Phantoms of Port Arthur

Phantoms of Port Arthur, the take of William Gehl | Alex Inspired

On the occasion of All Hallows’ Eve, an evening dedicated to remembering the faithfully departed, I have found my way to the 1800s to visit the Phantoms of Port Arthur. 

This starless story isn’t my usual saucy demeanour, however I think it’s important to know that sad things happen, and our Cities have seen many dark eerie days.

Long before Before Sleeping Giant Brewery, Dawson Trail, Doran’s and Northern Breweries, there was the Port Arthur Brewing Company of Prince Arthur’s Landing.

City Directory for Conrad Gehl of Gehl's Brewery at Prince Arthur's Landing | Alex Inspired

The Port Arthur Brewing Company at Prince Arthur’s Landing was founded in 1876 by Mr. Conrad Gehl, an immigrant from Bavaria. The Gehl Brewery was located between McVicar Creek and Harrington Court; it burned down in 1877 and was rebuilt, eventually becoming the Port Arthur Beverage Company and later on, Doran’s Brewing.

The Gehl Family rented  the home of 170 Algoma St. (Harrington Court) and ran the brewery next door. Oddly enough, my Dziadzio’s brother, John Franków owned this home from 1955 -1984, long before it became many a restaurant.

On March 31, 1877 Conrad Gehl’s brewery was seized, due to failure to obtain a licence from the Department of Internal Revenue. Eventually the disagreement ended with Gehl paying the $50.00 licensing fee, (which would roughly be around $1123.00 today) and he continued to run a successful business at the landing.

If Gehl had troubles before, they would soon escalate; due to a terrible accident that would forever change his business.

Cue the eerie darkness…

It’s been stated that Conrad’s son was a victim of a terrible accident within the brewery on November 25th, 1892. However, searches through Ancestry.ca lead me to believe it was his nephew.

On Wednesday November 25th, around 7:00 in the evening, William Gehl was attending to his duties in the brewery and tripped and fell into a vat of boiling water.  Yes, a vat of boiling water, the large vat was used for washing empty kegs.

Gehl extricated himself from the water where his co-workers responded to his cries. They found William severely burned, blinded and attempting to remove his clothing from his body, regrettably both skin and fabric were fused together. They rushed William to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he succumbed to his injuries after hours of anguish and intense suffering.

St. Joseph's Hospital - 1900, Port Arthur Ontario

Documents and newspaper articles detail Gehl’s wails of anguish haunting the hospital wings, resonating to the outside world; echoing from 8 p.m. onward to 3:00 a.m. where he: “lingered in great agony until relieved by death”.

William Gehl was only 45 years old when he died, here are the details from the death registration from Dr. Bathurst.

William Gehls Death Record - Dr. Bathurst Port Arthur Ontario | Alex Inspired

The proper treatment of burns was severely lacking in the 1800s. Doctors believed in wrapping the patient in blankets, and administering drops of laudanum (an alcoholic solution containing morphine, prepared from opium and formerly used as a narcotic painkiller) with an ounce of brandy. They prioritized numbing the patient and then addressing the state of the scald. Most patients died from shock and their injuries within 24 hours.

The common causes of burns in the 1800s included: scalds from cooking or industry; clothing catching fire and intoxication among those burned or asphyxiated.

No cases demand more urgently immediate and judicious treatment than burns, and yet perhaps in no cases are more ignorance and incompetence shown by too large a number of medical men. —Ashhurst 1862.

Chances of William having proper treatment and anaesthesia were low, considering the reports of his prolonged anguish.

William’s story is one of true horror in a small town; a sad and unfortunate accident. His story illustrates a period in our history where we can recognize our own fortune, not only in medical advancement, but in health and safety within the workplace and industry sector.

Don’t ignore the Phantoms of Port Arthur. Embrace them, recognize them and remember them.

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  • Reply Janice Gehl Rizzo August 11, 2017 at 11:55 pm

    Conrad Gehl was actually born in Prussia, a country that no longer exists.

    • Reply alex August 12, 2017 at 12:21 am

      Hey Janice! Thank you for the clarification, I’ll be sure to make the correction. Are you a relative of Conrad? I would love to know more.

  • Reply Janice Gehl Rizzo August 12, 2017 at 12:27 am

    Yes, Conrad, I believe was a cousin of my grandfather, John Gehl, who was chief engineer on the James Whalen. I have been trying to find a definite connection. I found this. http://generations.regionofwaterloo.ca/getperson.php?personID=I29962&tree=generations but can’t figure out the connection. Unfortunately, my dad and all of his brothers and sisters have died and there is no one to ask. I do have a picture of William, who looks exactly like my son. The resemblance is uncanny.

  • Reply Lynda Timbers August 16, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    Super interesting, Janice! Allison forwarded this to me, and it sure answers a lot! I remember Dad always telling the tale that his great-great grandfather drowned in a vat of beer at his PA Brewery. So I guess this is closer to the real story……. either way, such a sad story. Thanx for sharing all that you have, Janice. I am happy that someone has taken an interest in our family history. We sure have been Canadians for a very long time!! And Port Arthurians since ancient history!! I am anxious to see more of your research – fascinating!! Peace and Love! Your Oldest Cousin – Lynda Gehl Timbers-Sheppard.

  • Reply Janice Gehl Rizzo August 16, 2017 at 11:49 pm

    OMG – Lynda. It is so nice to hear from you. I’m slowly chipping away at the Gehl family. There are so many relatives and no one to ask for information any more. I hope all is well with you. Please keep in touch @ jmgehlrizzo@gmail.com.

  • Reply alex August 17, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    Aw Lynda and Janice, I’m so glad this story brought you both here! If either of you have photos you’d like to contribute, I would gladly add them to this post, along with any other information. You can email me at, alex@alexinspired.com or find me on Facebook!.

    Thanks so much for sharing your details. This is really exciting, what a fascinating family you have.

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