The SS Bannockburn, a Canadian grain freighter, sank during a deadly winter storm. Today, she still sails the mightiest of the Great Lakes and warns sailors of dangers along their routes. Get the ghostly tale after the jump.
Captain George Wood stepped onto the deck of a grain freighter the evening of November 20th, 1902. It’s a steel-hulled ship, made to withstand the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Tonight, it would leave Port Arthur, Ontario to deliver its last cargo for the shipping season. The next stop, Midland, a port on Georgian Bay.
The SS Bannockburn never made it to Midland. Something happened while crossing Lake Superior. The mystery of its foundering – and its ghostly sightings – continues to this day.
The SS Bannockburn was set to leave the night of November 20th. Her hull filled with 85,000 bushels of wheat. Chief Engineer George Booth looked forward to the final run. His family needed him. His son was sick with diphtheria, and he had just lost his daughter to a suden illness. After the delivery to Midland, he would take the Bannockburn downbound to Kingston, Ontario and dock her until the spring.
The freighter pulled out of Port Arthur, now called Thunder Bay, and would travel along a well-established shipping lane. One that followed the Canada-US border.
The Bannockburn shoaled, which means ran aground, on a sand bar or muddy shallow overnight. This incident would throw off its travel time to the Soo Locks. Now, it wasn’t uncommon for ships to get delayed by a day or two during this period. No one think twice about a ship missing its check-in by 48 hours.
By 9 a.m. the next morning, the Bannockburn unloaded enough grain to float and free itself. It cruised along at 10 to 15 miles per hour as it crossed the deep waters.
And by noon, a storm had come roaring down from the northwest.
It was a compact storm that hovered over the north-central part of the lake. The area where the Bannockburn sailed through. Waves reached 15 feet high and crashed over the ship’s deck.
A passing ship, the SS Algonquin, saw the Bannockburn plowing through the waves and into a fog bank. The Algonquin’s captain, James McMaugh, watched the Bannockburn through a pair of binoculars, made a few notes in his journal about her course, and went about his business. The Bannockburn, like the Algonquin, had weathered worse storms than this. There was nothing peculiar about the ship, its condition, or route.
When Captain McMaugh took one last look in the Bannockburn’s direction, he noticed that she wasn’t there. Just simply gone. He thought she had passed into the fog or was no longer in the binoculars’ range.
But something had happened in those few minutes Captain McMaugh wrote his notes. And it’s a mystery to this day.
The Soo Locks operators weren’t bothered when the Bannockburn missed its scheduled time to pass through the lock from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. That day was November 23rd. By November 26th, the shipping community from Fort William to Montreal, and every city in-between, buzzed with worry about the ship and her crew.
Many professional lakers thought the Bannockburn had settled into a calm bay or cove on the north shore of Lake Superior. Mainly to wait out the storm. Others said the ship had stranded at Caribou Island or Michipicoten Island. Both islands aren’t far from Whitefish Bay and the Soo Locks. Both islands were also along the well-travelled route used by other freighters.
There were 40 ships on Lake Superior using the same route as the Bannockburn. None of those ships reported seeing the Bannockburn.
On November 25th one ship made a discovery. A steamer, the John D. Rockefeller, passed through a debris field by Stannard Rock lighthouse and its reef. It found hatch covers and part of a cabin. At the time, no one knew the Bannockburn had gone missing, and the debris field didn’t raise many questions from the Rockefeller’s crew. Stannard Rock, which has its own notorious shipwreck history, lies about 25 miles east of Keweenaw Peninsula. And it sits 80 miles southwest of the Bannockburn’s last sighting.
Misidentifications & Misinformation
At 11 PM on November 21st, the Huronic, a passenger ship, reported seeing the Bannockburn. But it was more of a guess. At this time of night, the storm raged across Lake Superior and it was pitch black. The Huronic captain may have seen the Bannockburn’s sister, the Rosemount, which shared the same profile and would have been on the downbound route.
Many false reports about survivors flooded the newspapers beginning on November 26th. Most stated the Bannockburn had run aground or anchored near Caribou Island, Michipicoten Island or along the northern coast of Lake Superior.
