The S.S. Bannockburn underway Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green University.
How does a legend develop? Where do the stories come from? The story of the S.S. Bannockburn remains an infamous tale of great lakes history blending both historical fact and paranormal legend. It’s a story that has been told and retold between collections of ghost stories and bloggers. The idea of a phantom ship sailing along its unearthly course on some foggy night is a romantic one. As it is Halloween, my favorite holiday season of the year, I decided to retell the story of the “Flying Dutchman” of the Lakes.
S.S. Bannockburn Vital Statistics
The Bannockburn was a unique vessel on the Great Lakes for its time. It was built at Sir Raylton Dixon and Company of Middlesborough, England. As it was a British built steamer, it had a very distinctive profile that stuck out amongst Great Lakes vessels. Another reason the Bannockburn was so distinctive is that it was among the very first steel hulled ships purchased by the Montreal Transportation Company in order to maintain their competitive edge. The vessel was launched in 1893. The Bannockburn was 245 Feet long with a 40.1 foot beam; the ample size allowed the vessel to traverse the canals namely the Welland Canal. It had a 21-foot depth and 1,620 GT. The vessel was powered by a triple expansion steam engine with two scotch boilers powering a single prop. The Bannockburn was a cutting edge vessel for its time; it was able to complete its maiden voyage on the Great Lakes from Port Arthur, Ontario to Kingston Ontario in four and a half days. The vessel carried a crew of 20 and was often used to tow other cargo barges such as the schooner Minnedosa. The Bannockburn was primarily used in the grain trade.
The Final Voyage of The S.S. Bannockburn
The final voyage of the Bannockburn may have begun long before the vessel sank. The ship was damaged months prior to her final voyage when she ran aground near the former Snake Island lighthouse in Ontario on April 27, 1902. The Bannockburn struck the shoal running at full speed. After partially dumping the cargo, the vessel was able to float again. No lives were lost but the forefoot and frame was badly stove in. The final voyage of the Bannockburn is primarily known due to the ships that passed the her on her final voyage.
The Bannockburn departed Fort William, Ontario on November 20, 1902 with a cargo of 85,000 bushels of grain. The vessel apparently suffered another grounding that day delaying the departure of the Bannockburn. Apparently undamaged, the vessel was able to restart its voyage a day later on November 21.
Two sailors Charles O’Toole and John Lyon reported to the Kingston, Ontario newspaper British Wig that they had encountered the Bannockburn near Passage Island an island just to the Northeast from Isle Royale, Lake Superior at 7am.
The next encounter came from the upbound steamer Algonquin. The captain reported spotting the Bannockburn 7 miles to the southeast about 80 miles off Keweenaw point, 50 miles southeast of Passage Island and 40 Miles off Isle Royale late in the afternoon. The Captain, James MacMaugh was well acquainted with the Bannockburn’s profile being that he was sailing a similar ship; steel hulled, and built in the UK (Glasgow, Scotland). It was late in the season, not many vessels were still out and the Captain reported nothing unusual and spotted the vessel a few times. Moments later, James lost track of the Bannockburn in foggy conditions.
The final encounter came from the upbound passenger steamer Huronic. At approximately 11:00pm the crew of the Huronic reported seeing the lights of a ship that they presumed to be the Bannockburn. There has been some question as to whether the lights they spotted were in fact from the Bannockburn but, sailing so late in the season, there are few other options. The journal of the waiter Fred Landon on the Huronic included the two following passages:
“November 21: at night we had the worst storm of the season…
November 22: Engines of the Huronic damaged by storm.” -Fred Landon Journal
There was no positioning done on the Bannockburn from the Huronic’s perspective like the case with the previous encounter as the Algonquin most likely due to the fact that the Huronic was also battling a storm. So it is unknown what heading the Bannockburn was on or how far the lights were from the Huronic. The Bannockburn was and her crew were supposedly never seen again.
