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Nautical Mysteries of Canada’s Great Lakes

Nautical Mysteries of Canada’s Great Lakes

For centuries, North America’s five Great Lakes have served as the setting for a host of legends, folktales, and nautical mysteries. The local Ojibwa First Nations, for example, tell stories of fabulous monsters which inhabit the depths, shores, and skies of these inland seas, from the Mishipeshu, a huge horned aquatic creature imbued with mystical powers; to the Thunderbird, the enemy of the Mishipeshu, responsible for the creation of lightning storms; to the Memogovissiouis– long-haired sirens who reside within the coldest, deepest recesses of these freshwater oceans. French-Canadian voyageurs who paddled their birch-bark canoes across these waters during the days of the North American fur trade had their own tales of haunted spots and curious locales, like the Pictured Rocks on the shores of Lake Superior- a series of colourful sandstone bluffs pitted with dark caverns which were said to be home to a mischievous spirit called Menni-boujou; and La Cloche– a strange rock on an island in Lake Huron which, when struck, rang like a bell across the water. More modern Michigan lore is replete with stories of bottomless subterranean outlets which connect these massive bodies of water with smaller adjacent lakes and waterways. Legend has it that underwater currents draw the corpses of drowned fishermen into these outlets, engendering another popular folktale which contends that the Great Lakes never give up their dead.

The Great Lakes

 

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Of all the strange stories and legends surrounding the Great Lakes, perhaps the most chilling are those pertaining to the host of ships and sailors that the Lakes have swallowed over the years. Undoubtedly, the most famous of these is the tale of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a massive Great Lakes freighter whose mysterious and untimely demise was immortalized in Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”.

The story of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald begins in 1957, when an American insurance company called Northwestern Mutual commissioned the ship’s construction and named it after its president. With a length of 729 feet (222 metres) and a gross registered tonnage of 13,632, it was, at the time of its launch, the largest vessel to ever ply the waters of the Great Lakes.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald began its career on an ominous note. During its christening in Detroit, Michigan, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the wife of the businessman after whom the freighter was named, tried three times to smash a champagne bottle over the ship’s bow, succeeding on the last. When the ropes securing the ship to the shore were subsequently severed, the freighter slid down a ramp into the Detroit River and hit the water at an awkward angle, sending up an enormous wave that doused all who attended the ceremony. The shock of the cold water sent one of the onlookers into cardiac arrest; the fifty-eight-year-old attendee, who had travelled from Toledo, Ohio, to witness the launch, died on the scene.

Despite its inauspicious inauguration, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald went on to enjoy a brief but prosperous career hauling taconite (processed pellets of iron ore) across the Great Lakes. Due to its speed and cargo capacity, the freighter routinely set hauling records during the 748 trips it completed throughout its lifetime.

On the afternoon of November 9, 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, for a steel mill near Detroit, its cargo hold filled with 26,000 tons of taconite. She was captained by Ernest McSorley, a heavy-weather Canadian-born mariner known for his quiet stoicism and his willingness to sail through rough waters, and was crewed by 28 veteran sailors. About three hours into her voyage, she overtook and was subsequently trailed by another taconite-laden cargo ship called the SS Arthur M. Anderson whose captain, Jesse “Bernie” Cooper, agreed to accompany the Edmund Fitzgerald across Lake Superior.

At that time, a winter severe storm was making its way across the lake. Fueled by the collision of cold Arctic winds with warm fronts from the Gulf of Mexico, these ferocious cyclonic gales are referred to colloquially as the “Witch of November”. Trusting in the experience of their crews and the integrity of the vessels they commanded, neither McSorley nor Cooper thought twice about steering their freighters into the heart of this rapidly-intensifying tempest.

The prudent captains adopted a course along Lake Superior’s northern Canadian shore, which would offer them some protection from the storm, and kept in regular contact with each other via radio. The Edmund Fitzgerald and the Arthur M. Anderson pushed on throughout the night, weathering what Captain McSorley described as “the worst sea [he had] ever been in”. The freighters were whipped by 60-mile-per-hour winds and battered by ten-foot-tall waves which gradually wore down the Edmund Fitzgerald. By 3:30 A.M., the freighter had begun to lean to one side. By 5:30, the ship had lost both its radars to the wind and was taking heavy waves over her decks.

