“…they are swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as dire as any that lash the salted wave. They know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however in land, they have drowned many a midnight ship and all her shrieking crew.”
This is how Herman Melville describes the Great Lakes in his classic novel Moby Dick. Those five freshwater lakes that are more like inland seas, water so vast you can stand on the shore and not see the opposite side.
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Places of majesty and terror, one moment they are a vacationer’s paradise with lapping waves and bright warm sun. The next moment they are a black hell of screaming winds and towering waves ready to devour the largest of vessels. The wrecks of more than 6,000 ships and thousands of sailors litter the bottoms of the Lakes. And not all of them are at rest.
The stories began in 1679 when the enterprising exploring Robert De La Salle launched the very first European ship to traverse the Great Lakes, a small schooner named the Griffon. She was to head north to Mackinaw Island and Niagara with a cargo of expensive furs to trade with the Native Americans. She had a crew of five, captained by a man named Luke.
On August 7, 1679 the Griffon departed on her first voyage down to Lake Michigan’s Green Bay to load up a cargo of furs. Thus loaded, Captain Luke ordered her to set course for Niagara. She never arrived. Her wreckage is still somewhere beneath either Lakes Michigan or Huron, as yet undiscovered.
Her ghost however, still roams the Lakes. Tales have been told by sailors of seeing the glowing apparition of the Griffon on foggy days, sometimes she seems to head straight towards a ship only to vanish at the last moment. Some have claimed to hear desperate voices shouting ‘mai’dez! mai’dez!” which is French for ‘help me!’
The tale of the paddle steamer Alpena is another wandering ghost of the Lakes. Built in 1867, the 197 foot and 67 ton ship would be lost in a devastating storm on October 16, 1889 with a cargo of apples and passengers. It is believed her cargo may have suddenly shifted in the rolling waves and she rolled over and sank. There were no survivors.
Alpena’s wreck may sit quietly on the Lake floor but that doesn’t mean she is at rest. For the ghost of the doomed steamer has been reported more than once over the centuries.
On watch in the dead of a wild night, staring into the black howling void, sailors may still glimpse the old Alpena, her dim outline visible in the deck lights. Ghosts man her bridge and operate her engines, passengers long dead play cards in her saloon or stare longingly for a glimpse of shore.
Perhaps the most famous ghost ship on the Great Lakes is the steamer Bannockburn. Dubbed the Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes, she met a sudden and mysterious end on a peaceful day in late 1902. Departing Port Arthur, Ontario for the lower lakes. It was just another routine crossing for a relatively new ship.
Later that day, a steamer called the Huronic sighted the Bannockburn in passing. The Huronic’s skipper turned around for a few moments and when he turned back, he was puzzled that he could no longer see the Bannockburn.
He shrugged, assuming the steamer had simply vanished into a thickening fog he could see astern of the ship. He would be the last to ever see the Bannockburn afloat. She had simply disappeared with her entire crew.
Why the Bannockburn vanished is still up for debate among sailors. The largely agreed upon theory is that she had been dropping hull plates all season and the ship finally went down because of it. All that was ever found of her was a single oar with the name Bannockburn carved in the handle.
The old Bannockburn is still sighted to this day, a ghostly phantom sighted on stormy nights from the bridges and forecastles of countless vessels, her distinctive profile easily identified. She still fights the stormy Lakes, desperately trying to make her last port. One more ghost ship roaming the Inland Seas.
Are these simply the exaggerated tales of crusty old sailors? Perhaps. But if you ever find yourself on a ship during a howling Great Lakes gale, or in the black depths of the night, take a careful look around you. Open your eyes and ears and you might just catch a glimpse of a wandering specter of the Great Lakes.
By Eric Morang, source: Ghosts, the paranormal, myths and legends