Haunting of Scarborough’s Old Finch Avenue Bridge

You are driving through a sleepy Scarborough suburb on the eastern edge of the urban sprawl. Not too far from the Toronto Zoo, you’re leaving the residential houses behind and coming upon a deep and dark forest. The views around you have completely changed: suddenly the glass and concrete are gone, now replaced by dense trees and brush. The road is narrowing, the traffic congestion quieting, the air becoming still. The trees hug the shoulders of the road and create an impenetrable canopy where only hints of moonlight shine through. The lone streetlight illuminates a contemporary traffic light as it finally comes into view: an old one-lane bridge spanning the Rouge River.

For over 50 years, the Old Finch Avenue Bridge and the surrounding area have been the site of countless urban legends. Like most spooky stories, they’ve been passed between generations of terrified thrill-seekers, often teenagers looking for a scare. Each teller adds their own flare, which blurs the boundary between potential paranormal experiences and over-embellished legends. But as the stories continue to spread, more people are drawn to the forested bridge, often in hopes of encountering something creepy for themselves.

The Bailey Bridge is Born

The Toronto area was hit by the fierce Hurricane Hazel in 1954. The catastrophic storm produced devastating floods along the many tributaries of Lake Ontario, including the Rouge River in Scarborough. The rising waters devastated many communities in the greater Toronto area that were unprepared for a storm of such magnitude. Rushing waters combined with intense winds and the storm washed out many bridges, including the ones connecting Scarborough to communities to the east. With so many destroyed and damaged bridges cutting off supplies and isolating people trying to rebuild, the community had to act fast. The 2nd Field Engineer Regiment of the Canadian Military Engineers were brought in to build a bridge as quickly as possible. This branch of the service had considerable experience constructing “Bailey bridges” during the Second World War. This type of portable prefabricated truss bridge could be built in a matter of days using readily available materials. Indeed, it took the Regiment only three working days to complete the new bridge over the Rouge River. Scarborough was connected to its eastern neighbours once again and the communities could start to rebuild following Hurricane Hazel. The bridge became a point of pride for the community and a symbol of their resilience. But it wouldn’t be long before the Old Finch Avenue bridge became known for something much more sinister.

Sing “Happy Birthday” and Listen…

The most common legend about the Old Finch Avenue bridge involves the disembodied screams of a young girl. The story goes, as you walk over the bridge at night, you may be greeted by shrill screams from beyond. There are variations to the legend, which each providing different suggestions about how you can prompt the noises. Some say you simply need to be passing over the bridge at the right time of night, just as the sky is darkest. Others suggest that you should go to the centre of the bridge and start singing the song “Happy Birthday”. A few people have even remarked that you should yell “Happy Birthday Candy” out into the darkness. However you choose to conjure up the potential spirit, the results are often the same: a high pitched and blood-curdling shriek.

There is no consensus on who is making this ghostly sound. The legend purports that a young girl was murdered on the bridge while going to or returning home from her own birthday party. Some people have suggested names and graffiti in the surrounding area gives clues to her identity, but there appears to be no historical murder definitively linked to this spot.

Still, many people who find themselves on the Old Finch Avenue bridge hear the distinct and terrifying sound of screaming from beyond. But their experiences don’t stop there. Pedestrians gathering up the strength to venture onto the bridge have often heard footsteps following them. When they slow or stop their pace, the footsteps continue. Others have reported car troubles, with some vehicles breaking down right before rolling onto the bridge. While the exact origins of the Old Finch Avenue bridge story may be murky, paranormal experiences are plentiful.

Trekking out to the Train Tracks

While thrill-seekers are out listening for the disembodied screams of a young girl on or near the bridge, they often travel a bit further to the nearby railroad tracks where another legend surrounds the forested stretch of land on Scarborough’s eastern boundary. Some drivers have rolled onto the railroad crossing, stop their cars, shut off the engine and wait. After a while, a gentle force is said to push cars off the tracks to safety.

According to some, there was a tragic school bus accident on the tracks in the 1970s and the ghosts of the victims now protect people from further incidents. As with the murdered girl on the bridge, there is no single historic story linked to this legend. There are railroad tracks just north of Old Finch Avenue, but no evidence of serious incidents on that particular stretch. However, plenty of terrified people have reported strange things around the railroad tracks and surrounding forest east of Scarborough. White orbs are sometimes seen floating through the sky and unexplained car stalls frequently occur in this area.

This particular legend sounds a lot like a very famous ghost story from San Antonio, Texas. In that story, a school bus was apparently hit by a train in the 1930s and the ghostly figures of the victims are frequently seen on the tracks. In some versions of the story, they are watchful protectors, while in other tellings they lure more victims to their death. It’s possible that the popularity of that story and the urban legends surrounding it inspired people in Toronto to explain strange incidents on this stretch of roadway.

The Groans at the Hillside Church

Just a two-minute drive from the bridge, an old white building sits on the corner of Old Finch Avenue and Reesor Road. One of the oldest buildings in the community, the former Methodist Church built in 1877 is a local landmark. The old cemetery surrounding the church contains the remains of many community founders and names that are familiar in the history of Scarborough. But the graveyard and the church might house something else. Over the years, many people have reported hearing strange sounds coming from the grounds late at night. These have been described as moaning or groaning noises. It’s not immediately clear if it’s a human sound, but unsuspecting visitors are often very surprised. The stories of hearing these sounds and seeing unexplained lights hovering around the graves has prompted paranormal seekers to check out the location after dark. Many have attempted to explain away the strange sounds by pointing out the proximity to the Toronto Zoo. During the day, with cars and urban sounds whizzing by, it can be difficult to hear the animals. But once darkness falls and everything stills, sounds carry further. However, people who have heard these groans insist that the sounds are closer than the zoo property across and down the street. The moans and groans are so loud, they appear to be coming from just over their shoulder.

“Urban” Legends?

Many communities have their own urban legends, often involving deserted stretches of roadways. Although sometimes intended to encourage people to stay away from certain locations, these stories often have the opposite effect and draw people in. The area around Old Finch Avenue in eastern Scarborough is rife with these types of urban legends, but along with the sensational stories there are people who have had terrifying experiences.

Perhaps it’s this rather unique area of Toronto that has so many people drawn to the spooky stories. As you drive along Old Finch Avenue, you are suddenly transported from a modern suburban neighbourhood filled with contemporary amenities, to a dark and dense forest that looks to be straight out of a ghost story. For urban dwellers, perhaps it’s the sudden shift to untamed nature that amplifies some of these strange tales. Or, maybe paranormal activity is drawn to this particular location and people have simply searched for stories to explain their unexpected encounters.

Whatever the reason for the focus on Old Finch Avenue, this place remains the centre of urban legends in Toronto and it will continue to attract curious onlookers who want to experience something for themselves.

Written by:

Brittney Anne Bos, PhD
Haunted Walk Tour Guide & Host