On the evening of November 21st 1902 the Montreal Transportation Company was missing a ship. The Bulk freighter Bannockburn carrying 85,000 bushels of grain was expected in Midland after departing from Fort William, Ontario earlier that day. However, the ship never arrived. The previous night an early winter storm had ripped through Lake Superior. It was the kind of storm that sent icy water spilling onto the decks of ships, whitewashed the sky with snow, and blurred the line between ice and lake. It was even deemed “the worst storm of the season” in the diary of the Huronic, a passenger ship on Lake Superior at the time. Almost twenty-four hours after said monstrous storm, the ship was nowhere to be seen.
Mixed reports regarding Bannockburn began to flood into Kingston. The majority of the twenty-person crew were locals, including the chief engineer of the ship, one George Booth. The men’s families waited anxiously for news of their loved ones. The Montreal Transportation Company, which doubtedly wished for the safe return of their employees… also feared for the massive stock of merchandise the ship happened to be carrying. News would finally come on November 28th in the form of a British Whig newspaper article titled “Bannockburn Found!” The article reported that the Midland Port had received a phone call from the Underwriters Association in Chicago stating; “The steamer Bannockburn has been located on the north shore of Lake Superior opposite Michipicoten Island. Crew is safe.” It seemed then that the people of Kingston could take a collective sigh of relief. As it turns out, things would not be that easy. (Picture right: Bannockburn Kingston Dry Dock for repairs. Museum Archives 1980.0085.0001)
Despite what the Whig article claimed, The Bannockburn was not found off the shore of Michip icoten island. In fact it wasn't found anywhere and the search was forced to continue. Reports came in from other ships on the lake that night, claiming to have seen the missing Bannockburn. James McMaugh, Captain of the Algonquin, another bulk freight, explained that he had seen lights through the intense snow squall that evening which he had attributed to the Bannockburn. The previously mentioned Huronic also noted in its diary entry for the 22nd of November: “Heard today of the missing Bannockburn. The boat passed on the night of the 21st.” Both ships had claimed to have seen the Bannockburn during the storm, yet these reports could not be confirmed or traced. (Pictured left: SS Huronic. Museum Archives 1984_ 0008_ 0016)
Almost five months later a discovery would be made which would put an end to the life of the Bannockburn. Well, it’s earthly life anyway. On December 15th of 1902 The Whig put out yet another article explaining that lookouts had recovered a life preserver from the ship on White Fish Point Beach in Michigan. The article reads that the preserver “bears seemingly blood stains on its shoulder straps which are tied.” The tied straps indicated that the preserver had indeed been used but no crew members were recovered. This confirmed for the hearts of many what they had feared. The Bannockburn was lost.
Despite this grim discovery, White Point Fish Beach was not the ending of Bannockburn’s story. For the next century people claimed to have witnessed the cursed vessel. Hearsay and rumours surround the tale of the Bannockburn . Whether these reports are true or not, it cannot be denied that the story of the Bannockburn has captured the imagination of Great Lake folklore enthusiasts for years. It truly is a haunting image. The lost icy Bannockburn caught wandering in an eternal winter storm or as one 1909 manuscript put it “a ghostly apparition of ice scudding through the gloom.” And this image doesn’t end in 1909 either. As late as October of 2016 one man claimed to have taken a video of a ghost ship haunting Lake Superior. Could this be the Bannockburn? You decide.
We may never know what truly happened to the Bannockburn. The ship was most likely lost that night of the 21st, taking its doomed crew with it. As one commentary written in The Free Press put it, “as the Waters of Lake Superior reach their greatest depth at that point it is probable none of the bodies will ever be recovered. Lake Superior never gives up it's dead.” Or maybe it is this very mystery which has cursed the ship to return to the surface; reminding anyone fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see it, that the story of the Bannockburn is yet to have an ending.
Research Assistant, Autumn 2021