An interpretation of the Edmund Fitzgerald in a storm.

At 7:10 that evening, when the Edmund Fitzgerald was about fifteen nautical miles from Whitefish Bay and the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie beyond, Captain Cooper’s first mate, Morgan Clark, radioed Captain McSorley to inform him of the presence of a ship which lay ahead of him. He concluded the transmission by asking how the Edmund Fitzgerald was faring. “We’re holding our own,” was McSorey’s reply.

That was the last anyone ever heard from Ernest McSorey or his crew. Mere moments later, the Edmund Fitzgerald suddenly and mysterious plummeted 530 feet down to the bottom of Lake Superior, twisting in half in the process and entombing Captain McSorey and his crew of 28 in a frigid watery grave. There were no witnesses of the disaster; the crew members of the Arthur M. Anderson only realized that something was amiss when McSorey failed to respond to their radio queries and when they found that they were unable to see any of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s lights in the distance when the fog cleared.

When the enormous freighter failed to appear on his radar screen, Captain Cooper called the Canadian Coastguard and informed them of the situation. An hour later, the American and Canadian Coast Guards launched a joint aerial search for the missing vessel and its crew. The rescue team’s efforts were soon supplemented by those of the crews of the Arthur M. Anderson and the William Clay Ford, the latter a freighter anchored nearby, which left the relative safety of Whitefish Bay and joined the search for the Edmund Fitzgerald. Despite a thorough and concerted search, the only trace of the freighter that the rescue team managed to find that day were the remains of a lifeboat shattered beyond repair.

The following day, as news of the missing freighter began to circulate throughout the Great Lakes region, Father Richard Ingalls of the Mariner’s Church of Detroit rang his church’s bell 29 times, each toll representing a lost crewmember of the Edmund Fitzgerald. For thirty one years, the reverent of the Mariner’s Church would continue to perform this ritual on the anniversary of the freighter’s disappearance.

The Old Mariner’s Church of Detroit.

Three days later, a U.S. Navy aircraft equipped with a metal detection device discovered the wreck SS Edmund Fitzgerald lying to two pieces at the bottom of Lake Superior about fifteen nautical miles from the mouth of Whitefish Bay. Subsequent diving operations, one of them conducted by marine explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau (the son of the celebrated French explorer Jacques Cousteau), failed to recover any of the bodies of the 29 sailors who went down with the ship.

Throughout the next two decades, many different theories were put forth as to the cause of the freighter’s demise. Some believed that the Edmund Fitzgerald had sustained fatal damage while bottoming out on the Six Fathom Shoal northwest Caribou Island, not far from its final destination. Others maintained that the freighter had been buried by twin rogue waves measuring about 35 feet in height, which the crew of the Arthur M. Anderson had encountered at 6:40 A.M. on the morning of November 10th. Others still suggested that the ship’s cargo hold was flooded due to the crew’s failure to properly close that hatches that sealed it from the elements. To date, authorities disagree on the specific factors which contributed to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and to this day, the true cause of the freighter’s capsizal remains one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the Great Lakes.

In the summer of 1995, Canadian explorer Dr. Joseph B. MacInnes led a series of dives on the sunken ship, during which he salvaged the freighter’s bell- an artifact which some writers have described as the symbolic heart of the ship. MacInnes later replaced the bell with a replica on which was inscribed the names of the 29 sailors who went down with the freighter- a headstone marking the final resting place of the sailors who lie interred within the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

 

Le Griffon

Although the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship ever claimed by the Great Lakes, she was neither the first nor the only. Over the past four centuries, over 6,000 ships have come to rest beneath the waves of these five inland seas. Notwithstanding the scores of native birch bark canoes and French bateaus which must have foundered in these freshwater oceans in centuries past, the first real ship to disappear in the Great Lakes was a French barque called Le Griffon, or “The Griffon”.

Le Griffon.

Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle.

