Nautical Mysteries of Canada’s Great Lakes

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 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. At 7:10 in the morning, 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. 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 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. 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. 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 Algonquin 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. 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. 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. 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.” 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. 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 Erie. 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. 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. 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”. 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. 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. 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 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 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. Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video and would like to
help support this channel, please check out my books, which you can find, along with other
Canadian products, on the website PinesAndMaples.ca.

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video and would like to help support this channel, please check out my books, which you can find, along with other Canadian products, on the website PinesAndMaples.ca.

  2. An unexpected delight on a bleak afternoon.
    Wouldn't it be great if we had a new post from Hammerson Peters on a weekly basis?
    HP, you can be sure that I'll check out your books.
    Now, I think I'll watch this one again . . .
    Regards and Felicitations,
    Kev

  3. Excellent program! Full of good information, well presented and a very good narrator! I thougherly enjoyed this program! Thank you very much!

  4. So MANY brave men and women lost whilst serving their communities! Such a hard and dangerous life !!

  5. Wonderful video.so interesting really enjoyed the rich history and superb narration.thank you I learned a lot.

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