The haunting of Banff Springs

Are there ghosts in the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel? We send our very own ghostbuster to find out.

By Tim Johnson

The haunting of Banff Springs
Photography courtesy of Fairmont
As the double doors swung shut before me – their motion steady, slow and really rather creepy – it was very clear that they hadn't been moved by any human hand. I had just finished my final meal at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel after a weeklong stay, and was en route back to the Vice Regal Suite, which is almost a wing on its own, complete with gothic ceilings and orange glowing candelabras. It has served as the castle-like temporary home of kings, queens and heads of state. I was eager to return to my comfortable royal digs, but my progress was completely, and without warning, cut off by the closing doors. Did the invisible hand that shut them belong to one of several ghosts that reportedly roam the historic halls of this rambling redoubtable hotel? I most certainly hoped so.

The Banff Springs, a true Rocky Mountain château, is celebrating its 125th ‚Ä®anniversary this year. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to be "a haven of peace in the midst of the wilderness," The Springs (as it's known by almost all staff and guests) has housed everyone from Marilyn Monroe to the Prince of Wales (the one who became King Edward VIII and later abdicated the throne). The Springs is a luxurious place with sweeping views of the Bow Valley, and a relaxing spa, so it's no wonder a few of the souls who have passed through its halls have decided to stay for quite a while – some, it would seem, even beyond the grave.
 
I had come to The Springs with one goal: to find out if it is, indeed, haunted. And I must say, this four-star hotel provided a rather pleasant environment for ghost hunting. I pondered the many generations of diners – Could any of their souls still inhabit this place? – as I washed down a thick rib eye with a very nice vintage Merlot at the Waldhaus Restaurant. I squinted my eyes to search for ghostly images in the waterfalls in the pools at Willow Stream Spa, a place where I reclined for hours after my tireless search, then continued the investigation by interviewing a massage therapist as I indulged in a deep-tissue treatment.

And with all of my searching, I found that The Springs is in fact rich in ghostly lore. David Moberg, the hotel's resident historian, passed on the elaborate – but apparently true – stories of the hotel's two most famous permanent residents. The first is Sam the bellman, a longtime employee who died in 1975 and had always threatened to come back to haunt the place. It seems that he did: Guests have reported being helped by a very elderly Scottish bellman in decades-old period garb when no such man was on staff, and have seen elevator doors opening and closing at random times, which is apparently his favourite way of saying a silent hello.

The second apparition is the "doomed bride." Guests have reported seeing this ghostly bride dancing in the Cascade Ballroom. Moberg says she fell down a curving stone staircase to her death before the beginning of her wedding banquet long ago. Legend has it that she also caught fire on one of the open torches that, at the time, burned alongside the staircase.
 
Hoping to find as many ghosts as possible, I prepared studiously, taking careful notes as I watched both the 1984 Ivan Reitman classic Ghostbusters and its only slightly more believable knockoff, "Ghost Hunters," a television series in which two paranormal investigators (and former Roto-Rooter plumbers) clamber around old buildings in the middle of the night with an almost ridiculous assortment of high-tech equipment. In my case, I was woefully unprepared for the task at hand, lacking any sort of ghost-seeking gadgetry, not even an electromagnetic-field meter. I also did not have access to any thermographic or night-vision cameras. (And where could I find some on such short notice?) I was, of course, completely empty-handed when it came to one-piece khaki jumpsuits and wearable Proton Packs. All I really had was the ability to walk around – and stay up very late.  

So I played to my strengths. Fortified by Bombay Sapphire gin, I emerged from the closeted confines of the Vice Regal a little after 1:30 a.m. to ask the night-shift clerk in the hotel's grand yet deserted lobby for the security guard. A buttoned-down young man named Aidan arrived. He was reluctant but soon relented and allowed me to accompany him on his rounds. "OK, you're welcome to come along, but I'm afraid I don't have much for you," he said, looking back over his shoulder with a crooked, slightly rueful smile. "I don't believe in ghosts."

But as Aidan led me with his flashlight through the many darkened ballrooms, back staircases and creepy closed-up rooms, he did have a few stories to tell. Some were fairly banal, like the time he and another experienced security guard spooked the new guy by hiding and bursting out of a closet. But then things got interesting.

"We do regular sweeps of all the guest room floors, and one night every time I passed the elevator it opened – but nobody got on or off," he remembered. "Was it Sam?" I asked. He wasn't convinced. "The guy works here for decades and what does he do after he dies? He comes back and works the elevators? No, I don't believe that." Harder to explain, though, was the reflection that looked like a ghostly child in the window of the hotel's organ room, which was captured in a cellphone photo taken by a fellow guard in the middle of the night.

It was a strange occurrence, much like the double doors of the Vice Regal suite swinging to a close before me on my final day at the hotel. As they clicked shut, I stopped in my tracks, bemused and slightly befuddled. And that's when the fire alarm sounded its high, shrieking sound. Then it all made sense: The doors were programmed to close as a fire-prevention measure. And so it was a double false alarm. No fire. No ghost.

But upon seeing those doors swing shut on their own accord, I recalled Aidan's best story, about the Waldhaus Restaurant, the very place where I had enjoyed a steak a couple of nights before. Down there, while doing a sweep at 3 a.m., he had observed a bar stool spinning around on its own. "I tried to figure out what else could have caused it, but I couldn't," he said. "Even I'll admit that's pretty unusual."

Certainly unusual. Definitely spooky. It's a ghost story worthy of retelling – something I decided to do many times after I left my luxurious temporary home, having experienced the haunting of The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

Trip Tips
Getting There: Banff is a 90-minute drive from Calgary International Airport, a hub for both Air Canada and WestJet.
Where to stay: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (fairmont.com/banff-springs) offers 768 guest rooms, 27 holes of golf (including the 18-hole Stanley Thompson course), therapy pools and a full menu of treatments at the Willow Stream Spa, tennis courts and a bowling alley.

Spooky Banff
The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel isn't the only ghostly place in town. Visit these other nearby supernatural sites (banfflakelouise.com).
Bankhead: This former coal mining centre boasted as many as 1,500 residents in the first two decades of the 20th century. Now abandoned, the remains of this former boomtown are featured at a Parks Canada interpretive centre.
Lake Minnewanka: Local First Nations people have long known and feared this mystical body of water, calling it "Minn-waki," meaning Lake of the Spirits.  
Cave and Basin National Historic Site: The birthplace of Canada's national park system, this natural hot spring, which sits in a cave, features creepy lantern-lit tours.

There's lots more fun things to do in Alberta, including experiencing some holiday cheer in the Rockies.
                                               
This story was originally titled "The Haunting of Banff Springs" in the October 2013 issue.
           
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