Le Griffon was constructed in the year 1679 by Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, an ambitious French adventurer remembered today for his establishment of a vast bygone province known as French Louisiana. Trained in France as a Jesuit priest, La Salle left the Jesuit Order in 1667 to pursue fame and fortune in Canada- at that time, a French colony called New France. After acquiring some land on the Island of Montreal, he had led an unsuccessful expedition in search of the Northwest Passage- the legendary waterway through North America connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific. In 1672, he allied himself with Louis de Buade, Compte de Frontenac, the newly-appointed Governor of New France. Frontenac hoped to expand the colony westward from its confines in the valley in the St. Lawrence River and bring the fur trade to the Great Lakes- a wild region populated at that time by warring native tribes, a handful of Jesuit missionaries, and independent fur traders called coureurs des bois, or “runners of the woods”. In 1673, La Salle helped the Governor establish Fort Frontenac at the junction of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario- the colony’s first real incursion into the Great Lakes.

In 1677, La Salle sailed to France for the purpose of convincing King Louis XIV to grant him permission to establish two more forts on the Great Lakes- one of them at the mouth of the Niagara River, and the other at the southern end of Lake Michigan. He also requested a license to build a sailing ship on Lake Erie, at the end of the Niagara River opposite Lake Ontario. The king granted his request, and La Salle sailed for Canada with thirty shipwrights, carpenters, blacksmiths, and soldiers, as well as an abundance of supplies.

A map of Lake Ontario in the 17th Century, depicting Fort Frontenac and Fort Conti.

La Salle began his enterprise by splitting his party into three groups. One disembarked in canoes and paddled ahead to Lake Michigan to establish a trading relationship with the natives there. Another, headed by a Recollect friar named Father Louis Hennepin and a French Royal Army officer named Dominique la Motte de Luciere, set out in a small sailing vessel for the Niagara River, where they were to choose the location of a new fort. La Salle himself, accompanied by a French maritime pilot and a one-handed Italian soldier named Henri de Tonti, took a small sailing ship to a native village on the shores of Lake Ontario to secure winter provisions for his crew.

The enterprise began with a rocky start. Unbeknownst to La Salle, most of the men sent to Lake Michigan squandered their trade goods and deserted. The ship headed by Hennepin and La Motte became encased in ice near present-day Toronto, and had to be liberated with axes before its occupants could make their way across Lake Ontario to the mouth of the Niagara River. And although La Salle and Tonti managed to obtain provisions at a native village, they lost everything in an accident on Lake Ontario.

Louis Hennepin’s illustration of Niagara Falls.

The party headed by Hennepin and La Motte managed to reach the mouth of the Niagara River and choose a suitable building site for the fort, which was to be named ‘Fort Conti’ after one of La Salle’s aristocratic Parisian friends. A few of them decided to head further up the river to the base of what is now Queenston Heights. Excepting, perhaps, a few earlier Jesuit missionaries who failed to write about the experience, Hennepin and his companions thus became the first white men to see the Niagara Falls.

That accomplished, Hennepin, La Motte, and company struck out westward through the forest to a newly-established Seneca Iroquois village, where they hoped to have their enterprise sanctioned by the local chief. Back in the 1640s and ‘50s, the warlike Iroquois Confederacy had left their haunts in the forests of upstate New York to launch a massive offensive against the Huron, Erie, Neutral, and Petun Nations of the Great Lakes. Armed with muskets and steel tomahawks supplied by their Dutch and English allies to the southeast, they wiped out entire nations and drove others from their traditional hunting grounds. In the 1660s, the colonists of New France found themselves drawn into the conflict, obliged to defend their allies from the Iroquois invaders. After a series of bloody skirmishes and counteroffensives, New France made a tentative peace with the Iroquois Confederacy in 1666, allowing the invaders to settle the lands of the First Nations they had conquered. Ever since, a shaky tranquility had reigned over the eastern Great Lakes. Eager to maintain the status quo, Hennepin and La Motte were dismayed when the Seneca chief failed to give his blessing to their enterprise.

Fortunately, La Salle had better luck than his subordinates. Upon arriving from his misadventure on Lake Ontario, the explorer personally paid a visit to the chief and convinced him that the Iroquois would benefit from their undertaking. Finally, with the chief’s tentative approval, the Frenchmen commenced the construction of Fort Conti. In addition to the fort, they also began building a 45-ton barque, or sailing ship, above the Niagara Falls.

