A Mystery And A History

The legend of the SS James Caruthers

Published in the February 2018 Issue October 2019 Feature

Can you think of a time that you ever caused your parents or anyone else that you love unintentional worry? It’s easier to do than not when you are a child and first discovering things. For example, how many of us ever touched the stove to figure out if it was really as hot as our mother said it was, only to end up crying out in pain?

We’ve all done something similar, even if it wasn’t the exact same experience detailed above. Cris Kohl, co-author of Great Lakes Shipwrecks, Canada’s 150 Most Famous Great Lakes Shipwrecks, and more, researched one of the most interesting stories of an unintentional mistake on the Great Lakes.

The Story Of Young Mr. Thompson

John Thompson was a young sailor who had probably one of the most interesting mix-ups on the Great Lakes to this day. Thompson had been on board SS James Caruthers, but he signed on another ship about two or three weeks before the storm and didn’t tell anyone. So when the ship sank, he was listed amongst the dead.

His father went to Goderich, Ontario, to identify his son. His face was pretty battered, but he recognized a tattoo on his son’s arm so he took him home to Hamilton, and held a wake in his place of residence. However, the wake didn’t quite go as planned, because John Thompson ended up showing up at his house just in time for it – alive.

Interestingly, it was just a coincidence that young Thompson happened to have the very same tattoo on his arm as the arm of the deceased whose identity they never discovered.

The greatest irony of all, of course, is that 11 years later young Mr. Thompson fell into a canal and drowned. At first his family didn’t believe that he drowned because all that they ever found in the early days was his hat floating on the water, but a few days later they found his body, which had washed into the bay. And once they had the body they knew for sure that he was gone.

The Great Lakes ultimately took John Thompson’s life in the end.

Finding The Wreck

The SS James Caruthers isn’t just interesting because of John Thompson's story, but also because it was one of the eight shipwrecks lost in the storm of 1913 in Lake Huron that has never been found.

“I think it’s because of two reasons. First of all, I think it’s in Canadian waters. And secondly, I think it’s in deep Canadian waters. By deep I mean 600 feet maybe,” Kohl guessed. “Of course, it might surprise us all by being 150 feet, which pretty much anyone could dive to. It’s out in the middle of the lake and not too many people go out there searching for shipwrecks, because they’re just so far away from shore, far away from land, and you’ve got no land bearings to go by.”

One of the places Kohl believes the shipwreck could be found in is the Manitoulin trench. The trench is 600 feet deep. When shipwreck searchers get to parts of that lake that are so deep they must rely strictly on GPS systems to find the wreckage below.

“We already have the technology we just don’t have enough people equipped with that technology,” Kohl stated. “We have side scan sonars that can certainly pick up shipwrecks in that depth, but they’re not yet affordable. The ones that are affordable are about $3,000 each. They don’t go deeper than about 200 feet. If it’s in less than 200 feet it could be picked up by one of the less expensive name brands, such as Garmin or Humminbird.”

As the water grows deeper than 200 feet, a deeper system that would utilize a Towfish side scan sonar towed behind the boat that emits sounds beams detecting any anomaly on the lake bottom would be required. So finding the SS James Caruthers will likely take the effort of more people searching for its wreckage with this kind of technology in their hands.

Why The SS James Caruthers?

There are many ships that sank during the storm of 1913, so many might ask why they should learn the history of the SS James Caruthers, especially when it sank to the depths of Lake Huron so long ago.

“It’s the human element,” Kohl replied when asked why he thought this specific wreck on the Great Lakes was so important to history. “In a tragic storm like this where more than 250 sailors perished it’s extremely difficult to find anything positive at all. It’s also its uniqueness to the Canadians. It was the largest ship built in Canada up to that time. The SS James Caruthers was 550 feet long. It was a huge steel freighter and it didn’t even make it through its first season before Mother Nature wiped it out.”

In the end, it is a fascination with the Great Lakes – the unintentional worry it sometimes forces upon us like a child and its true potential to destroy – that draws us into the legend of the SS James Caruthers.


For More Information:

Seawolf Communications, Inc.



  • Like what you read?

    Want to know when we have important news, updates or interviews?

  • Join our newsletter today!

    Sign Up
You Might Also Be Interested In...

Send to your friends!