It was a young dishwasher’s first night on the job. Late and alone, he scrubbed and scoured pots and pans in the restaurant’s dish pit.
Then he heard a sound. Startled, he looked up and saw a ghost-like spectre drift through the kitchen.
He bolted out of the building, one of the oldest and most fabled in Nova Scotia, never to return.
“He swore he saw something,” said Wallace Fraser, manager of the famed Five Fishermen Restaurant in downtown Halifax, a magnet for local foodies, tourists and ghost hunters.
“We say you can stay late, but never alone,” said Fraser.
The Five Fishermen has been a fixture of downtown Halifax’s dining scene since 1975, serving up fine seafood and the odd apparition.
Tables can be hard to come by, especially during oyster happy hour or in the summer months when locals and come-from-aways clamour for fresh mussels, tuna tartare or shellfish tagliatelle.
But decades after opening, the eatery needed repairs. Its dark wood, brass and ornate glass needed freshening, its plumbing and electrical systems updating.
The Little Fish Oyster Bar, as the refurbished first floor is now called, offers a similar cuisine to the stately upstairs restaurant but with more sharing options and quick nibbles.
The second-floor restaurant, still under renovation, is slated to open in the coming weeks.
The main concern of regulars, however, isn’t the progress of repairs.
It’s the disturbance of ethereal beings.
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have asked whether we’ve upset the ghosts during the renovations,” said Fraser, a ruddy-cheeked man with a grey moustache and warm smile. “They want to know if we’ve destroyed any of the ghosts’ favourite locations.”
A ghoulish history
The history of the Argyle Street building could make your blood run cold. Or, in Fraser’s words, it is “more fun than a barrel of monkeys.”
In the early 1800s, the parishioners of St. Paul’s Anglican Church decided the booming colonial town needed a school. The National School, the first free public school in Canada, opened in 1818 to boys and girls with a focus on educating the poor in religion and moral duties.
The school soon outgrew the four-floor building in the heart of the city and moved to Dalhousie College.
The Argyle Street building was taken over by writer and educator Anna Leonowens of “The King and I” fame, who started an art school.
The Victoria School of Art and Design, a precursor to the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, boasted eminent teachers including Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer.
It’s in the early 20th century that the building’s plot thickens.
WATCH: Halifax ghost stories
Snow & Company Undertaker, the city’s first mortuary, moved into the clapboard-and-stone building after the art school relocated.
The company, which would go on to become J.A. Snow Funeral Home and survive to this day, played a critical role in two disasters.
The first, on April 15, 1912, was the sinking of the Titanic 640 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland.
Rescue operations took place out of Halifax, the nearest mainland port. John Snow boarded the cable repair ship Mackay-Bennett, taking with him 125 coffins, embalming fluid and iron to weigh down bodies buried at sea. The wealthier victims were brought back to the mortuary on Argyle Street.
The second disaster was the Halifax explosion on Dec. 6, 1917.
The windows of the Argyle Street building shattered in the blast, but the funeral parlour remained open.
Snow & Company conducted funeral services for roughly 2,000 victims at a rate of 30 to 40 a day.
“There were caskets stacked up outside the building like cord wood, it was after those disasters that the stories of ghosts and hauntings started,” Fraser said.
The restaurant’s many eerie encounters have attracted paranormal investigators and ghost hunters from far and wide.
“Things happen in this building,” Fraser said. “I’ve not only heard stories. I’ve been witness to some of the strange things that happen here.”
A ghost tale
After one busy night at the restaurant, Fraser was alone in the upstairs offices.
“It was sometime after 2 a.m. and there was a sort of knocking on a repetitive basis but out of sync,” he said. “I searched for it but couldn’t find the source.”
While most of the ghostly encounters have happened with staff, patrons have experienced the paranormal as well.
“The story that really tickled me is when we had a family of 10 from Manitoba,” Fraser said. “They didn’t seem to know anything about the history of our building.”
On her way downstairs from the third-floor washroom, a girl aged about 12 described seeing a young female draped in clothing and drifting over the staircase.
“She ran to her mother, and the mother called over the waitress, who brought me over,” he said. “I listened to the story, and the girl described quite accurately a ghost that others have seen.
“We have a long chain of hauntings and stories,” Fraser added.
“This was a funeral home during two horrendous events — the Halifax explosion and the Titanic. I suppose maybe there are spirits still here.”