Where in Canada: The Curative Powers of the Sulphur Springs Trail

Inspired by a walk near the Sulphur Springs Trail near Ancaster, Ontario, Jeffrey Round set his newest murder mystery The Sulphur Springs Cure (Cormorant Books) in the fashionable Sulphur Springs Hotel, a health spa that burned down in 1910.

Jeffrey tells us about how the Sulphur Springs estate was the perfectly haunting setting for his novel: “The atmosphere changed starkly as overhead branches blotted out the sun.”

Read more about the fascinating history of the Sulphur Springs, below.


Share It:

Where in Canada

It was likely my recurring refrain of “I’m bored” that brought about the suggestion from my friend Shane McConnell that we go for an afternoon walk along the Sulphur Springs Trail in Dundas Valley, near Ancaster, Ontario. I had never heard of it, but I was intrigued by the name and quickly agreed. The book that resulted from that walk is The Sulphur Springs Cure, a mystery with a double time-line that begins with a murder in August, 1939, right before World War II, and ends with the solution to the crime seventy years later, in 2009. A little bit Miss Marple and a little bit The Thursday Murder Club, this book treads those same sulphurous grounds in the course of the story.

As my main character, 14-year old Violet McPherson, observes on her first sighting of it, “Dundas Valley was a marvel to behold. Lush greenery caught the eye and refused to let go. According to geological surveys made the previous century, the valley was formed by the gentle scouring of pre-glacial rivers. Then came the not so gentle ice, carving out the U-shaped basin even more thoroughly until it lay a full hundred meters below nearby Lake Ontario.”

My initial view of the valley was much the same: it felt soothing and quietly reassuring. Walking into the surrounding forest, however, I saw a darker side. As Violet notes, “As they wandered farther into the woods, layers of rotting evergreen needles made for slippery walking. The atmosphere changed starkly as overhead branches blotted out the sun. Here, the rocks were moss-covered and fungus grew from the trunks of the trees. From a mystical, elfin forest they suddenly found themselves in a land of trolls and gremlins. The overall effect was gloomy and threatening.”

As I learned from the on-site historical plaques, George Gordon Browne Leith (1812-1887) purchased the property for a family summer home. He built the fountain in 1850 and donated it to the town of Ancaster. Reports of the restorative properties of the sulphur water quickly spread. In 1855, John Bell published The Mineral and Thermal Springs of the United States and Canada. The book added to the site’s growing fame. (A first edition now sells for $250 USD online, while a 2016 hardcover reprint runs around $55 CAN.)

The cover of The Mineral and Thermal Springs of the United States and Canada by John Bell

The Sulphur Springs Hotel was built on the estate in the 1880s and operated as a health spa until it burned in 1910. The spa was highly fashionable, drawing many people who hoped to find relief or even a cure for such debilitating ailments as rheumatism, arthritis, and tuberculosis. In The Sulphur Springs Cure, Violet’s stay at the hotel is cut short by a murder she is inadvertently drawn into when curiosity leads her to meddle in the affairs of two people, an event she never really forgives herself for. It’s not until her return to the springs seventy years later, at the age of 84, that she finds the cure she is seeking: a solution to the murder.

The Sulphur Springs Hotel

As you approach along Sulphur Springs Rd., you may catch a faint whiff of the sulphur springs. Although the hotel is long gone, you can still find the pump that draws the sulphur water. Although it’s not recommended, some people drink the water, though it is said to have a terrible taste. The Browne Leith home also burned, in 1934. The last of George’s five children, Eleanor Alma, had it modestly rebuilt and lived on the estate until her death in 1942.

The Sulphur Springs pump

I recall my first glimpse of the Sulphur Springs estate, at a site known as The Hermitage, which is little more than ruins now. As I stood there on that day, surveying the ruins and later walking the hushed grounds, the place felt redolent with invisible voices and vanished history. What’s more, those voices seemed to be speaking to me. It was a powerful experience. And, fortunately, I was willing to listen. Not only was I cured of my boredom, I also came away with a terrific story to tell.

The Hermitage

Some places to note if you visit the trail:

The Hermitage Gatehouse Museum is at 621 Sulphur Springs Road.

The sulphur springs pump is at 820 Sulphur Springs Road.

An artesian well that supplies the area with water is at 1109 Sulphur Springs Road.

* * *

Jeffrey Round is an author, playwright, and filmmaker from Toronto. His previous books include the Dan Sharp Mysteries, the Bradford Fairfax Murder Mysteries, and the acclaimed war novel The Honey Locust.
He co-founded the Naked Heart Festival. Lake on the Mountain, the first Dan Sharp Mystery, won the Lambda Award for Best Gay Mystery and two other books in the series have been shortlisted for the prize. Jeffrey is currently at work on a feature film project.

* * *

Jeffrey’s book The Sulphur Springs Cure is available here on All Lit Up or at your favourite independent bookstore. For more Where in Canada, click here.