Even the Montreal Transportation Company, the owner of the Bannockburn, got swept up in it. LL Henry said the underwriters in Chicago received word the ship anchored off Michipicoten Island. Another steamer, the Germanic, had reported seeing it there. When asked about it, the crew had no idea what the reporters were talking about. It was a fabrication to help soothe over the worried families of the crew.
The Montreal Transportation Company sent out 2 tugboats to check reports. The Favorite and Boynton scoured the shore and islands looking for the crew or wreck. They found nothing.
On November 30th, the Bannockburn and its crew of 20 were declared lost. Most of the crew were between the ages of 16 and 20.
An Unlucky Ship
The Bannockburn had an unlucky history even before its final voyage across Lake Superior. It sank … twice. The ship was built in 1893 and sank in a lock near Kingston, Ontario 4 years later. She hit the wing wall at Lock number 17 of the Welland Canal, which links Lake Ontario to Lake Eerie, and sank 9 feet underwater.
In the spring of 1902, the Bannockburn ran aground by Snake Island at full speed. The crew dumped over 30,000 bushels of grain before she could float again. No one died in either accident.
There’s also some speculation that something had happened during her voyage to Fort William in November. At the end of the shipping season, the Soo Locks were drained to check their condition and do any repairs. The engineers found a steel hull plate that likely belonged to the Bannockburn, which means she had a weak hull. One that could get damaged far easier.
The Flying Dutchman Of Lake Superior
Within 7 years of her vanishing, the Bannockburn picked up a legend: That she was the phantom ship seen cruising along Lake Superior during storms and heavy fog. Normally, we start to hear about legends decades after an incident like this one. But not with the Bannockburn.
James Oliver Curwood, author of the book, The Great Lakes & The Vessels That Plough Them, gave the Bannockburn its nickname, The Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior.
Now, many wrecks found between 1903 and 1909, when the book was published, were thought to be the Bannockburn. They weren’t. She still lies – undiscovered – somewhere in the depths.
The most popular ghostly tale involves another freighter, The Walter A. Hitchinson. The ship got caught in another wintry storm in November 1947. It caused the ship to lose its electronics and navigation system. The Hitchinson moved close to shore when the Bannockburn manifested and charged the ship. The crew of the Hitchinson turned hard to portside to avoid a collision. The Bannockburn charged forward, hitting rocks and getting shorn apart. It then faded away. If the Hitchinson had continued on their route, they would have hit those rocks. So, the Bannockburn acted as an omen and warned the Hitchinson’s crew of danger.
More recently, in October 2016, a crew was shooting a music video near Marquette, Michigan. They spotted what looked like 3 masts far out on the lake. I’ll post a link to Jason Asselin’s video under the show notes. Although, I don’t think Asselin captured the Bannockburn on tape. It may be another ship.
- The Bannockburn manifests on stormy days or nights
- It’s accompanied by a fog bank
- Other ships are in danger of running ashore or shoaling
As for ghost hunting tips, I couldn’t—in good conscience—send you out in the middle of Lake Superior during a winter storm and about to hit a reef. This might be a case where you research from the comfort of your reading chair.
Theories Behind The Bannockburn’s Foundering
The Bannockburn still hasn’t been found. The area where it likely sank is over 1000 feet deep. It would take an ocean-class submersible to withstand the pressure that far down.
There are 3 theories to why the Bannockburn sank.
- Its boilers exploded – That’s a bit doubtful because the Algonquin would have definitely seen the smoke, and a debris field would have a wide area far north of Stannard Rock
- It ran into the Superior Shoal, an underwater mountain, and that impact tore the ship apart. But that would mean wheat would be all over the area, and the wreckage would be easily found. There’s no wreckage of any kind near the shoal.
- The most likely reason is that the rudder broke; the ship began to list in waves; and, then it capsized. That would explain why no grain came to the surface, and there was little wreckage.
