Standing prominently on the bluff above Twelve Mile Creek, this once prestigious family home is the subject of much local folklore and myth.
On this special Halloween episode of History from Here, Sara takes a look at the spooky stories, myths, and history of Oak Hill.
Constructed in 1860 for the Honourable William Hamilton Merritt and his family, Oak Hill was built to replace the family’s previous home on the property that had been destroyed by a suspicious fire. The residence, of Italianate design, was one of many elegant homes built in the Yates Street neighbourhood in the latter half of the nineteenth century, as the business and mill owners who set-up their industries on the banks of the Welland Canal below chose to reside close-by. The home was built to overlook these banks along Twelve Mile Creek, a tangible testament to Merritt’s significant role in promoting the Welland Canal.
With its gabled roof, round-headed windows, and now quintessential white-stucco exterior, Oak Hill stood out against a “beautiful esplanade” of terraced gardens that meandered down to the banks of the canal. The gardens were cared for at a cost of several thousand dollars at the time. The land was donated to the city in 1923 and the original stone fence and terrace walls still stand, along with the original gate posts and brick coach house along Yates Street.
During renovations in 1967, a series of tunnels were uncovered that connected the house to the old canal below. With little historical record available explain what these tunnels were used for, myth quickly took hold. One myth claims the tunnels were used to transport freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad. Another alleges rumrunners use the tunnels to sneak illegal alcohol from boats on the canal into the building during Prohibition. Neither myth is substantiated with evidence. More recent suggestions are that the tunnels were a way to transport legal goods and materials from ships to the residence or they were used for drainage and sewage services. No one knows for certain.
Other folklore surrounding Oak Hill is rooted in hauntings and ghost stories. In 1916, Catharine Welland Merritt, granddaughter to William Hamilton Merritt, who had inherited the family home, loaned Oak Hill to the Canadian Military Hospital Commission to be used as a convalescence home for wounded returning soldiers of the First World War. The building served in this capacity until about 1920. Oak Hill remained in the Merritt family until 1928, when it was sold and later became an inn. In 1938, it was again sold, but this time to be retrofitted for radio broadcasting and became the home of CKTB Radio Station.
With such a storied past, unexplained events reported in the building over the years have become entwined with myths of hauntings – reports of doors opening and closing on their own, the smell of tobacco on the third floor, unexplained cold spots, orbs appearing in photographs, and even radio equipment picking up odd noises during on-air broadcasts.
While there is no factual, objective evidence to any of these claims, such stories are telling of the years of family and community life which the home has hosted, along with the energies left by those who frequented its rooms and hallways.