With Fatal Results


What is it about ghost stories that are so appealing? Autumn is the time of year to believe that spirits move among us. It is October. Blood moon, hunter moon, Samhain – the beginning of the darker half of the year. Time to slaughter livestock and wage war, when the crops are in and hands are idle and mischief is about. All Soul’s. 

The mists roll down from the Beaufort mountains – short days that are a pause before the long dormancy of winter: dewy spider webs at dawn, cool evenings, wind and rain and the dusty stuffiness the first time the furnace fires up. Imagine a gathering of friends outside, sitting at a safe distance around a campfire, telling ghost stories. 

This is mine.

There is a ghost at the Cumberland Museum. His presence (and it is definitely a he) predates the current museum building at 2680 Dunsmuir Avenue. It’s unusual for spirits to linger when a haunted house is torn down. The house at 2680 Dunsmuir Avenue was also haunted. The ghost in the museum has unfinished business that keeps him tied to this earthly realm. 

He is a mischievous spirit – playing havoc with the computer system, switching the power off and making the phone at the Custom’s desk ring – usually when staff are working alone later in the day or after dark. The disturbances always have something to do with electricity.

So who is this ghost?  Perhaps the ghost is George Wilt Clinton Jr., who died tragically in the first automobile fatality in the Comox Valley at 20 years of age in 1913. To understand why Wilt would haunt the museum and mess with the electricity we have to go back in time and find out more about Wilt’s family, specifically his father. 

George Wilt Clinton (Sr.). came to Union in 1888 from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, starting out as an overseer for the Chinese workers who built the Wellington Colliery railway. He quickly makes himself indispensable and assumes more responsibilities as paymaster, timekeeper, storekeeper and acting postmaster for the Union Colliery Company. 

George marries in 1891 and moves from above the colliery company office near Chinatown to a new house at 2680 Dunsmuir Avenue with his bride, probably in early 1893. The house itself is large with several rooms and a separate library befitting the rising status of Mr.Clinton. By 1896 the house is also the site of the U.S. Consulate in Cumberland – it is probable that James Dunsmuir uses his influence to have Clinton appointed US Consul. James’ brother Alex is in charge of exporting and marketing the Vancouver Island coal from an office in San Francisco, and having a consulate in Cumberland makes exporting to the U.S. much easier. 

In addition to all his other responsibilities, Clinton incorporates the Cumberland Electric Lighting Company (CELC) in 1902 as a private utility company with himself as president and managing director. 

In 1904 George married for the second time. It’s not clear when his first wife died but the marriage records indicate he is a widower, 42, marrying Jessie K. Shaw, 25. It is possible that Jessie is the housekeeper hired to look after George’s two young children after his unnamed first wife died: George Wilt Jr, called Wilt, and daughter Ruby, but the records aren’t complete. Life is hard on women in rough and ready coal mining towns – cholera, consumption (TB) and death in childbirth are common occurrences.  

George is a man typical of his time, traditional, strict and by the book. He leaves the raising of the children to his wife.  A prosperous, successful man like George needs a wife to represent him in the community. As a woman married to an important man, Jessie takes on a lot of ladies’ committee work at the church and in the community, as well as raising her stepchildren. 

Sadly, Jessie dies in 1909 after five short years of marriage, leaving the children motherless again. George remarries in 1912 to Amy Beatrice Chambers, principal of the Cumberland High School. It can’t have been easy for the children, especially Wilt, who, at 19, would consider himself an adult with no need for supervision by his new stepmother who isn’t that much older than he is. 

Wilt is only a few years out of high school himself, finding his place in Cumberland society as a well brought up young man about town. He is athletic and a good basketball player, playing centre in Island tournaments as well as being involved in other sports. He attends church every Sunday at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, (now the Community Church) but he is restless with no job, no direction and money to spend. His father’s success leaves him with little ambition. He belongs to the Cumberland and Courtenay Automobile Association and owns one of the first cars in Cumberland, “gadding about town” with the lads and young ladies.


Tragedy strikes. 

From the Cumberland News, June 18, 1913:

“With feelings of the greatest sorrow and regret we print the news of the sad and untimely demise of Mr. Wilt Clinton, only son of Mr. George Clinton, paymaster of the Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Limited, who met his death in a motor accident on the 17th inst., while driving his car from Union Bay to town. It appears that his motor swerved and struck a tree, passing over a large root, causing the car to capsize, with the result that the unfortunate young man was pinned beneath the wreckage with fatal results.”

“The unfortunate accident has removed from our midst one of the most energetic supports of the manly sports that we have ever had, and has also deprived us, as well as many others, of a beloved friend.”

In the original version of the ghost story, Wilt haunts his former home when new people move into the house. But new people don’t move into the house until after his stepmother dies in 1963, and there are reports of spectral activity long before that date.

Life goes on for the Clinton family after Wilt’s tragic death. Later in 1913 Clinton is appointed superintendent of Canadian Collieries (Dunsmuir) Limited as part of the restructuring after the Big Strike while remaining manager of Cumberland Electric and Light Company. He arranges the construction of the original ILO theatre in 1914 (the replacement building at this site is another structure in Cumberland with a resident ghost).  He retires from CCDL in 1917 but keeps occupied as the managing director of the Cumberland and Union Waterworks Co in 1921 and also the head of the Comox Creamery Association board. Clinton Sr. helps organize the Courtenay Electric Lighting Company as well continuing to be active in the community as a founding member of both the Hiram Lodge No.14 and Cumberland Lodge No.26. 

Wilt haunts the family home turning light switches on and off in the library. Anything to get his father to pay attention to him in death as he had not in life. 

George Wilt Clinton Sr dies in 1929 after residing in Cumberland for 41 years. His ghost calls the Tarbell’s building home and can be seen flitting about looking grumpy in a top hat and starched collar.

His widow Amy marries Thomas Dawson Layland in 1933. She becomes president of CELC and managing director of CUWWC retaining these positions until the late 1940s and living in the house until her death at 86 in 1963. 

Wilt and his stepmother Jessie are buried in the Cumberland cemetery. There are no records that I could find showing either a name or burial location for his birth mother or for George Wilt Clinton Senior. It is possible they are buried together elsewhere but local records don’t show any burial details for either. Wilt doesn’t have a headstone, nor are there any photos to show what he looked like in life, but there are many of his father in the museum photo collection.

There are other tragedies in this house but no other ghosts have been recorded.  When the Layland house is torn down to make way for the museum building and the Cultural Centre, the school bell from the old Cumberland High School is on display. Is this what grounds Wilt to this place? Or is it all fanciful imagination and faulty electric wiring in the building? 

Renovations are underway at the museum and the electrical system is being upgraded. Maybe we have seen the last of the ghost in Cumberland Museum. Only time will tell.