Louis Hennepin’s illustration of the construction of Le Griffon.

The construction of this vessel was an unpleasant task for La Salle’s men, who began the project by hauling deck spikes, rigging, and other equipment up the portage trail to the riverbank above Niagara Falls. Throughout the winter, spring, and early summer, they labored with frozen fingers and empty stomachs, all the while wary of the sullen Iroquois braves who often loitered around the worksite, fingering their tomahawks and war clubs. While his men worked on the ship and the fort, La Salle himself, accompanied by two of his employees, travelled by snowshoe through the forest and across Lake Ontario to Fort Frontenac, where he hoped to replenish the provisions he had lost in the lake.

During La Salle’s absence, the men on the Niagara River completed both the fort and the 45-ton ship. The latter was christened Le Griffon, or “The Griffon”, that mythical monster being the primary ornament on Count Frontenac’s coat of arms. Its prow bore a wooden carving of the legendary half-lion/half-eagle for which it was named, and its decks bristled with seven small cannons which were fired at its christening.

La Salle finally returned to the Niagara River in early August, this time accompanied by three Flemish friars. Eager to make use of the new ship, he and all his men embarked on Le Griffon and set out on her maiden voyage across Lake Erie.

For three days, the explorers sailed down the length of the lake. On the fourth day, they turned north and sailed up the Detroit River. They crossed Lake St. Clair beyond and proceeded up the St. Clair River into Lake Huron. There, the explorers were beset by a ferocious gale which threatened to capsize their vessel. Praying to St. Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of mariners, the sailors managed to make their way up Lake Huron to the Island of Michilimackinac, home to Indian villages and a Jesuit mission, and a haven for coureurs des bois.

La Salle and his crew received a cool welcome from the Jesuits, in whose chapel they celebrated mass. They explorers were also greeted by the local Huron and Ottawa Indians who were amazed at the size of their ship. During their visit, they received the disheartening news that most of the fifteen men whom La Salle had previously sent to establish a trading relationship with the Indians of Lake Michigan had squandered his trading goods and abandoned their mission.

In early September, La Salle and the crew of Le Griffon sailed west from Michilimackinac into Lake Michigan and further southwest into Green Bay. There, on an island, he found the few members of his advance party who had remained loyal to him, discovering to his pleasure that they had acquired a small fortune in furs from their trade with the natives. La Salle then had these furs loaded into the cargo hold of Le Griffon and ordered a handful of his men to transport them to Fort Conti, asking the ship’s pilot to return to Lake Michigan as soon as the cargo was unloaded. Le Griffon departed on September 18th, 1679, just as a storm began to brew.

An interpretation of Le Griffon in a storm.

Aside from the vessel’s own crew, La Salle and his explorers were the last men to set eyes on Le Griffon. The vessel disappeared on her homeward voyage somewhere in the waters of Lakes Michigan, Huron, or Erie. Most assumed that the ship had foundered in a storm and was lost with all hands. This theory is supported by the discoveries of Albert Cullis, who manned the Mississagi Strait Lighthouse on Manitoulin Island in the 19th Century; in the late 1890s, Cullis reputedly discovered a watch chain, three 17th Century coins, and five human skeletons in and around a cave on Manitoulin Island. Another theory regarding the fate of Le Griffon contends that the ship was boarded by hostile Indians who murdered her crew before setting her ablaze; La Salle and his crew certainly had their fair share of rivals who would stop at nothing to protect their own interests in the fur trade. La Salle himself suspected that the ship’s occupants had intentionally scuttled Le Griffon and made off with the furs she contained; in letters to Count Frontenac, the explorer wrote about an Indian rumour which held that, in 1680, white men matching the description of the crew of Le Griffon had been captured by Indians on the Mississippi River paddling canoes filled with valuable goods. The natives killed every crew member but the captain, whom they took prisoner. La Salle believed that these unfortunates constituted his ship’s crew, who had intentionally sank his vessel and made off with his furs with the intention of joining a famous coureurs des bois named Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut. Whatever the case, Le Griffon’s undiscovered wreck is considered today to be the Holy Grail of Great Lakes shipwreck hunters.

