The Haunted McDonald's and the Legendary Restaurateur

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A spooky mansion near Niagara Falls has more than one tale to tell
Frontier House
Wikimedia/Kdm85

Frontier House

One of the most famous haunted structures in New York State — and certainly the only one associated with both a 19th- and early 20th-century restaurant dynasty and an international modern-day fast-food chain — is Frontier House in Lewiston, a few miles from Niagara Falls.

Lewiston (pictured) is said to have been the earliest European settlement in the western reaches of what is now the Empire State; the first French explorer found the place in 1615, and in 1719, another Frenchman built the first permanent structure, a trading post, on the site, with permission from the local Seneca Indians. Frontier House was built as a hotel and stagecoach stop in the town in 1824 by a group of local businessmen, and became known as the region's best hostelry by far. Its illustrious guests over the years included Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, President William McKinley, boxer John L. Sullivan, and politician and orator Henry Clay, among many others. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/gleepythehen)

The dining room was presided over by one George W. Rector. In the early 1840s, he moved about 20 miles east to Lockport on the Erie Canal, where he managed two other hotels. His son, Charles, succeeded him, and later opened his own restaurant, an oyster house, in Chicago, and then another establishment, originally called Sign of the Griffon but later known simply as Rector's, on 44th Street and Broadway in Manhattan.

Charles's son, another George, in turn succeeded him, and became one of the great culinary celebrities of early 20th-century America. An accomplished chef, legendary host, radio raconteur, and author, George Rector served the bigwigs of the theatrical, social, and financial worlds (including the fabled trencherman Diamond Jim Brady, whom Rector once described as "the best 25 customers I ever had"), offering food that was largely French in origin and reportedly excellent — though he once defended the common hot dog as "a better food than many of the fancy things all of us eat."

Meanwhile, back in Lewiston, Frontier House later became a private home, then a hotel again, then a boarding house for local factory workers, then a museum of local history with a restaurant attached. In 1973, the structure was damaged by fire and attendant water damage, and in 1975, it was leased to McDonald's — which turned it into a burger emporium, even installing "Golden Arches" out front .

So how did it get haunted? Frontier House had become a meeting place for Niagara County Freemasons, and a disaffected member of the organization, one William Morgan, began threatening to write a book revealing Masonic secrets. After being incarcerated briefly at Fort Niagara on trumped-up charges, Morgan was released, only to disappear. His body was never found, but the local rumor was that he had been killed by the Freemasons and his body immured in the walls of the hotel.

Soon after Morgan's disappearance, hotel employees and guests began reporting strange occurrences — doors and windows opening and closing when no one was near them, unexplained banging in the middle of the night, silhouettes of old men glimpsed in empty rooms. When post-fire renovations were underway in the 1970s, tools and equipment would mysteriously vanish (though no bodies turned up between the walls). An alternate theory of the haunting holds that a worker helping to build the place fell from a scaffold into the basement, and that it is his spirit that roams the building. Whatever their source, even under the Golden Arches, the hauntings appeared to persist. An ABC-TV reporter once cracked that customers "sometimes get a shake, even if they order a Coke."

Today, Frontier House stands empty, the Golden Arches long gone. It has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rector's lost business with the onset of Prohibition and closed soon afterwards, though George Rector himself continued to be a well-known Gotham personality (he even appeared in a movie with Mae West) and wrote a number of cookbooks and memoirs. Rector died in 1947. According to The New York Times obituary, he was working as a consultant for a Chicago meatpacking company at the time. The obituary also notes that, "He wrote many articles on foreign foods and was a familiar speaker before cookery classes, by which he was much in demand." (Courtesy of Wikimedia/Kdm85)