The Aftermath of the Loss of The S.S. Bannockburn
There was no immediate alarm when the Bannockburn did not arrive on schedule to the Soo Locks. Everyone had assumed that the vessel had taken shelter somewhere from the storm and was simply delayed because of it. As the vessel became more and more overdue, the inspiration for alleged sightings and conflicting reports grew. By November 27, the Fort Williams Times Journal reported that the Grain elevator operator at Fort Williams received word that the Bannockburn was lying behind Slate Island, 20 miles from Jackfish Bay. It was later found that the paper had misquoted him and he denied ever hearing that story much less reporting it. On November 28, the Kingston, Ontario British Wig reported a telephone message from the Chicago Underwriter’s Association to Montreal Transportation Company manager L.L. Henderson:
“The Steamer Bannockburn has been located on the north shore of Lake Superior, opposite Michipicoten Island. Crew Safe.”
These words were immediately bulletined to concerned friends and family of the crew of the lost ship. The Fort William Times-Journal carried a similar story:
“The Bannockburn was located on the mainland north of Michipicoten Island. This morning J.J. O’Connor of Port Arthur received the following telegram from George McCurdy, superintendent of Marine Insurance, Chicago. “Bannockburn ashore on mainland north of Michipicoten Island. News brought by Germanic. The Germanic is a freighter owned by the J.T. Hutchinson Co. of Cleveland.”
These statements were later revealed to be lies. When the crew of the Germanic was contacted and questioned, they had no knowledge of ever sighting a grounded vessel and could not account for their report and had they sighted a ship in such a position they would have came about to investigate. George McCurdy later revealed that he had no positive information and couldn’t recall his exact source. They had eased the concerns of family and friends only to later print a redaction that the Bannockburn was still lost on Lake Superior. Regardless, the tug Boynton and the Great Lakes Towing Co. Tug Favorite were sent to search for the grounded Bannockburn. After a thorough search of both the north shore, Michipicoten Island and Caribou Island, the two tugs fought gales to return empty handed. By December, the Bannockburn was given up for lost. The final report of the British Wig:
“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 be never known.”
On December 15, it was reported a patrol from the Grand Marais life saving station discovered a life preserver from the Bannockburn washed up on shore.
“The life preserver found bears seaming blood stains on its shoulder straps which are tied. This condition is taken to indicate that the preserver had been washed from the dead.”
Three years later in March 1905, the Welland Canal was drained for maintenance. At the bottom of the canal the workers discovered:
“A large piece of steel evidently from the bottom of a vessel has been found in the new Welland canal, which it is believed solves the loss of the Bannockburn…”
The fact remains that this was discovered three years after the vessel sank, in a heavily used canal and there was no evidence to positively associate it with the lost ship. I believe that this is a product of grasping for a explanation as to why the ship sank.
The same year in June, the Steamer Crescent City reported encountering the floating deck and cabin from a steamer 15 miles west of Whitefish Point. The deck was painted blue and the cabin window blinds were pink. It was thought that this wreckage was also from the Bannockburn although there was no evidence that positively associates it with the lost ship.
The Final Resting Place of the Bannockburn
As the wreck of the Bannockburn has yet to be located, the final resting place is still a point of conjecture. What is clear is that the storm on the evening of November 21-22 is what sank the Bannockburn. The Bannockburn was damaged previously that voyage by a supposed grounding and was damaged earlier that season by another grounding. Perhaps the weakened Bannockburn was not able to cope with the storm; the previous damage and the storm conspired to sink the vessel and take its crew of 20 to the bottom. The Bannockburn was only 9 years old when she sank. A blacksmith for the Montreal Transportation Company reported that he had worked on the rudder quadrant of the ship and the hub was split, I have no doubt it broke and the quadrant gave way giving no power to the rudder. A later news article in the Milwaukee Journal attest to the ferocity of the gales during the November of 1902:
“67 Lost on Lakes, Many Seamen Perish In Gales Which Have Raged For A Week, 29 Lost In Two Days. Crew of all the Crafts Still Missing: Steamer Charles Hebard, schooner Aloha And Barge Celtic Last Victims- All Hope of Finding The Bannockburn Is Given Up.”