 

The Hamilton and the Scourge

Over a hundred and thirty years after Le Griffon’s disappearance, half a century after France ceded Canada to Great Britain and nearly four decades after Britain ceded her Thirteen Colonies to the United States, the Great Lakes resounded with the thunder of cannons and the rattle of musketry in a conflict known today as the War of 1812.

Angered by the British Royal Navy’s practice of impressing American citizens into service, and insulted by King George III’s attempts to prevent American merchants from trading with Napoleonic France, with whom Britain was at war, the United States Congress declared war on Great Britain, initiating the War of 1812. Throughout the summer and autumn of that year, the Great Lakes bore witness to a number of deadly clashes between American and British-Canadian forces, including the successful British Siege of Detroit and a failed American invasion of Upper Canada- the Canadian side of the Great Lakes.

The Battle of Queenston Heights.

On April 27, 1813, the U.S. Army and Navy launched an attack on the British city of York (present-day Toronto), situated on the western shores of Lake Ontario. The American soldiers successfully captured the city, only to be killed and maimed by the detonation of the fort’s powder magazine, this tremendous explosion having been orchestrated by the retreating British. The Americans avenged this act by plundering the town and setting many of its buildings on fire.

The U.S. troops went on to attack and capture the southeasterly Fort George, situated at the mouth of the Niagara River. Later that summer, they attempted to besiege a British garrison at present-day Burlington, Ontario, southwest of York. The British Royal Navy sailed out to stop them, and thus, on the morning of August 7th, 1813, the British and American Great Lakes fleets found themselves face to face, just beyond cannon range of one another, unable to engage due to an uncharacteristic absence of wind which settled over Lake Ontario.

One of the vessels in the U.S. fleet during this spell was a Canadian merchant schooner-turned-American war ship called the USS Scourge, and one of the sailors aboard that vessel was a Canadian expat named Ned Myers. Many years later, Myers would tell his story to celebrated American novelist James Fennimore Cooper, who put his tale into print in his 1843 biography of him entitled Life Before the Mast. Myers, via Cooper’s book, wrote:

“It was a lovely evening, not a cloud visible, and the lake being as smooth as a looking-glass. The English fleet was but a short distance to the northward of us; so near, indeed, that we could almost count their ports. They were becalmed, like ourselves, and a little shattered.”

A map of Lake Ontario during the days of Upper Canada.

After having their supper, Myers and the crew of the USS Scourge bedded down next to the cannons. Myers wrote:

“I was soon asleep, as if lying in the bed of a king. How long my nap lasted, or what took place in the interval, I cannot say. I awoke, however, in consequence of large drops of rain falling on my face… When I opened my eyes, it was so dark I could not see the length of the deck…”

As Myers snuck away from his post to retrieve a bottle of grog, the schooner on which he served was suddenly beset by a violent storm. The Scourge quickly took on water and, in less than a minute, began to sink.

“The flashes of lightning were incessant, and nearly blinded me. Our decks seemed on fire, and yet I could see nothing. I heard no hail, no order, no call; but the schooner was filled with the shrieks and cries of the men to leeward, who were lying jammed under the guns, shot-boxes, shot and other heavy things that had gone down as the vessel fell over…

“I now crawled aft, on the upper side of the bulwarks, amid a most awful and infernal din of thunder, and shrieks, and dazzling flashes of lightning; the wind blowing all the while like a tornado… It now came across me that if the schooner should right, she was filled, and must go down, and that she might carry me with her in the suction. I made a spring, therefore, and fell into the water several feet from the place where I had stood. It is my opinion the schooner sank as I left her.”

Myers began to swim for the first time in his life. By chance, he bumped into a lifeboat, into which he managed to climb. Through an oppressive darkness punctuated by blinding flashes of lightning, he searched for survivors and managed to drag seven fellow soldiers into the tiny craft. Myers and his shipmates were later rescued by American sailors whose ship had survived the tempest.

In addition to the Scourge, the storm claimed another U.S. Navy schooner called the USS Hamilton.  Of the 102 sailors aboard these vessels at the time of the squall, only sixteen survived their capsizing, many of them having been trapped inside the ships during their 300-foot descent to the bottom of the lake.

