A Janitor, Five Shadows and a Morgue

By Thomas Allen

When I was asked by Urbanicity to write an article on haunted buildings in Hamilton I didn’t know what to think or what to write about, but I was excited. I’m no ghost hunter, but I’ve heard many stories and they’ve piqued my interest. There are lots of legends in this old city of ours. Stories of spectres and tales of haunted buildings become second nature with a history as deep as Hamilton’s. Many historic buildings throughout the city are said to be haunted. Familiar fixtures like Dundurn Castle, The Custom House, The Right House, The Winking Judge, Tivoli Theatre, The Scottish Rite, and many others. Possibly the most haunted building, however, is one that often gets overlooked: Dundas District School.

Completed in 1929, the historic Gothic Collegiate designed Dundas District School, sitting just at the bottom of the escarpment on King Street in Dundas. When it first opened its doors it was a high school, then became a middle school, and has since been converted into condominiums after closing its doors for good in 2007. The ghost tales at Dundas District vary, because there are so many. But the two most prevalent accounts always centre on a janitor named Russell and a morgue. Spooky.

The haunting of Russell all started with a pact between five custodians. The agreement? Whoever passed away first was to haunt the school. Russell, the practical joker of the bunch, was the one who lost. How fitting. There have been what seems to be thousands of eyewitness accounts of Russell, many by the caretakers who partook in the pact, as well as former students. Some of the sightings include hallways being mopped while a janitor was on break, lockers rattling at the end of hallways, jingling of keys, the squeaky wheels of his mop bucket, and a whistling melody echoing through the cold, eerie, corridors. Apparently the place Russell was spotted most was inside the shadowy, unnerving auditorium.

But that’s not the only haunting in the school. The other story is darker, more chilling. On Christmas Day of 1934, over 20 years earlier than the original janitor pact, two passenger trains collided on the railroad tracks just above the school. 18 people died in the crash and it’s rumoured the school was used as a makeshift morgue. Laughter, cries for help, and mischief were some of the games these spirits would play. A former caretaker recalled seeing five shadows while cleaning and when he went to move his mop, he couldn’t. One of the ghosts was holding it down, leaving him frozen and helpless until they vanished.

Another notable story involved former principal Peter Greenberg. Motion detector alarms went off late in the night and the police notified him in the morning about the incident. They said nothing had happened, but when the principal got to his office he heard “banging and clanging” upstairs. After calling the police, they went in to investigate. It was on the third floor, and they could hear kids, glasses breaking, and heavy footsteps in a classroom down the hall. When they opened the door not a thing was out of place and the noises stopped completely. Greenberg said he never believed any of the stories were true until that day.

The stories and urban legends of Dundas District don’t stop here. Just about everybody in this quaint, picturesque town has a story. They’ve seen Russell, and if they haven’t, their parents have or their friends have. One thing is for certain, even if you don’t believe in ghosts, it’s hard not to believe all the eyewitness accounts over the years. Especially in a school as old as District.

We can only wonder if the same spirits still wander the corridors in what is now a high-end loft. Does Russell clean their floors? Are there mysterious noises at night? Do strange shadows appear against the condo drywall? We may never know. Regardless, the stories of the janitor and the makeshift morgue continue to live on in the valley town. As they should.