Bala Bay Inn: A Haunted Past and a Bright Future
October 17, 2017
It may or may not be haunted but the ‘Ghost Dining Room’ and Lux Lounge offer guests a warm and comfortable oasis for relaxing at dinner or over a drink at the Bala Bay Inn. Located on Muskoka Road 169 across the road from the lake, this inn has been serving guests for more than 100 years.
Originally named the Swastika Hotel by the builder E.B. Sutton, it was the first all-brick hotel in the Muskoka district. Perhaps Sutton wanted to assure his guests that the Swastika would be a safer hotel than many of the other lodges, inns and resorts in the area that had been ravaged by fire. Sutton’s own first foray into the hostelry business was Camp Sutton on Lake Muskoka. He operated the camp very successfully for 15 years before it burned to the ground in 1897. After the fire, Sutton had to start over again.
So Sutton’s dream — the Swastika Hotel — opened June 17, 1910 with an all-night ball that included dancing, orchestras and food. But not a drop of alcohol was served. At dawn the next morning the party goers gave a rousing cheer for Sutton’s new hotel as the sun rose over the lake.
The name for the hotel came down through history likely from the ancient Sanskrit and means “good luck” or “good fortune,” and that is exactly what the hotel had. It opened during the heyday of luxury tourist travel to the region, attracting wealthy Americans and the well heeled from Toronto to enjoy the wonders of the Muskoka lakes. By 1916 the hotel was accommodating up to 100 guests at a time.
According to Jack Hutton, journalist and curator of the Bala Museum, there is a story from many years ago that tells of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signing the guest registry at the hotel in late summer, 1914. The story suggests that a German count, a senior leader of the German government and possibly a couple from Argentina and a secretive woman from France were there at the same time.
There is apparently no official U.S. record of the President being in Canada at the time. With the onset of World War I, was there another purpose for the President to be at the hotel? And did he actually have a clandestine meeting with the German government at the hotel? Is this the stuff of a spy story, or a mystery novel? Perhaps! But it is all part of the history of this small inn at Bala.
Sutton died in 1917. The day after he died his daughter-in-law Lillian and her friends heard three loud knocks on the door to the hotel, but no one was there. Just weeks before, Lillian had tried to comfort Sutton about passing through to the “other side” and seeing his wife again. They agreed that whoever passed first would give three knocks to let the other know they had made it through. Perhaps E.B. Sutton was fulfilling that promise.
With the rise of National Socialism in Hitler’s Germany during the 1930s and the adoption of the Swastika as the symbol for his intolerant government, the name of the hotel in Bala no longer seemed appropriate and was changed to Sutton Manor. The Swastika emblems that adorned the brick hotel were covered up.
Subsequently, the hotel went through a number of name changes and a series of owners over the intervening years. It was called Bala Bay Inn; Bala Bay Lodge; Cranberry Inn; and, most recently again, Bala Bay Inn.
The current owner, Kim Ward, acquired the property in 2006. For her it is a labor of love and being in the hotel business has long been in her blood. She grew up helping her parents run a family resort in Haliburton. And when she had an opportunity to buy the old hotel in Bala, she couldn’t resist.
“It has good bones! And it is a beautiful old building,” says Ward. “But it was in worse shape than we thought. It had not been well cared for over many years and when we took it on; it required a lot more repairs and cost a lot more money than we had planned.”
The building did not have a historical designation and when Ward decided to purchase it, some people in the community thought the old hotel should have been razed and bulldozed instead of refurbished. Ward calls the hotel a one-of-a-kind gem, but she does admit that it has been a huge financial drain to get it into shape again.
Today, the Inn operates during the summer months and has become a mecca for young people visiting Muskoka. And it is a wedding destination on many weekends during the peak summer period. Ward says that for the past four years there has been a wedding at the Inn nearly every summer weekend.
“It has always been a party hotel,” notes Ward. “Our Inn offers an affordable place for young people to stay when they come to Muskoka. Many other resorts are not in the price range for a younger crowd, so we want to attract that demographic and they a target market for. But we also offer good comfort food at a reasonable price, and many of our local neighbors have responded by supporting the Ghost Dining Room at the Inn.”
But what about the ghosts? And is old man Sutton still haunting the place? Apparently mediums regularly visit the old hotel and according to Ward, they frequently experience a lot of paranormal activity. Ward has never seen a ghost, but she did go looking for E.B. Sutton.
“I did sleep at the Inn all alone one spring night just after we bought the place,” says Ward. “I wanted to see if old E.B. Sutton would show. There were no lights on anywhere in Bala that night because of a storm. I was definitely a little nervous about being alone in the hotel waiting for Sutton. But he didn’t show.”
“There is lots of good energy at the hotel now. We have 34 rooms that we have decorated in a funky South Beach style. I know that if Sutton did come back, he would be thrilled with the renovations we have made to the Inn. We have lots of music here and we have restored a lot of the building. I know he would like what we have done.”
— Ray Windsor, Archives Volunteer