Ghost Ships: Bannockburn

by T. Duplain

Thousands upon thousands of ships have been lost over the past 150 years on the Great Lakes, but no single disappearance has become as famous as “The Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior”, the Bannockburn. This ship was named after the famous Scottish battle in 1314, in which Robert the Bruce won Scotland’s independence from the British. Much like the Flying Dutchman, the Bannockburn was destroyed in a heavy storm.

The Bannockburn was built in 1893 in Sir R. Dixon and Company’s shipyard, one of the best in all the British Isles. She was an all steel and 245 foot long steamer. Along with many other ships, the Bannockburn was sailed across the Atlantic, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, and into the Great Lakes. These ships were used for Canadian service in Port Arthur, Ontario (today it is the city of Thunder Bay).

On November 21, 1902, the Bannockburn set out into Lake Superior with a cargo of 85,000 bushels of wheat and a crew of 20 men from Port Arthur, Ontario. At 9:00 AM, the Bannockburn suffered a slight grounding, but there didn’t seem to be much damage. At 50 miles southeast of Passage Island and northeast of Keweenaw Point, Captain James McMaugh, the captain of a passing ship, the Algonquin, noted that his steamer had passed the Bannockburn and that it seemed to moving along quite well despite a decent storm. The captain returned to his work, but no more than five minutes later, he looked back at the Bannockburn, and it was gone. Captain McMaugh considered that maybe the ship had hit a patch of heavy fog or bad weather, and was not concerned. Unfortunately, Captain James McMaugh may have been the last to see the Bannockburn. All that was ever found of the ship was a lifeboat oar and a life preserver with its strings tied together by the Grand Marais Life-Saving Service crew on December 12.

Many newspapers said that the vessel had been stranded on the mainland north of Michipicoten Island or near the rocks by Caribou Island, but these stories are completely false. No one knows for sure what happened to the Bannockburn. Some think it was the weather. Others ideas are a boiler explosion, the shoals near Caribou Island, or the minor accident the ship had when leaving Port Arthur.

The only man on the ship that was married on the Bannockburn was Chief Engineer. The same day the boat disappeared, two of his three children died.

Due to this ship’s tragic story, it would not, and has not gone unseen still sailing the Great Lakes.