Legend has it that on foggy nights in the waters outside Burlington, Ontario, sailors sometimes spy two old-fashioned square-sailed vessels, with their gun ports open and their decks illuminated by the eerie glow of lanterns hanging in the rigging. As soon as they are spotted, these phantasmal vessels shake as if buffeted by unearthly winds before sinking beneath the surface, all the while accompanied by the faint shrieks of drowning sailors whose skeletons lie below, entombed within the wrecks of the USS Scourge and the USS Hamilton.

 

Old Whitey and the Ghosts of the SS Kamloops

Another of the thousands of ships devoured by the Great Lakes over the past four centuries is the SS Kamloops, a steam-powered freighter which sank with all hands off Isle Royal in Lake Superior just south of Thunder Bay, Ontario, in 1927. What distinguishes the SS Kamloops from other Great Lakes wrecks are the crewmembers, both corporeal and ethereal, who are said to still wander its decks at the bottom of the lake.

An interpretation of the SS Kamloops.

The SS Kamloops began her life in 1924, in a shipyard in North East England. Commissioned by the Montreal-based shipping company Canada Steamship Lines, she had a length of 250 feet and a gross tonnage of 2,402, making her one of the smaller freighters on the Great Lakes at that time. Her limited size allowed her to traverse the Welland Canal, an artificial waterway connecting Lake Ontario with Lake Erie.

After steaming across the Atlantic Ocean and up the St. Lawrence River to her home on the Great Lakes, the SS Kamloops was put to work hauling manufactured goods, many of them destined for the rapidly-developing Prairie Provinces, from the St. Lawrence to Lake Superior. Due to the hazardous Great Lakes freighting practice of shipping as late as possible prior to winter freeze-up, the steamer and her crew had a few close calls. In 1926, for example, the freighter became trapped in ice in the St. Mary’s River, the waterway which connects Lake Huron with Lake Superior.

In late November, 1927, the SS Kamloops, under the command of Captain William Brian, was tasked with hauling a mixed cargo from Montreal to Fort William, Ontario- a district of what is now Thunder Bay. On this journey, it trailed the wake of the SS Quedoc, an empty grain carrier also bound for Fort William. The Kamloops passed through the Soo Locks, a water lift on the St. Mary’s River, on December 4th, when it was beset by a howling northern gale.

Map of Lake Superior.

On the night of December 6th, in the waters off Isle Royale, the captain of the SS Quedoc spied a dark misshapen mass looming before him through the fog. He and his crew frantically maneouvered their vessel to avoid the mysterious obstacle and narrowly avoided what promised to be catastrophic collision. They sounded their foghorn to warn Captain Brian and the crew of the Kamloops and continued onto Fort William. Disturbingly, the SS Kamloops failed to make it into port that night.

In the days that followed the storm, search and rescue crews scoured the surrounding area for a number of different ships that had failed to arrive at their destinations. Most of these were found stranded in different areas of the lake, having been blown off course during the gale. Only the SS Kamloops remained unaccounted for.

Canadian winter hit the Great Lakes shortly after the freighter’s disappearance and the waters of Superior began to freeze. It soon became apparent to even the most hopeful friends and family members that there was virtually no chance that any of the SS Kamloops’ crew of twenty-two had survived the mysterious calamity that befell their ship.

Isle Royale.

In the spring of 1928, fishermen plying their trade off the coast of Isle Royale discovered two half-frozen corpses washed up on the island’s shore. The bodies were identified as crew members of the SS Kamloops. Several months later, in early June, fishermen found six more bodies on the island, five of them huddled together as if for warmth. One of the corpses was identified as 22-year-old Alice Bettridge, one of the two women serving aboard the SS Kamloops on the night of its disappearance. Half a year later, a trapper discovered a handwritten note in a pickle jar near the mouth of the Agawa River, across Lake Superior from Isle Royal, which Alice had apparently scrawled in her final moments. The message reads, “I am the last one left alive, freezing and starving to death on Isle Royale. I just want mom and dad to know my fate.” The letter was signed, “Al, who is dead.”

