‘She was a 245-foot Canadian steamer built in Scotland in 1893. After crossing the Atlantic, the “Bannockburn” began work as a lakeboat for the Montreal Transportation Company. For almost a decade, she navigated the tumultuous waters of Lake Superior.
Above: Bannockburn in drydock in Kingston, Ontario
The final voyage of the Bannockburn began on November 20, 1902. She left from Thunder Bay, carrying 85,000 bushels of wheat, headed for the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, then on to the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron. The oldest man aboard was 37-year-old Captain George R. Wood, his crew was young. The wheelsman, Arthur Callaghan, was only 16.
Before reaching open water, the Bannockburn grounded on some submerged rocks but sustained little damage. Speaking with first mate Alex Graham and second William Shockley, Captain Woods gained a consensus to press on. The next day, the Bannockburn sailed into the open lake with 21 souls on board. The weather was snowy, and as night fell, a powerful winter storm raked across Lake Superior.
Around 11:00 pm, the night watch crew of the passenger steamer Huronic, reported seeing lights on a ship they passed in the storm, which they believed were those of the Bannockburn.
Captain James McMaugh of the steamer Algonquin, also saw the ship. While captaining his own vessel through the choppy waters, McMaugh said he spotted the Bannockburn about seven miles south of him, running on the same course. Captain McMaugh turned his head to mention the Bannockburn’s progress to his first mate, when he looked back again, the Bannockburn had vanished.
The next day, the Bannockburn was reported missing at the Soo Locks. Immediately, rumored sightings of the ship began to crop up. She was reported to be ashore on Michipicoten Island, then the Canadian passenger steamer Germanic, sent news that she was seen along the mainland shore north of Michipicoten. On November 25, another steamer, the John D. Rockefeller, reported sighting a debris-field floating in mid-Lake Superior.
The first authentic evidence of a wreck came weeks later, when a patrolling surf man from the lifesaving station at Grand Mariais, Michigan came upon a battered life jacket from the Bannockburn. Eighteen months later, another finding was reported:
“A wandering trapper in the northern Michigan wilderness discovered an oar among the driftwood of the beach. Around the oar was wrapped a piece of tarpaulin, and when this was taken off a number of rude letters were revealed scrapped into the wood. They spelled the word B-A-N-N-O-C-K-B-U-R-N. For fear that the letters might not be noticed, the one who had cut them had filled the cut with human blood, and after this had frozen stiff, had wrapped the tarpaulin about it. From that day to this nothing more of the Bannockburn has been found.” – The Brooklyn Daily Eagle – Oct 29, 1905
Although she was never found, many sailors of the Great Lakes believed that the Bannockburn never stopped trying to reach its destination. Legends of its ghostly profile, coated in ice, silently gliding by other vessels, circulated through the ports and harbors of Lake Superior. Sighting of the ship were especially common during the winter months, usually during bad weather. In 1909, James Oliver Curwood wrote the following about the spectral ship:
“And now, by certain superstitious sailors, the Bannockburn is supposed to be the Flying Dutchman of the Inland Seas and there are those who will tell you in all earnestness that on icy nights, when the heaven above and the sea below were joined in one black pall, they have descried the missing Bannockburn—a ghostly apparition of ice, scudding through the gloom.”
One such story came from the iron ore freighter, Walter A. Hutchison. Shortly after World War II, the Walter A. Hutchison was headed to the Soo Locks in a storm. Eleven hours out of Thunder Bay, the crew knew they were close to shore, but could not tell how close because ice had crippled their electronics. With the wind blowing out of the northwest, they knew they were being pushed dangerously close. The captain wanted to steer a course more to the north, but this would put the seas on the side of the ship, and could cause the cargo to shift and capsize the ship. So, the captain continued on his course, preferring to risk possibly running aground to a likely capsizing.
The crew was shocked when a ghostly ship, coated in ice, loomed out of the darkness alongside them, taking a parallel course. The strange vessel vanished, but not before it was identified as the Bannockburn. The crew of the Walter A. Hutchison was just breathing a sigh of relief, when suddenly a rocket exploded in the night. By the light of its flare, the crew saw the Bannockburn a hundred yards off bearing down on them. The captain ordered the rudder brought over hard to port, bringing the bow around to the northeast. The Walter A Hutchison wallowed in the high waves trying to put distance between itself and the Bannockburn.
At the last moment, the Bannockburn passed safely astern of the Walter A. Hutchison. The crew continued to watch as the Bannockburn then ran aground on a group of rocks hidden by the waves and began to rip apart at the seams. Then, the Bannockburn simply disappeared. If the Walter A. Hutchison had not changed course, she would have been the ship impaled on the rocks. The ghost ship had led them to safety.
Some experiences hold their place in your memory through the sheer force of physical sensation. I spent five years of my childhood in Minnesota, and one memory from that time of my life stands clearly defined in my mind, carved into my neural pathways by the unforgiving claws of the northern cold. I can feel that cold when I read the story of the Bannockburn.
We were ice fishing. A fellow member of our church congregation had invited my dad, my brothers and me to come with him. He was an old, crusty outdoorsman of the north-woods, a throwback from a bygone era. I remember him spinning tales of panning for gold in Alaska, and hunting moose in the Boundary Waters “way up nort.” He snacked on frozen minnows from the bait bucket while coaching us on how to drill holes in the ice with an auger.
The weather was so cold, that the air burned when you breathed it. We boiled hot chocolate over a small fire and watched in amazement as the top of it froze over immediately when we poured it in our blue and white enameled mugs. Underneath the ice, the liquid was still hot enough to scald our tongues.
We pulled in a few perch, and threw them on the ice beside the hole where they slapped up and down for a few seconds before solidifying into statues of yellow and black, bodies curled in mid flop. The temperature continued to plummet, causing the ice beneath our feet to groan like a dying whale as it expanded.
On our way back to shore a blizzard blew in. The world around us turned a solid white, the vicious wind stung my eyes, drawing tears which froze my lashes together. Strange lights passed us in the swirling snow, as fishermen equipped with snowmobiles left the lake. I lost all sense of direction and distance, trudging blindly behind our friend and guide.
After what seemed like and eternity, we stopped. I realized we were standing beneath a pine tree, which meant we must be on shore. Our friend turned around, a wide grin on his wind-reddened face, his glasses frosted like a mug of root beer. He looked down at my brothers and me, “Boys, I think it’s getting a little chilly out here, dontcha know.”
(Source: The Weekly Holler/Tumblr)