Old Ottawa Jail

It’s October, which is basically just 30 Day of Pre-Halloween shenanigans, so for this first blog post, I wanted to tell you guys the story of Ottawa’s most haunted over-night get away, the Old Ottawa Jail, which is now a hostel.

HI Ottawa Jail Hostel, 75 Nicholas St, Ottawa, ON

HI Ottawa Jail Hostel, 75 Nicholas St, Ottawa, ON

The Building and its History

Built over a period of two years, and opened in 1862, the Carleton County Gaol (as it was official known) was considered a “spacious, airy building” of it’s age.  The design was intended to deter crime while aslo reforming the prisoners that ended up spending time there.

 Probably the most famous resident (and executed prisoner) was Patrick Whelan, who was found guilty of the shooting death of then federal politician, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.  Hanged from the gallows on February 11, 1868, Whelan drew a crowd of 5,000 people to watch his death.  (Fun fact: the assassination in April 1868 remains Canada’s only murder of an elected official, and no one was ever able to definitively prove from Whelan targeted McGee because of that.)

 If asked to describe the cells in the building, you could only give one word: small.  Not only were accommodations tight, but they were also unsanitary, unheated, poorly lit and ventilated, and had no running water.  The cells themselves run along the inside of the building, meaning the hallway that connects them all is between the cell doors and the windows, and the cells back on to each other:


(Un-fun fact: the windows didn’t have glass in them.  Anyone that’s been to Ottawa knows our winter temperatures can did to a muggy -40 degrees with the wind-chill.  And that building was made of stone and the cell areas were un-heated.  Brrrrr…..)

As early at 1930, civic authories were calling for the jail’s closure due to the conditions, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that it happened.  In 1972, Ottawa city council decided to lease the property to the Ottawa Youth Hostel Committee, which still runs the property to this day.

Historic Double Cell

Historic Double Cell

Double Jail Cell

Double Jail Cell

The Ghosts

Given how terrible the conditions were and the number of deaths that occurred on site, is it any wonder that some of the occupants passed without passing on?  There have been stories for years of ghost activity in the building; tourists that won’t stay the whole night, levitating objects, slamming doors…

 I myself had a creepy encounter there one year.  I was on one of Ottawa’s popular haunted tour walks, and we were following our guide through the upper levels of the building, peaking in cells, scaring each other and generally getting creeped out.  At one point in the tour, I was looking at all of my group standing in front of me and was doing a head count (because I had organized the evening).  When my count tallied to the right number, I had a moment of dread, because if you had asked me, I would have sworn that someone was standing behind me.  (You know that feeling – you can almost hear a absence of ambient noise from a space and can sense eyes on the back of your head?  Yeah, it was that.)  I whipped around and, of course, there was no one where.  The feeling stayed with me though, until I got to the stairs and started heading down – it’s almost like whoever it was wasn’t allowed to leave.

 So, if you’re feeling brave, why not book a night at the hostel to see what’s what?  Rooms are usually about $50/night.  Or, if you’re not willing to commit, you can always take the haunted tour of Ottawa, which I highly recommend!

Happy Halloween!




HI Ottawa Jail Hostel (Where you can also find all the pics used in the story!)

Heritage Ottawa - Carleton County Gaol

Canadian Geographic - The Haunted Side of Ottawa

Haunted Walk - Ottawa Tours