The Ghost Fleet of the Great Lakes

 

When people think of ghost ships, they are typically most likely to envision the high seas and think of them as a phenomenon inherit to the vast open spaces of the world’s oceans. However, this is not always the case. In the Great Lakes of the United States, stories have long circulated of various ghostly vessels that patrol the waters there; so many in fact that locals have come to refer to them collectively as the “Ghost Fleet.” It seems that the oceans of the world are not the only haunts for mysterious phantom vessels.

The Great Lakes are comprised of Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron (or Michigan–Huron), Erie, and Ontario. They are the largest group of freshwater lakes in the world, covering a total area of 94,250 square miles (244,106 km2). They may be lakes, but their sheer size makes the Great Lakes more akin to inland oceans, with vast expanses of open water with no land in sight, enormous rogue waves, and storms just as ferocious and dangerous as any found at sea, the most notorious of which is a seasonal storm referred to as the Witch of November. Due to the perilous weather and oceanic conditions of the Great Lakes, countless vessels have been lost here over the centuries, with many of them disappearing without a trace, never to be seen again. Or at least not among the living, for it seems that some of these lost ships have refused to remain lost, and their ghostly visages are said to still prowl the waters here.

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The oldest of the Great Lakes’ Ghost Fleet, and widely regarded as the first, is a vessel called the Griffon, which set sail on Lake Eerie from Niagara in August of 1679. The 40 ton Griffon was a rugged ship built and captained by a French explorer by the name of Rene de LaSalle for the purpose of shipping supplies for LaSalle’s various expeditions into New France. The Griffon’s last known voyage with the living began with a perilous route through the Straits of Mackinac and into Lake Michigan, where it anchored near Green Bay, Wisconsin. When the cargo was offloaded, the Griffon was sent back towards Niagara in order to pick up another load of supplies in September of 1679, along with a cargo of furs to be delivered. Once again, weather conditions were favorable, but as soon as the Griffon left Washington Harbor, it and its crew of 6 simply vanished from the face of the earth. They never reached their destination and no one had any idea of what had become of them.

Many people at the time blamed the disappearance on an alleged curse that had been placed upon the vessel by an Iroquois witch doctor by the name of Metiomek, who had believed that the ship was offensive to the Great Spirit and had reportedly warned LaSalle that it was destined to sink. Metiomek had also warned LaSalle that he was doomed to have his blood cover the hands of his closest confidants, and eerily he would be murdered by his crew during a mutiny in 1687; an event that would lend some weight to the theory that Metiomek had indeed cursed the Griffon. However, no one knew what had really become of it, and it was most likely sunk by one of the area’s many unpredictable, fierce storms.

Regardless of the cause of its fate, the Griffon did not seem quite ready to give up its days of sailing. Ever since its disappearance there have been stories of sailors seeing a glowing, ghostly, three masted antiquated ship appear from fog banks on Lake Michigan. The ghostly Griffon is said to be fond of setting itself on a collision course with other vessels, only to vanish into thin air right before contact. It is most often reported as sailing around Michigan Harbor on particularly foggy nights, and has even been seen from shore. The actual physical wreck of the Griffon has become a highly sought after prize of underwater archeologists, often being likened to the “Holy Grail of the Great Lakes,” and while several promising wrecks have been located that might be it, the wreck has still not been definitively found.

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The Griffon is not the only ghost ship said to roam the Great Lakes by a long shot. What would be a “Ghost Fleet” without more to join its ranks? One of the most famous ghost ships of the Ghost Fleet’s ranks is the Bannockburn, a Canadian registered steel hulled freighter which disappeared on Lake Superior on November 21, 1902 without a trace, along with a crew of 21 and a cargo of wheat. The Bannockburn’s final voyage began at a place called Fort William, with the ship captained by a George R. Wood. Sometime after the ship’s departure, a Captain James McMaugh, aboard the freighter the Algonquin, reported seeing the Bannockburn several times off of Isle Royale, but suddenly and inexplicably lost sight of the large ship. The befuddled McMaugh allegedly just chalked it up to a heavy fog that had descended upon the area at the time. A storm began to brew that night, and another ship, the passenger steamer the Huronic, also reportedly passed by the Bannockburn churning along in the foul weather but no distress signals were received and so they thought nothing of it.

After these sightings, the Bannockburn failed to arrive at its scheduled destination, and several days later had still not shown up. Concerned family of the crewmen encouraged a search for the lost vessel but no trace of it was found. By November 26, 1902, the Bannockburn was officially declared as lost. The official explanation for the ship’s disappearance was that it had been beached at a place called Caribou Island, a dangerous area riddled with reefs, after the lighthouse there had been turned off. However, it was never discovered what had actually happened to the doomed vessel, and the only wreckage to ever have been retrieved was a single life preserver and an oar. Since this mysterious disappearance, the Bannockburn has been sighted prowling the waters of Lake Superior to this day; so much so that it has garnered a reputation as the “Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior.” The ghost vessel is most often spotted between Port Arthur, Michigan and the Soo Locks between Superior and Huron.