On August 21st, 1977, Minneapolis-based recreational diver Ken Engelbrecht discovered the wreck of the SS Kamloops while searching for the vessel off the northern shore of Isle Royale. The steamboat lay on her starboard side 270 feet below the water’s surface. Inside the ship’s engine room floated two human corpses with snow-white skin, both of them in excellent condition due to the preservative effects of the ice-cold water in which they were immersed and the relative absence of aquatic life at that depth. One of these bodies evidently belonged to Netty Grafton, the ship’s stewardess and Alice Bettridge’s only female companion during the SS Kamloops’ final voyage. The other was an unidentified man wearing a wedding ring, whom future divers nicknamed “Grandpa” and “Old Whitey”.

An interpretation of the wreck of the SS Kamloops.

A number of divers who have explored the wreck of the SS Kamloops following her discovery in 1977 have reported an eerie phenomenon endemic to that underwater graveyard. The body of Old Whitey, they say, moved about the ship throughout the course of their aqueous escapades as if on its own accord. Some divers swear that they were approached by the chalk-white corpse while examining the perfectly-preserved candy wrappers that lay about the wreckage. Others claim to have witnessed the colorless cadaver float towards their hapless diving partners while the latter’s attention were diverted. Many of those who have written on the subject have dismissed Old Whitey’s alarming antics as the result of underwater currents unconsciously produced by the divers themselves. Others have ascribed the corpse’s uncanny animation to the spirit of the sailor who once inhabited it, doomed to wander the decks of ship whose violent and untimely demise coincided with his own. Whatever the case, the nature of Old Whitey’s activity remains one of the many secrets held by the SS Kamloops, which sank quickly and mysteriously nearly a century ago.

An interpretation of “Old Whitey” or “Grandpa”, the corpse of the wreck of the SS. Kamloops.

 

SS Bannockburn– The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes

No compilation of the nautical mysteries of Canada’s Great Lakes would be complete without a nod to the SS Bannockburn, a steamship which disappeared somewhere in Lake Superior on a snowy November day in 1902. To this day, the wreck of the SS Bannockburn remains undiscovered despite, some say, the efforts of her ghostly crew, who are said to appear to sailors from time to time on the decks of their phantom vessel, perhaps in the vicinity of their final resting place, before vanishing into thin air.

An interpretation of the SS Bannockburn.

The SS Bannockburn was constructed in 1893 by the British shipbuilding magnate Sir Raylton Dixon. The 245 steamer was designed to fit through the Welland Canal and equipped with a steel hull for added protection. She was launched that same year and sent across the Atlantic and up the St. Lawrence to her new home on the Great Lakes.

Throughout the course of her life, the SS Bannockburn was plagued by misfortune. In April 1897, she ran into a cluster of sea rocks near the Snake Island Lighthouse on Lake Ontario southwest of Kingston. She began to take on water, forcing her crew to dump much her cargo onto the lake in order to keep her afloat. The ship was subsequently patched up and put back into service, only to suffer another mishap several months later. In October 1897, while hauling a load of grain from Chicago to Kingston, the SS Bannockburn hit the wall of the Welland Canal and foundered in that shallow waterway.

The Welland Canal.

The SS Bannockburn began what would be her final earthly voyage on November 20th, 1902, leaving Fort William with 85,000 bushels of wheat in her hold. While leaving port, she grounded in shallow water. Although the accident did not appear to damage the ship in any way, it was decided that the voyage would be postponed until the following day.

On November 21st, the SS Bannockburn set out once again for Georgian Bay, at the eastern end of Lake Huron, skirting the northern shores of Lake Superior. Her 21-man crew sailed her without incident to a point about 40 miles northeast of Isle Royale, where she was spotted by the captain of another Great Lakes freighter named James McMaugh. Using his binoculars, the captain checked on the ship periodically as he passed her. After attending to some business on his own vessel, McMaugh raised his binoculars once again and discovered, to his surprise, that the Bannockburn was nowhere to be seen. Before he could relocate the ship, a heavy fog rolled in and obscured his vision. Captain McMaugh supposed that the mist must have shrouded the Bannockburn and continued on his way.

