By Matthew Kettles
“How do you lose a ship in a lake?” This is inevitably one of the first questions asked when describing the shipwrecks of North America’s five Great Lakes to those unfamiliar with the region or the subject. Of course, the Great Lakes are much bigger than your average lake, to the point where it is perhaps more appropriate to term them “Inland Seas”. Forming a corridor from the heartland of North America to the Atlantic Ocean, the Lakes proved themselves a viable means of transportation, an industry which continues to this day.
In spite of its rich collection of lore, the maritime history of the Great Lakes is a largely forgotten chapter of North American history, outside of a handful of historians, local enthusiasts, and scuba divers. This last group in particular is important to note, as they are concerned with the history of the many well-preserved shipwrecks that lie scattered along the bottom of the lakes.
While the history of the lakes is filled with the harrowing tales of survivors from these wrecks, there are some ships from which there were no survivors, no one to tell the tale of what caused the lakes to claim yet another ship for their collection. There are countless examples of ships that, for one reason or another, sailed out from safe harbor into the lake and were never seen or heard from again. Search parties were organized, and sent out in hopes of finding the lost vessel. Instead, they would be greeted by a field of wreckage, and return empty handed with news that the missing vessel was lost.
These ships form a collection of intriguing mysteries; ships that “went missing”. This piece is by no means intended as an exhaustive overview of such cases. Instead, it should serve as an introduction to further inquiry, for those who may be curious.
One of the first examples of a ship that “went missing” is, appropriately, one of the first European ships to ever sail the Great Lakes. This vessel was the 45-ton French barque, Le Griffon, constructed by the explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle. La Salle is more famous today as the man who claimed Louisiana for France, but earlier in his career, he had explored the Great Lakes region in the hopes of finding the Northwest Passage. As part of this expedition, to take advantage of the abundant and highly lucrative furs in the region, La Salle ordered the construction of Le Griffon. The vessel set sail on its maiden voyage on August 7, 1679 bound from the Niagara Peninsula to the location of modern-day Green Bay, Wisconsin. The vessel arrived safely, and La Salle disembarked while the ship was loaded with furs, and sent back to its port of origin with a crew of six. Le Griffon never made it.1
Today, Le Griffon is seen as the “Holy Grail” for Great Lakes shipwreck hunters. With no survivors or witnesses to speak of, its location is the most ambiguous of any Great Lakes shipwreck. It’s not clear which lake it was even lost in, as locations in both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron are equally likely. While many claims have come forward over the years, none have definitely proven to be the long-lost ship.2
As European settlement and later, American expansion continued, the Great Lakes basin became a heavily populated and industrialized region. A developed lake commerce industry rose up in response to this, and by the mid-19th Century, hundreds of schooners and small wooden steamships plied the waters. People needed to be moved just as much as cargo, and in response, upstart companies constructed small paddle-driven steamships to run between the large port cities. The 197- foot long Alpena was one such ship.
Constructed in Marine City, Michigan in 1867, the Alpena was one of the more popular ‘palace ships’ that plied the Lake Michigan, running a route between Chicago, Muskegon, and Grand Haven. Its last run on October 15, 1880 began under fair weather conditions, unusually warm for that late in the season. After taking on the last of its passen- gers and cargo, the Alpena departed Grand Haven for Chicago at 10pm. That night, however, conditions suddenly took a turn for the worse. The temperature plummeted from 18 degrees Celsius down to 0 in less than an hour, and a gale rose up, with winds up to 112 kilometers per hour. The next morning, the Alpena was nowhere to be found. As wreckage began to wash ashore in the next weeks, it became apparent that it never would be. While there was no official manifesto detailing how many were aboard, it is estimated that 70-80 passengers and crew went to the bot- tom of Lake Michigan with the Alpena. 3
With the dawn of the 20th Century, the advent of the steel freighter heralded the dawn of the modern era of navigation on the great lakes. Cargo could be delivered faster and in greater quantities than was ever before possible, resulting in a boom in ship construction. In spite of their modern innovations, these new ships still proved themselves just as susceptible to the lakes’ fury.
