One of Toronto’s newer hotspots is also one of Toronto’s oldest cold spots. The Distillery District, formerly the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, is now home to spirited artists, hauntingly good food, and fold dedicated to preserving history—and maybe a bit of hysteria.
James Worts immigrated to Canada from England in 1831and opened a grist mill. About a year later, his brother-in-law came with his family and servants—totaling 54 in all—and went into partnership with James, establishing the Gooderham and Worts Mills. It was a highly successful endeavor, growing by 1871 into a production level of 2.1 million gallons of whisky and other spirits. James Worts wasn’t there to see it. In fact, Mr. Worts was never a part of the distillery business.
Mr. Worts never knew the success of the mill, the distillery, the ice house, the docks, the copper shop, or the dairy that made up Gooderham and Worts. In fact, the name Gooderham and Worts isn’t named for James Worts at all, but rather for his eldest son, James Gooderham Worts, nephew of the partner in the mill. James Worts, Senior, died in 1834. At least his body did.
By all accounts, James, Sr. was a bit of a peculiar fellow. One story is told of a fellow Torontonian who came upon Mr. Worts standing in a field, talking to himself. He was known to be “full of big ideas” like that of the windmill he built on the site—the sails of which never worked. He was often chastised by his fellow townsfolk for talking about what his big dreams were, not only for his own mill but for all of York. He spoke of international trade, of huge amounts of citizens, of success for Upper Canada in general and for York specifically. Now, we know he was a visionary, but at the time he was considered odd.
Mrs. Worts died in 1834 while giving birth. James, Sr. was despondent. He threw himself into a well on the mill property and died. That same year, the oldest son, William Worts, drowned in Toronto Harbour. In a matter of days, Mrs. Gooderham gave birth to her eighth child and lost a two year old son, all the while taking in the remaining orphaned children of the tragic Worts family. Ten years later the factory burned and had to be rebuilt, then later came prohibition, but this family business survived—changing over to making antifreeze—and continued to prosper. It is also rumored that Al Capone once purchased his illegal contraband on Gooderham and Worts Distillery Lane.
After a series of owners from 1923 to 1990, the location spent many years as a movie location and during that decade became Canada’s film choice. Over 800 films, including such Oscar winners as Chicago, have been filmed in this location. Cityscape Holdings purchased the 44 Victorian Era buildings in 2001 and in 2003 “The Distillery” opened as a pedestrian - only village entirely dedicated to arts, culture and entertainment.
But apparently Old James never really left. Reports of doors opening and closing without the assistance of humans, strange sounds, lights going on and off and various poltergeist activity has been witnessed by current workers and documented as far back as shortly after the founder’s tragic death. Renovation crews and film staff have seen and heard unexplainable things. Three people have come forward to claim they have actually seen an apparition of Mr. Worts himself, walking among the old buildings.
If you get the opportunity, visit The Distillery. The complex is located at the foot of Trinity Street, just north of the Gardiner Expressway and is bounded on the east by Cherry Street and the west by Parliament Street. Perhaps you will run into the founder ghost as you toast him in one of the nine wonderful eateries. Even if you don’t, simply walking through the area will lift your spirits.