but Dad would usually find it open when he came downstairs in the morning to light the fire. Several of our inside doors were always kept closed when not in use. Yet many times my father found them all open in the morning, as if our home had been invaded by some visitor during the night—and the outside doors always remained closed.

“There were other unsettling nocturnal events—sometimes sounds like pieces of wood being thrown at the sides of the house interrupted our sleep. We tried to determine the cause of these strange thumping sounds, but never came up with an explanation. My father’s inability to explain or eliminate these mysterious sounds exacerbated my mother’s fears.”

One memorable Christmas, Billy’s parents heard noises in the living room after everyone had gone to bed—the distinctive sounds of tree ornaments falling and tiny bells rolling across the floor. Not to worry, it was just the family cat playing, or so they thought.

In the morning “it was fortunate for my mother that [father] came downstairs alone,” recalls Billy. “There were no ornaments on the floor, and no sign of any broken bells anywhere in the house. Whatever it was, Mom would never know the truth until after we had moved from St. Paul Island.

“At the time, Dad simply claimed that he picked up the bells and redecorated the tree after he returned from the lighthouse.”

Abridged from Ghost Islands of Nova Scotia, Pottersfield Press, 2012

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