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Another rather infamous case is the disappearance and subsequent ghostly reappearance of two ore freighters by the name of the W.H. Gilcher and the Western Reserve in the late 19th century. Both ships were some of the largest of their day; enormous, steel hulled behemoths longer than a football field which were designed to haul heavy loads of ore. The Western Reserve was the property of a wealthy financier by the name of Peter Minch. It was lost in a storm on Lake Superior while on its way from Cleveland to Two Harbors, Minnesota on a mission to pick up a load of iron ore along with 26 crew and the financier Minch himself. Only a single survivor, the wheelman of the vessel, Harry Stewart, lived to tell the tale. Interestingly, the captain of the Western Reserve, Captain Benjamin Truedell, reported having a vivid dream in which he foresaw the accident in great detail before the ship had even left harbor. The ship is said to haunt Lake Superior in the area of Deer Park, Michigan, and one of its characteristics is its ability to produce huge banks of fog and enormous, rough waves. Witnesses of the ghostly Western Reserve claim they can sometimes hear talking and laughter wafting over the water from the phantom ship.

A mere two months later, the Western Reserve’s sister ship, the W.H. Gilcher, commanded by Captain Lloyd H. Weeks, left Buffalo, New York, headed for Milwaukee carrying a cargo of coal. The ship entered Lake Michigan through the Straits of Mackinaw straight into a raging storm. Although it had been specially equipped specifically for riding out foul weather, the W.H. Gilcher nevertheless never made it to its destination, and the only sign of it was a floating field of debris spotted by some passing ships. All of its crew of 21 were lost. The ship is still reportedly seen to this day off Mackinaw Island, usually covered in a veil of fog, and it is said that one can still see a spectral Captain Weeks at the helm of the ship. The spectral W.H. Gilcher is said to occasionally let loose with a powerful wail from its fog horn.

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Joining the ranks of the Ghost Fleet is the ill-fated schooner, the Erie Board of Trade, which disappeared on Lake Huron in 1883. The story of the Eerie Board of Trade is curious in that it was not storms or rogue waves that brought it down, but rather the sinister efforts of a ghost. Allegedly, the captain of the vessel had ordered a crewman to climb up the main mast of the ship under conditions when it was clearly unsafe, after which he fell to his death. Not long after the tragic accident, the crewman’s ghost began to be frequently sighted on the ship. After a stop at port, the unnerved crew related the tale to others, after which the ship sailed off and vanished off the face of the earth. The ship is still seen sailing along from time to time, with a full phantom crew compliment recruited by the ghost of the crewman who had plummeted to his death.

Another ship called the Hudson was lost on September 16, 1901 on Lake Michigan, near Keweenaw Point. The lost ship would make a bizarre appearance decades later, when on September 16, 1940, a tugboat captain and his crew spotted an old, rust covered ship drifting near Keweenaw Point. On closer inspection, it was noticed that the ship was not only covered with rust, but also a strange, brown slime. The captain of the tugboat sensed that the vessel was in some sort of distress and boarded it despite the ominous, slime coated appearance. The captain allegedly was welcomed with a completely empty, desolate ship, and made his way to the pilot house, where he discovered that the ship was not as unoccupied as he had first thought. He reportedly saw the spectral apparitions of the Hudson’s captain and helmsman, who proceeded to explain to the tugboat captain that they were doomed to eternally relive the sinking of their ship every September 16. The ghostly crew warned the terrified tugboat captain to get off, and he promptly ran for dear life, jumping straight into the water and frantically swimming to his own boat. The Hudson has allegedly been seen from time to time since, always on September 16 off of Keweenaw Point.

One of the weirdest stories involving haunted ships on the Great Lakes revolves around an enormous steel ore steamer called the Emperor. The ship went down in a storm in 1947 along with a crew of 12, and its wreck has since become a favorite among divers, who sometimes bring back eery stories from their excursions. One recreational diver in 1988 reported swimming into a crew cabin of the Emperor to find the ghost of a crewman casually lying back in his bunk. The apparition reportedly merely stared blankly at the diver before vanishing. Another diver allegedly came across a phantom crewman working on equipment in the engine room, who stared at him with eyes that were described as “dark pools of nothing, really just black holes, but still they asked the silent questions, ‘Why me? Where are my friends? Why am I alone?.” After a moment of staring at the diver, the ghost apparently went back to work inspecting and dutifully repairing decrepit, muck encrusted equipment that had not been operational in years. Other divers have told of hearing engine noises emanating from the long dead ship and being commanded by a raspy, sinister metallic voice to “die.”

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Other supposedly haunted wrecks litter the bottom of the Great Lakes as well. One is the wreck of the SS Kamloops, which sunk in 1927. The wreck is most infamous for its permanent resident, a preserved body in the engine room that is referred to as “Grandpa.” It is said that the body is known to float up behind divers and follow them around the engine room. This could be just the effect of currents combined with the creepy atmosphere, but there are those who swear the corpse actually moves about on its own, bobbing around animated by some mysterious force.

Ghost ships and haunted vessels are certainly not confined to the high seas. As the Ghost Fleet of the Great Lakes shows, there are plenty of creepy and foreboding stories inland as well, upon these expansive waters. Whether these are just tall tales or truly haunted ships from beyond the realm of the living, be they the product of overactive imaginations or of supernatural forces, it seems that some lost ships and their crews have a way of sticking around long after they have supposedly vanished.