The theory that was offered immediately offered by the Captain of the Algonquin was that once the Bannockburn was out of sight, it suffered a boiler explosion and quickly sunk. The issue with this theory is that the crew of the Algonquin would have heard that explosion and by 1902 boiler explosions were already a rare occurance. One theory is that since the Caribou Island Lighthouse was already out for the season by that point, the Bannockburn struck the shoals off Caribou Island and sank there or in deep water just off the shoals. An issue with this theory is that on November 25, the Frank D. Rockefeller (now the S.S. Meteor) (Although accounts say steamer Rockefeller or John D. Rockefeller) passed through a field of floating debris near Stannard Rock lighthouse, which was theorized to be from the Bannockburn. The issue with the Caribou Island shoal theory is that Stannard Rock lighthouse is well to the southwest of Caribou Island. There was nothing in this debris field to positively identify it as being from the Bannockburn. Although based on the Algonquin’s observations of the Bannockburn, the debris field location would be logical as that is where the prevailing northwest winds would’ve carried it and there were no other vessels wrecked on Lake Superior that night.
Another theory is possibly the Bannockburn may have struck the shoals off of Michipicoten Island and sunk in deep water. The primary theory is that the Bannockburn struck Superior shoal located 50 miles north of Copper Harbor, Michigan, which was still uncharted in 1902. The Superior shoal would have been located right along the course the Bannockburn was taking. The sinking of the Bannockburn mirrors the conjecture surrounding sinking of another infamous Great Lakes freighter, the Edmund Fitzgerald. In any case, the vessel is most likely in deep water and would require remote sensing to finally locate it.
The Ghost of The S.S. Bannockburn
S.S. Bannockburn traversing a lock Wrecksite.eu
“On stormy nights, several sailors claimed to have seen the Bannockburn, buffeting her way down Lake Superior, her lamps blinking in the storm scud, while in the darkened pilothouse her master looked vainly for the welcoming flash of Caribou Island Light.” -Dwight Boyer, Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes.
Since the Bannockburn’s sinking in 1902 it has been reported as the Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes. That this vessel has been spotted through the years by the crews of various ships during storms or prior to storms on Lake Superior. Though, in the course of the research regarding the loss of this ship I could not find any actual stories regarding this. All the stories are vague, simply saying “Great lakes sailors report seeing the ghost ship Bannockburn“. Sailors are superstitious people but, they are also guarded and would not want to suffer the ridicule that would come from reporting a story of encountering a phantom ship during a gale in the middle of Lake Superior. As the vessel sank in 1902, those who would have any memory of encountering a ghost ship would also no longer be with us.
However, there is one story:
“The Steamer Walter A. Hutchinson shortly after WWII headed to Soo Locks in a storm. The vessel was 11 hours of Thunder Bay. The Crew knew they were close to shore but didn’t know how close because they had apparently lost electronics due to ice. The wind was blowing out of the northwest and would have been pushing the Walter Hutchinson closer to shore. They could steer a course more to the north but, this would put seas on the side of the ship and would cause the cargo to shift and capsize the ship, so the captain continued on course preferring to risk running aground. They had apparently sighted the Bannockburn on a parallel course but lost sight of her. Suddenly, a rocket exploded. The crew saw the Bannockburn again a hundred yards off coming straight at them. The Captain ordered the rudder brought over hard to the northeast. The Walter A. Hutchinson wallowed in high waves trying to put distance between itself and the Bannockburn. After what seemed like an eternity the Bannockburn passed safely astern of the Walter A. Hutchison. The crew continued to watch as the Bannockburn ran aground and then began to rip apart at the seams. The Bannockburn then vanished. If the Hutchison hadn’changed course, she would have been impaled on the rocks. Did the Bannockburn appear in order to warn the Hutchison of the rocks ahead? Forcing the captain to change course?” – Joe Combs SS Bannockburn – “The Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior”
The source for this story comes from a blog. Unless it was a story related to the author from one of the crew of the ship, there is no primary source material for this story. Secondly, after a thorough search through various archives, I could not find any record for a ship named the Walter A. Hutchinson operating on the Great Lakes even if it was renamed. That isn’t to say that the ship didn’t exist, or if it was a “salty” but records of ships especially post WWII are really thorough, complete and mostly digitized.