On June 23, 1903, a replacement for the Bannockburn entered the Great Lakes. The Westmount was a little bit longer, a little bit wider, and a little bit deeper than her sunken sister. Otherwise, she was identical. The Westmount would continue hauling grain across the lakes without incident. In 1916, she was sold and left the Great Lakes. And she continued to haul cargo until 1944, when she was destroyed by enemy aircraft off the coast of Norway during World War II.
One day, we will know what happened to the Bannockburn. As for now, all we have is a legend, and a plaque honoring Captain Wood in Port Dalhousie, Ontario.
Brendon Baillod (Oct. 3, 2021). “Revisiting the Bannockburn: Lake Superior’s Flying Dutchman,” Great Lakes Shipwreck Research, YouTube video, retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xEKZL9C1FHg
Joey Oliver (Jan. 12, 2022). “5 Ghost Ships Believed to Still Be Sailing the Great Lakes,” The Gander: Michigan’s Newsroom, retrieved from: https://gandernewsroom.com/2022/01/07/5-ghost-ships-believed-to-still-be-sailing-the-great-lakes/
Jason Asselin (Oct. 10, 2016). “A Ghost Ship Appears on Lake Superior,” Jason Asselin YouTube Channel, retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_eNJm554Reg
Anna Lardinois, “Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes: Tragedies and Legacies from the Inland Seas,” Globe Pequot, July 21, 2021.
Editors (May 30, 2022 – updated). “SS Bannockburn,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Bannockburn
Jess Carpenter (Feb. 2019). “SS Bannockburn – The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes,” Great Lakes Boating, retrieved from: https://www.greatlakesboating.com/2018/04/ss-bannockburn
Kathy Dowsett (Aug. 31, 2021). “A Look Back: SS Bannockburn, AKA The Flying Dutchman,” The Scuba News, retrieved from: https://www.thescubanews.com/2021/08/31/a-look-back-ss-bannockburn-aka-the-flying-dutchman/
Joe Combs II (July 15, 2012). “SS Bannockburn – The Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior,” Joe Combs 2nd blog, retrieved from: https://joeccombs2nd.com/2012/07/15/ss-bannockburn-the-flying-dutchman-of-lake-superior/
Fishermap.org – USA, “Lake Superior Nautical Chart and Depth Map,” retrieved from: https://usa.fishermap.org/depth-map/lake-superior/
Editors (May 30, 2022 – updated). “SS Bannockburn,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Bannockburn
Editors (March 2, 2021 – updated). “Superior Shoal,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superior_Shoal
Fred Landon (Winter 1957). “The Loss of the Bannockburn,” National Museum of the Great Lakes, retrieved from: https://nmgl.org/the-loss-of-the-bannockburn-winter-1957/
News Articles Retrieved From Newspapers.com
Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, NY). “To Replace Bannockburn,” Dec. 28, 1902, Page 34.
The Saint Paul Globe (St. Paul, MN). “Bannockburn Almost Given Up For Lost,” Nov. 28, 1902, Page 4.
The Buffalo Enquirer (Buffalo, NY). “Steel Vessel Is Reported Sheltered, But in Some Quarters She Is Believed to be Lost with Crew,” Nov. 29, 1902, Page 5.
The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, NY). “Bannockburn Wreckage Washed Ashore,” June 19, 1903, Page 7.
The Buffalo Times (Buffalo, NY). “Another Steamer And Crew Of Twenty Probably Is Lost,” Nov. 28, 1902, Page 6.
Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, NY). “Westmount Reaches Lakes,” June 24, 1903, Page 2.
Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, NY). “Long List Of Dead Claimed This Season By The Lakes,” Dec. 2, 1902, Page 1.
Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, NY). “Mystery Of Bannockburn,” Dec. 1, 1902, Page 3.
Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, NY). “Conflicting Reports,” Nov. 29, 1902, Page 8.
Buffalo Courier (Buffalo, NY). “Little Insurance,” Dec. 16, 1902, Page 8.
Buffalo Evening News (Buffalo, NY). “Steamer And Crew Of Twenty Are Given Up,” Nov. 30, 1902, Page 1.