One of the oldest buildings in Cambridge Ontario, the Preston Springs Gardens Hotel was once the very idea of opulence for many important and even aristocratic Canadians. Just after the turn of the century this historic and regal hotel was a drawing point for some of Canada’s richest and most famous high-lifers. They would come in droves to experience the sulphur spring baths offered by the hotel as a healing spa service, possibly the first spa of its kind. The Sulphur Springs Gardens, given its name for the immense sulphur water spring flowing beneath it, boasted lush gardens and lavish accommodations with a world class dining lounge. They offered both indoor and outdoor sitz baths with full service attendants, five floors and 130 rooms, a beautifully elaborate elevator and ornate carpentry; it really was the epitome of luxury in its day.
In approximately 1940 the hotel closed its doors, unable to keep up with the ever growing demands of the fine hotel industry. As general medicine advanced and a new understanding of health practices became known, the vast majority of the patrons shied away from the so-called healing properties of the sulphur baths, leaving ownership with a grand but empty hotel.
Several years later the property was renovated into a retirement villa, maintaining much of the luxury of the old hotel. It was updated to meet more modern codes of operation and enjoyed many years of success, until finally the expense of running such an antiquated building became prohibitive and the doors were once again closed.
Since that final failure of business the hotel has sat empty, brooding and waiting for an influx of new energy. Several times the property was purchased by eager and industrious developers with grand plans to either restore the building to its former glory or to reinvent its hallowed walls and sweeping stairways. Each and every attempt to renovate this property has since failed, and not through a lack of effort, financial fortitude or vision. Each renovation had been met with perilous accidents, unexplained technical issues and insurmountable personnel problems.
I was given opportunity to experience the mood of this neglected and overrun establishment over more than two years as the general caretaker during a period of complete vacancy. I was tasked with security, minor maintenance and just an overall responsibility for the property. Living on the grounds in a small service residence located just next to the massive hotel, I had sole access to the building and took it upon myself to patrol the grounds at least once a day.
That patrol normally took me through the bowels of the old building and on a casual room-by-room search to check for trespassers, damage and just generally have a look around. Since I had taken over, my wife and I had experienced several strange and unexplained events both inside and outside the hotel. These experiences were largely undefined but I still held an uneasy hesitation for certain areas of the building. At first I chalked it up to a typical fear of the unknown, of dark and dingy old basements with huge boilers and piles of refuse hiding who-knows-what, but soon came to realize there was a little more to it.
Each area of the hotel engendered a different feeling…trepidation, loneliness, anger and fear. Walking about the hallways and service corridors, exploring through rooms and climbing the three main stairwells, I would experience both an urge to run screaming from the building and a need to press on. It became clear to me that I was not alone on my patrols, though I was not accompanied by another living soul.
On the few occasions that I needed to enter the hotel after dark, I walked quickly and armed with a heavy flashlight. Most of the buildings power had been turned off due to the risk of fire and only the lower service areas had any working lights, so a night time incursion had me wandering the pitch black hotel with my eyes wide and my breath as shallow as I could make it.
Despite the lack of power, I would regularly field complaints and comments from neighbours and friends about the upper floor lights being on during the night. Many people remarked about my standing in the windows, looking out over the busy street below. To which I would have to reveal that I rarely enter the building at night, certainly not if I can avoid it.
Stories began to spread about the hotel, adding to rumours and urban legends about the old property and soon teenagers and sightseers would be found breaking in for a look around. The damage they caused was my responsibility to fix, which in turn demanded that I spend more and more time inside the building, boarding broken windows, securing doors and removing graffiti. As time went on I became more comfortable with the hotel during daylight hours, spending hour upon hour working away. I soon forgot the feeling of being watched and no longer hesitated to walk into the areas that had previously held fear for me.
Nearing the end of my term as caretaker on one particularly dark evening, I returned home from a dinner out and noticed lights in the windows on the fourth floor. This floor boasted the largest suites, and was generally in good condition, except for the deliberate lack of electricity. My first thought was of trespassing kids with flashlights, vandalising and destroying the rooms, and without a thought to what else it could be, I quickly stormed into the back entrance of the building. As I climbed the rear stairs I stepped quietly and turned off my own light, hoping to catch whoever was there by surprise, intending to scare them badly and teach them a lesson.
Now struggling to control my breath from the climb and excitement, I rounded the landing below the fourth floor service area and wasn’t surprised to be in pitch blackness. I listened intently in the dark for hushed whispers and muffled footsteps on the lush carpet. The hairs on my neck stood tall as adrenaline rushed through my head, and all I could hear was my own heartbeat echoing in my ears as slowly I stepped into the hallway.
The building was silent and my ears rang with the struggle to hear whatever might be waiting for me. I walked carefully, my hand touching the familiar wall of the hallway as a guide in the darkness and I held my heavy steel flashlight tightly as a weapon in the other. Stealthily, I searched the floor, checking every room as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, all the while feeling that someone was watching my every move. My excitement began to dwindle as I completed my search of the fourth floor; several doors were now opened that had been securely shut earlier that day, and in my mind this was evidence that trespassers had heard my steps up the stairs and quickly fled by one of the other stairwells.
Shaking my head with frustration I made my way down the main stair, a huge and wide presentation stairway adorned with dark carved wood railings and lush red carpet from top to bottom. My irritation with whatever teenagers had ruined an otherwise nice evening distracted me from the growing feeling of being watched, and as I stepped down from the final landing above the ground floor lobby, I was snapped back from thoughts of retribution by the flickering of light on the large empty landing behind me. Startled in mid step I wanted to turn and face the light but I was frozen with fear, and as I struggled with my synapses I felt two hands press firmly on my back and shove me down the stairs with shocking force.
Being a young man and in fair shape, I fell and rolled to the bottom of the stair with little injury and came to rest on my back, facing the stairs and looking for the culprit. I was ready to dish out my own justice for such an unwarranted attack, but in the dim light of the street lamps as they shone through the picture windows of the lobby I was horrified to see the hollow image of an old man standing at the top step, grinning with a look of sick satisfaction on his face. I struggled to see clearly and swore out loud at the realisation that I could still see the back wall of the stairwell through his torso.
I don’t know how long I laid there in the darkness, staring at my ghostly attacker, but in memory it seems like forever. I didn’t try to move or get up. I didn’t think; I couldn’t think. I just laid there, sprawled on the lobby floor with my mouth hanging open and watched as this apparition turned and walked back up the stairs.
A few minutes passed by before I gathered enough of my wits to pick myself up off the floor and get out of the building as fast as I could. I didn’t mention it to my wife, but she knew something was wrong by the paleness of my face and the look in my eyes as I sat at our kitchen table. The next morning I called for a friend to help me do a sweep of the building, to look for damage or signs of trespassers. I didn’t mention my experience to him either, out of a fear of mockery, and tried to act as casual as possible when I found my flashlight lying at the foot of the stairs, next to the huge oak attendant’s station. We found no signs of break in, no vandalism and still no electricity on the fourth floor. On our way down the main stair well, I tensed as we rounded the railing of the bottom landing and realised with silent shock that the stairwell used to be lit from high above by a huge crystal chandelier, which was sold at auction many years ago…there never was a light fixture on that landing.
From that night forward, I never again went into the hotel at night and unless unavoidable I never went in alone. Three months later my wife and I gladly moved from the grounds as I took a factory job in another city. Since my time at the old Sulphur Springs Hotel another developer has tried his hand at renovating the landmark, only to have the job stall when a worker had an unfortunate accident on the main lobby stairway.