The source material first declaring the Bannockburn as a ghost ship came from a manuscript written in 1909:
“….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 are joined in one black pall, they have descried the missing Bannockburn –a ghostly apparition of ice, scudding through the gloom. And this is but one more illustration of the fact that all of the romance of men who “go down to the sea in ships” is not confined to the big oceans.”- James Oliver Curwood The Great Lakes And The Vessels That Plough Them”
This was written by James Oliver Curwood in a book titled “The Great Lakes And The Vessels That Plough Them” He was really the first to do a general history of the Great Lakes. What this book is to tell about the life on the Great lakes, give facts about towns on shores, discuss Great Lakes shipbuilding, talk about the different types of ships and their cargos operating then on the Great Lakes. Primarily because he felt that in the scheme of U.S. history, the Great Lakes are overlooked. (They still are but that’s outside of the scope of this writing). It reads somewhat like a travel pamphlet. The description of the Bannockburn as a Ghost Ship is in the section “Romance and Tragedy of the Inland Seas”. Oliver Curwood was first and foremost a fiction writer. Everyone loves a ghost story and he could’ve added the section on the Bannockburn simply to drum up interest in the Great Lakes. He says it himself:
“And this is but one more illustration of the fact that all of the romance of men who “go down to the sea in ships” is not confined to the big oceans.”
He was making the connection that maritime history on the Great Lakes was no different than on the ocean. That the tales are equally important. Essentially: The ocean has the Flying Dutchman and the Great Lakes have one too. Another conclusion is that no matter where you go, sailors are always superstitious. His story is also vague.
There is also a supposed sighting that occurred as recently as 2001 but, I so far cannot find any actual detail of it. If you’re a great lakes sailor and your reading this and you’ve seen the ghost ship of the Bannockburn send an e-mail, I’d love to hear your story.
Finally, the Bannockburn was a distinctive vessel for its time but it wasn’t the only vessel of its type operating on the Great Lakes during the early 1900’s. The Rosemount was almost an exact sister ship virtually identical to the Bannockburn. Perhaps there was a level of misidentification amongst sailors at the time. The Rosemount worked on the Great Lakes for 42 years. Even the Bannockburn’s replacement the Westmount that was ordered less than a month after it sank and did not arrive until 1903 bears resemblance to the lost ship.
Conclusion: Unraveling a Ghost Story
It goes without saying that losing a ship and whole crew without any explanation, or closure is tragic and hard on the family and friends; burying an empty casket. The ship had just sailed away into the tides of history. In a way, making the Bannockburn into a ghost story has kept her tale and memory alive the 114 years it has been since her sinking. Were it not for the ghost story the Bannockburn would just be another lost ship on Lake Superior.
“On the Great Lakes, as on salt water, a vanished ship has her place in the limelight but briefly….The march of commerce goes on relentlessly, while the men who were once part of it are too soon forgotten. They and their ship live again only in the occasional stories of writers who revive the mystery for other generations to ponder over.” -Dwight Boyer
I believe that all the discoveries made after her sinking such as the metal plate at the bottom of the Welland canal or the lost floating cabin were all attempts to grasp for an explanation and rationalize what caused the sinking of the Bannockburn. It was a product of coping and wanting to understand what happened even though that’s impossible. This same thing happens every time a ship disappears with all hands the development of theories and conjectures to explain ultimately the unexplainable. This has happened most recently with the El Faro last year and in the 41 years since the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Only the discovery of her sitting on the bottom would provide the answers if even then. Her story may have served as a cautionary tale carried down all these years by sailors not wishing to suffer the same fate. The final thought for this author is that it was strange for the concerns in Chicago to suddenly declare that the ship and the crew were fine. Why lie just to alleviate the fears of everyone?
Boyer, Dwight Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes
British Wig November 26, 1902
British Wig November 28, 1902
British Wig November 29, 1902
British Wig December 1, 1902
British Wig December 2, 1902
British Wig December 15, 1902
British Wig January 6, 1903
British Wig March 28, 1905
British Wig June 12, 1905
British Wig Clippings
Chase, Sean Bannockburn: The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes. The Daily Observer
Combs Joe SS Bannockburn – “The Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior”
Curwood, James Oliver The Great Lakes and the Vessels That Plough Them
Fort Williams Times-Journal November 27, 1902
Fort Williams Times-Journal November 29, 1902
Hettinger, Jim “What Happened to the Bannockburn?” Battle Creek Enquirer
Landon, Fred The Loss of the Bannockburn. Inland Seas, Winter 1957
Maritime History of the Great Lakes Westmount
Milwaukee Journal December 2, 1902
Milwaukee Journal December 2, 1902