Nighttime at Fort Normandeau is spooky at the best of times.
Organizers say that’s why the mist-shrouded site was chosen for this year’s Fright Night and the Festival of Fright — Halloween events designed to provide a scary scavenger hunt and some jump scares from a costumed array of ‘supernatural’ creatures.
But in 1899, the nerves of homesteaders around Fort Normandeau were legitimately frayed by a real-life vanishing that happened directly across the Red Deer River from the fort.
Historian Michael Dawe recounted that young teacher, Maud Waldbrooke, had been working as a matron at Red Deer’s notorious Indian Industrial School.
One morning, Maud had begged off of going to church — and was never seen again.
“She said she wasn’t feeling well,” said Dawe. But when her colleagues returned to check on her, she was not found resting in bed, or anywhere else.
People at first speculated that Maud had run away from the school. Dawe acknowledged she would have had good reason.
The church-run facility that was forcibly taking in Indigenous students from as far away as Manitoba and the Northwest Territories had poor nutrition and sanitation programs. By the early 1900s, the Red Deer school had the highest student fatality rate of all residential schools in Canada.
One in five students succumbed to various illnesses before the building was finally shuttered in 1919. According to historic accounts, at least 70 of about 350 Indigenous children and youths died in the 26 years the school operated. The final number could be determined by a recent ground-penetrating radar survey of its unmarked graveyard.
The school had been running for six years by the time Maud disappeared. An extensive ground search was done, but failed to locate her.
Dawe said authorities even dragged the Red Deer River, to no avail. She had seemingly vanished without a trace.
Dawe spoke to Maud’s family members some years ago, who confirmed the young woman was never found.
He feels the oddest thing about Maud’s disappearance was it was preceded by a month of unexplained happenings in and around the school.
First the horse stable had gone up in flames, due to an arson, said Dawe. Then the school’s night-watchman heard a trespasser in the woods, who fired at him. The watchman shot back and was sure he’d hit someone, but no body or no sign of blood was ever found.
Once, during a routine barn search, “a man came bolting out the door, but they never did catch him,” said Dawe.
Maud’s eerie vanishing was just one of the tragic incidents along the Red Deer River at the turn of the last century.
In 1904, Cottle Colwell, a Boer War veteran from New Brunswick, had helped float a raft of wooden shingles down the Red Deer River during a high-water spring. While he briefly stepped off on an island, the raft was swept downstream with two of his co-workers still on it.
Colwell ended up stranded on Wenman’s Island, in the middle of the Red Deer River just upstream from the Canyon Ski Area.
The two men who had been on the raft with Colwell must have assumed he would swim the 30-metres to shore. They did not go back to rescue him, said Dawe.
Their folly came to gruesome light next spring when a dog turned up — with a human leg bone and shoe in his mouth. People concluded that Colwell never knew how to swim and had starved to death on the island.
Dawe said some people still believe Wenman’s Island is haunted by Colwell’s ghost. “On dark nights, some people say they have heard cries, calling for help.”
Other sites around Red Deer that are said to be haunted are Cronquist House at Bower Ponds, the former Park Hotel (now home of the John Howard Society on Ross Street) and a certain Riverside Meadows house that made it into a book about Alberta hauntings.
Former residents of the home described finding a layer of ash under the basement foundations, and repeatedly seeing what resembled blue flames flickering across the ceiling.