That night, the Witch of November reared her ugly head and swept across Lake Superior, whipping up waves and buffeting boats. At about 11:00 p.m., through a haze of windblown snow, the crew of a passenger steamer called the SS Huronic spied a pattern of ship lights which they recognized as the Bannockburn’s. The freighter did not appear to be in distress, and the two vessels passed each other without incident.

The SS Bannockburn.

The crew of the SS Huronic were perhaps the last men to set eyes on the SS Bannockburn, at least in physical form. When the freighter missed her appointment at Soo Locks, few were overly concerned, assuming that her crew had taken shelter somewhere to wait out the storm. When the Bannockburn failed to show up the following day, it became clear that some mishap had befallen her. When a week and a half had elapsed, the ship was presumed lost with all hands. As the Kingston-based newspaper the British Whig put it in their December 2nd, 1902 issue:

“It is generally conceded that the missing steamer is not within earthly hailing distance, that she has found an everlasting berth in the unexplored depths of Lake Superior, and that the facts of her foundering will never be known. It is asserted by mariners that the Bannockburn’s boilers must have exploded, causing her to sink immediately, without giving those aboard a moment in which to seek escape. If this theory is correct, then the big steamer quickly sank beneath the waves of that great lake, carrying down her crew to a quick and sure death. It is sad to know that so many lives were lost, but the sorrow strikes home the deeper when it is known that the greater part of the crew were well known in this city.”

The only trace of the steamer to ever surface was a blood-stained life preserver made from cork, which washed up on the shores of Grand Marais, Michigan, at the western end of Lake Superior, on December 15th, 1902. Throughout the winter, divers searched in vain for the wreck of the SS Bannockburn. To date, the ship’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Legend has it that, every so often, sailors will spot the ghost of Bannockburn ploughing her way through the waves of Lake Superior, her lamps flickering and her pilothouse dark, before vanishing into the spray. This legend has become so well-known throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Northern Ontario that the ghost of the Bannockburn has acquired the nickname “The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes”, the Dutchman being a legendary ghost ship doomed to perpetually sail the turbulent waters off South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Some say that the crew of the Bannockburn willingly endures a similar fate, routinely returning from the Great Beyond to sail the frigid waters of Lake Superior in the hope that their final resting place will one day be discovered and accorded the respect it deserves.

 

Sources

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

  • Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (2005), by Michael Schumacher
  • Shipwreck: The Mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1995), by Christopher Rowley and the Discovery Channel

 

Le Griffon

  • The Discovery of the Great West (1869), by Francis Parkman
  • The Fighting Governor: A Chronicle of Fronenac (1915), by Charles William Colby
  • Cavelier de la Salle, Rene-Robert (1966), by Celine Dupre in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Volume I
  • The White Whale for Great Lakes Shipwreck Hunters: Inside the Consuming Obsession with Finding the 300-year-old Griffon, by Sarah Kramer, Bryce Gray, Lizz Giordano, and Anne Arnston in the May 30, 2017 issue of AtlasObscura.com

 

The Hamilton and the Scourge

  • Haunted Lakes: Great Lakes Ghost Stories, Superstitions and Sea Serpents (1997), by Frederick Stonehouse
  • Life Before the Mast (1843), by James Fennimore Cooper
  • http://www.hamilton-scourge.city.hamilton.on.ca

 

Old Whitey and the Ghosts of the SS Kamloops

  • The History of the Kamloops, on SuperiorTrips.com
  • All Hands Lost: Kamloops, by Curt Bowen in the August 13, 2010 issue of the Advanced Diver Magazine
  • Meet Old Whitey, the Preserved Corpse of the SS Kamloops, Lake Superior’s Most Haunted Shipwreck, by Greg Newkirk in the November 27, 2016 issue of WeekInWeird.com

 

SS Bannockburn- The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes

  • Likely Lost: No Tidings of the Steamer Bannockburn: Sorrow Here, in the December 2nd, 1902 issue of the British Whig
  • Halloween on the Great Lakes: The Ghost Ship S.S Bannockburn, on JaysSeaArchaeology.Wordpress.com
  • “The Great Lakes Triangle”- Season 3, Episode 8 of In Search of… (1978)
  • SS Bannockburn: The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lake, by Jess Carpenter in the April 2018 issue of GreatLakesBoating.com

Written by

I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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