SS Bannockburn

The Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes

Published in the April 2018 Issue February 2019 Feature, News Jess Carpenter

Photos provided by the Maritime History of the Great Lakes.

“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.” said James Oliver Curwood in The Great Lakes and The Vessels That Plough Them.

Leaving Fort William, Ontario, on November 21, 1902, the Bannockburn carried a crew of 21 people and 85,000 bushels of wheat. It would never return to port. As many journeys across Lake Superior are dangerous, Bannockburn had a rough history previous to its final voyage. In 1897, the ship was badly damaged running over the shoal near Snake River Lighthouse at full speed. The crew partially dumped its cargo, found no one was injured, and the ship floated on. Later that year, the ship struck a wall and sprung a leak. The Bannockburn took on nine feet of water, technically sinking the ship. However, the crew was safe in this instance, and the ship was repaired soon after.

But that evening in 1902 wasn’t the last time the ship was spotted. The Bannockburn’s unique profile has been sighted by many sailors on the sea. Some are more unbelievable than others — sailors have claimed to see skeletons on deck and in portholes. Others are harder to write off, however. Some reports were made by reputable people who had nothing to gain but much to lose.

Keeping The Legend Alive

“The big thing with the Bannockburn,” Marine archeologist and JaySea Archeology Blog editor Jordan Ciesielczyk tells Great Lakes Boating, “for people that live on the Great Lakes, it’s a legend everybody’s heard. For me, there was never anything definitive about it. All I’d ever heard was there was this ghost ship on the Great Lakes. There was never an actual story there, just this ghost ship everyone’s been talking about for the last hundred years or so. Asking where this story actually came from is what drew me into the story of the Bannockburn.”

Ciesielczyk is the editor of Wisconsin’s Underwater Heritage, the publication arm of Wisconsin’s Underwater Archeology Association. While their focus was not originally the Great Lakes, neighboring two of the five lakes with significant and fascinating maritime history draws the association’s attention. Ciesielczyk spun off his work from the Heritage into JaySea Archaeology, a maritime history and marine archaeology blog.

“Maritime history is my passion,” he says, “and I just write about what I’m passionate about really. My perspective is informed by my background in maritime archeology. Maritime archeology itself counts as anything under the water, but that includes more than just shipwrecks. We have some prehistoric formations like the bison hunt lines that we work on too. If you’re narrowing the field to just shipwrecks, then you’re technically in nautical archaeology.”

In his opening salvo about the Bannockburn, Ciesielczyk asks, how does a legend develop? Where do the stories come from? The story of the S.S. Bannockburn remains an infamous piece of Great Lakes history, blending both historical fact and paranormal legend. The idea of a phantom ship sailing along its unearthly course on some foggy night is certainly a romantic one. But where’s the truth? Do we need the truth?

“It goes without saying,” Ciesielczyk writes, “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.

Just The Facts

The beginning of the end for the Bannockburn was recorded by two sailors in the British Wig. Charles O’Toole and John Lyon reported to the Kingston, Ontario, newspaper that they encountered the ship near Passage Island, just to the northeast of Isle Ryale, Lake Superior at 7 a.m. on November 21, 1902. The steel-hulled ship was in full possession of her crew and 85,000 bushels of grain, its typical load.

Her second data point comes from Captain James MacMaugh of the Algonquin. He recognized the Bannockburn’s unique profile, as he was sailing a similarly steel-hulled and Scottish-made ship. The captain reported nothing unusual, spotting the vessel several times before losing track of her in foggy conditions.

Our final encounter hails from an upbound passenger steamer named Huronic and provides a glimpse into the weather conditions of that fateful evening. “At approximately 11 p.m.,” the crew of the Huronic reported seeing lights of a ship they presumed to be the Bannockburn. There as 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 two passages: “November 21: at night we had the worst storm of the season; November 22: Engines of the Huronic damaged by storm.”

Eventually a search party was sent out and returned unsuccessful. By November 30, they had “given the ship up for lost,” according to a news clipping from the Buffalo Evening News in 1902.

How A Legend Is Made

The first recorded description of the Bannockburn as a ghost ship appears in the “Romance and Tragedy of the Inland Seas” chapters of Oliver Curwood’s The Great Lakes And The Vessels That Plough Them, originally published in 1909.

“Oliver Curwood,” Ciesielczyk says, “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 was the first guy to perk up and say let’s write about Great Lakes history, especially when it came to shipwrecks. He wanted to say Great Lakes history is no different from ocean history, real maritime history. He was really trying to make that connection, so he started connecting the Bannockburn to the Flying Dutchman. Everybody had heard of the Flying Dutchman, of course, and it was his way of saying ‘Look, we have the same thing here.’”

From that moment forward, not a foggy night passed without a scared or superstitious sailor catching sight of the Bannockburn’s distinct hull. Some paint the Bannockburn as a heroic ghost ship, whose appearance forced ships to change course abruptly, missing unseen treacheries beneath Superior’s surface. Others mirror Flying Dutchman or Edmund Fitzgerald sightings and haunt the witnesses for years to come.

“Every ship has a story,” Ciesielczyk reminisces. “But with the passing of time, all these ships and the people who worked on them get forgotten or underwritten. Through discovery and sharing these tales online, we can bring those stories back to life.”

For More Information:

Wisconsin Underwater Archaeology Association


Maritime History of the Great Lakes


Jay Sea Archaeology

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