Ghost of Ferguson’s Falls

James (Jimmy) Phelan (pronounced Whelan)

Who is the Ghost

of Ferguson’s Falls?

The old-timers said that her name was Mary, a good Catholic girl, from Ferguson’s Falls, who lived just down the hill from the church; but there’s no one left around anymore who knew her. They say she died at home, alone in her bed, a photo of Jimmy clutched in her hands. She never married, although there was always an abundance of interested young lads eager to spend time with tall willowy Mary, a porcelain-pale beauty, with flowing red hair, and the face of an angel.

Mary’s fate, you see, was sealed, the night she heard that her Jimmy was gone forever, drowned in the cold autumn waters of the Mississippi River. Her handsome young log-driver, killed in a log jam. Jimmy was her one true love, and she never got over his death, and couldn’t accept the fact that they’d never be together again.

Gates of Glass

It wasn’t long after Jimmy’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Church, that Mary began to walk along the banks of the river, sometimes in broad daylight, but mostly at night. Some say she was hoping to meet up with him again, and that she believed in the old Irish legends of the ‘gates of glass’. It was one of the beliefs brought from the old country – when the river was still and smooth, that spirits could pass between the two worlds, from our world to the world beyond, and back again. It was believed that the water became a portal, and the Irish called it the gates of glass.

Ferguson’s Falls, autumn, along the river

Mary’s walks along the river went on for many years. They say she was quite a sight at times, in her long flowing dressing gown, often late in the evening, to avoid the questions and the prying eyes, searching for a quiet place where the water was still, hoping to open the gates of glass and reunite with her beloved.

A Letter from

Christopher Forbes

From a letter written in 1923, by Mr. Christopher Forbes, of Perth, Ontario:

“The Phelan family live in this district.  The name is pronounced ‘Whalen’, locally.  James’ brother, Thomas, whom I knew intimately, died a few years ago.  Regarding the James Phalen tragedy, John Smith of Lanark Village, an old timer and singer of the ‘come all ye’ type, wrote the words which I now enclose.  He sings the Jim Whalen song with much pathos, and with that peculiar dropping off of the last word from a singing tone to a speaking voice.  This style of finishing a song is used by sailors and shanty-men.

I was fortunate in meeting an old shanty foreman, Peter McIlquham, well known on the Mississippi River for over half a century, who told me he was present at Jim Whelan’s death.

It happened 45 years ago (1878), at King’s Chute, on the Mississippi River.  Whalen was a river-man under ‘Old Quebec’, a French-Canadian, whose real name was Edward Leblanc.  McIlquham was also a foreman on the river at this time.  Both rafts of longs had come out of Crotch Lake by the river-men.  McIlquham came to assist Old Quebec putting over King’s Chute.  A dangerous and difficult jam formed in the Chute.  ‘Old Quebec’, McIlquham, and Phalen were close together when the jam shifted, and precipitated Phalen into the water.”

May 26, 1876, p. 3, “The Perth Courier”

Gravestone of Jimmy Phelan, and his parents, James Phelan, and Margaret O’Brien Phelan, St. Patrick’s Cemetery, Ferguson’s Falls

The sign as you enter the village

St. Patrick’s Church and cemetery, Ferguson’s Falls, Ontario

The Ballad

of Jimmy Whelan

September 20, 1962, p. 8, “The Perth Courier”


Jimmy Whelan

Like the tale itself, there are two different authors given credit for writing the song – Tim Doyle, of Drummond Township, and John Smith, of Lanark. There was also more than one ballad composed, and the latter, “Lost Jimmy Whelan”, was written about his beautiful young lover, as she wanders beside the Mississippi River, at night, searching for Jimmy.

Lost Jimmy Whelan

All alone as I strayed by the banks of the river,
Watching the moonbeams as evening drew nigh,
All alone as I rambled, I spied a fair damsel
Weeping and wailing with many a sigh.

Weeping for one who is now lying lowly,
Mourning for one who no mortal can save.
As the foaming dark water flow gently about him,
Onward they speed over young Jimmy’s grave.

She cries, “Oh, my darling, please come to me quickly,
And give me fond kisses that oft-times you gave.
You promised to meet me this evening, my darling,
So now, lovely Jimmy, arise from your grave.”

Slowly he rose from the dark, stormy waters,
A vision of beauty more fair than the sun,
Saying “I have returned from the regions of glory
To be in your dear loving arms once again.”

“Oh, Jimmy, why can’t you tarry here with me,
Not leave me alone, so distracted in pain.”
“Since death is the dagger that’s cut us asunder,
Wide is the gulf, love, between you and I.”

“One fond embrace, love, and then I must leave you;
One loving farewell, and then we must part.”
Cold were the arms that encircled about her;
Cold was the body she pressed to her heart.

Slowly he rose from the banks of the river,
Up to the heavens he then seemed to go
Leaving this fair maiden, weeping and mourning,
Alone on the banks of the river below.

Although she’s been gone for many decades, some say they still see Mary, late at night, strolling along the Mississippi River, in Ferguson’s Falls, searching for Jimmy.

Along the Mississippi River, the Stumble Inn, Ferguson Falls – a spot where Mary’s been sighted numerous times over the years

She’s often seen in a long white gown, her fiery red hair cascading down her back, and sometimes she appears to be almost gliding ever-so-lightly along the shores. Is she still searching for that smooth calm water, that portal between the worlds of the living and the dead, to reunite with her Jimmy through the gates of glass?

Will this beautiful apparition in her flowing white gown forever be known as the Ghost of Ferguson’s Falls?

Arlene Stafford-Wilson

Read more about the life and death of Jimmy Whelan, and the stories of the beautiful young lady who walks along the river at night searching for her long lost lover.

“Lanark County Calling: All Roads Lead Home”

ISBN: 978-0-987702661

Available at, The Book Nook, Perth, Ontario, Spark Books, Perth, Ontario, Mill St. Books, Almonte, or contact:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s