The most infamous of these early steel ships was the small 245-foot long canal steamer Bannockburn. Built in 1893 in Scotland, the Bannockburn was considered a staunch and reliable vessel.4 On November 20, 1902, the ship departed Port Arthur, Ontario, bound for Midland with a cargo of wheat. A storm hit the lake the following evening, but one the Bannockburn should have been more than capable of weathering. Another ship, the Algonquin, spotted the Bannockburn that night, the captain noting it was fighting a headwind, but otherwise seemed to be faring well. The passenger vessel Huronic also may have spotted the Bannockburn’s lights, although this was never confirmed. Despite the lack of indication that the ship was in distress, it failed to show up the following morning in Sault Ste. Marie. Hope was briefly revived when a single report came in that the Bannockburn was ashore on Michipico- ten Island. But this was dashed as a search failed to find the supposedly stranded ship. The only bits of wreckage ever recovered were a single life jacket and an oar, both bearing the lost vessel’s name, washed up on Superior’s southern shore. The Bannockburn was gone, but the question remained: why?5
This was not the end of the Bannockburn’s story. It would live on in the minds of more imaginative sailors and storytellers as the “Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior”. On other stormy nights sailors would report seeing the little steamer plowing though the swells, still vainly attempting to reach its destination. Reported Bannockburn sightings began the year after the vessel’s loss and continued well into the 1940s, often seen as a foreboding omen.6
All of these losses pale in comparison to the worst disaster to ever befall the Great Lakes shipping industry, simply known as the Great Storm of 1913. Lasting from November 6 until November 11 of that year, twelve steel freighters vanished into the lake, taking with them over 250 sailors.7 The largest of the ships, the 529-foot long Canadian steamer James Carruthers was only a few months old at the time. In spite of warnings
of the oncoming storm at DeTour, Michigan, where the Carruthers had stopped to take on coal, the ship’s captain ordered her to sail out into Lake Huron. Instead of remaining behind to seek shelter, the Carruthers simply became one more of the Great Lakes’ lost ships. 8
These ships are a mere handful of the Great Lakes ships whose registries were closed with the words “lost with all hands”. At the same time, they are each little pieces of the region’s history, igniting the imagination of the members of dedicated groups of hobby divers and historical societies, who continue to search for these lost ships.
However, the Lakes are notoriously good at keeping their secrets. Of the estimated six thousand ships that have been lost on the Great Lakes since the arrival of Europeans to the continent, less than a quarter have been located. With the limited amount of resources devoted to finding these wrecks, and the depths to which the lakes plunge, it is likely that most of them will remain lost for years to come.
With the advent of technological advancements such as radio, radar, and GPS systems, the frequency of shipwrecks dropped rapidly. The small steel freighters of the past have given way to much larger vessels, anywhere between 700 and 1000 feet in length and capable of carrying five times as much cargo as their predecessors. Yet far beneath the modern hulls gliding on the placid surface lie the immaculately preserved bones of the ships and the sailors that have gone before them, quietly forgotten until they day they are chanced upon once more.
1Harlan Hatcher and Erich A. Walter. A Pictorial History of the Great Lakes. (New York: American Legacy Press, 1963), 52-53.
2Chris Kohl. Shipwreck Tales of the Great Lakes. (West Chicago: Seawolf Communica- tions, 2004), 44-47.
3Frederick Stonehouse. Went Missing 2nd Edition. (Marquette: Avery Color Studios, 1984), 138-140.
4Rev. Peter J. Van der Linden et al. Great Lakes Ships We Remember Vol. I. (Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1984), 43.
5Stonehouse, Went Missing, 44-46.
6Dwight Boyer. Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes. (Cornwall: The Cornwall Press, 1968), 26-27. 7Stonehouse, Went Missing, 194.
8Dwight Boyer. True Tales of the Great Lakes. (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1971), 266-267.