Revisiting the Bannockburn: Lake Superior's Flying Dutchman

Lost Ship of the Month
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The Lost Ship of the Month for February is the legendary flying dutchman of Lake Superior, the Bannockburn.  This ship has achieved legendary status for having “sailed through a crack in the Lake” and “disappearing without a trace.”  She is the subject of numerous ghost stories and has reputedly been sighted by modern freighters, still trying to reach her destination.  Her story has been written up by nearly every Great Lakes author and she is one of the best-known missing ships on the Great Lakes. 

Why write up this wreck about which so much has already been written, which probably lies in 1000 feet of water and is 50 miles from land?  It’s been decades since a critical, scientific look at the Bannockburn’s loss has been published and the information age has made it much easier to find info and collaborate.  Likewise, there is no longer any doubt whether these deep wrecks will be found.  They will all eventually be found, given the advent of autonomous underwater vehicles, magnetic anomaly data and improved sonar technology.  It is no longer a question of if, but when.  As such, a revisiting of the facts of the Bannockburn’s loss seems timely.

Because of the Bannockburn’s mystique as a ghost ship, she is nearly always sensationalized by authors, concentrating more on legend than fact.  As such, much of the info to be found in books isn’t particularly helpful in trying to determine the facts about her loss or her likely location.  When most people research a known wreck, they open a book or hit a database.  In the case of the Bannockburn, as with most wrecks I research, I decided to start from scratch, consulting the primary source material directly, to see what I would come up with.  I went directly to the original 1902 reports and accounts BEFORE looking at any modern interpretations.  I do this not because I don’t value the work of earlier researchers, but because so many new sources of information have become available and I believe it is important to avoid preconceptions and bias when investigating an historic vessel loss.  The following is what I found.

The Bannockburn was a 244 foot, single screw, steel bulk freight steamer built in 1893 at Middlesbrough, England by R. Dixon and Co. for the Montreal Transportation Company.  She was a bit unusual for a Great Lakes vessel in that she was built overseas, but she was far from unique on the Lakes in the is regard, as many Canadian firms of that day had their vessels built in England.  The Bannockburn ran in the grain trade, mostly between Duluth/Port Arthur and Midland/Kingston, Ontario.  She frequently towed the barges Melrose and Selkirk and was the nearly identical sister of the Rosemount.  She was considered a staunch, well-built vessel, better than most built on the Lakes, reportedly with steel superstructure.  She did have a somewhat different appearance from most Lake vessels of the day, with her pilothouse set back and her stern cabins shifted forward, making her easily recognizable.  Bannockburn had a few confirmed groundings in her nine-year career, but none were serious and she was well-repaired after each.  In the week before her loss, she had just made a previous trip hauling grain from Port Arthur to Midland, Ontario on Georgian Bay, having locked down through the Soo on the morning of Monday, November 17th.  As such, she was making frequent, fast, late season runs across Lake Superior at the time of her loss.

On her final trip, she locked up through the Soo at 8 AM on Wednesday, November 19th, one of fourteen other vessels locking up that day.  She was under the command of 37 y/o Captain George R. Wood and had a crew of 20 notably young sailors, most under 22 years of age.  With a cruising speed of 10-15 mph, depending on load and weather, she reached Port Arthur, a run of about 250 miles from the Soo, during the early morning of Thursday, November 20th.  There, she quickly took on a cargo of 85,000 bushels of Manitoba wheat and departed before midnight.  She then ominously grounded on a mud or sand bank while leaving Port Arthur, but was freed by the early morning of Friday, November 21st, resuming her trip.  She was bound for Midland, Ontario by way of the well-charted shipping lane to the Soo Locks. 

We don’t know exactly what time she departed from her stranding, but this is the last definitive report we have of the Bannockburn until a week later.  Beginning on Friday the 21st, a significant storm swept over Lake Superior from the northwest.  The Weather Bureau records suggest that it was a fairly intense, localized disturbance over the Lake, with maximum gusts approaching 50 mph out on the Lake and 47 mph gusts reported on the 22nd at Sault Ste. Marie.  Waves in the open Lake likely approached 15 feet, but clearance records at the Soo suggest that at least 40 other vessels were in transit on the Lake during the storm and no others were lost.  Other captains did however, report that the storm was serious, some stating it was the worst they had seen in a decade.  By the 23rd, winds swung around out of the northeast and rapidly diminished.  By November 26th, nearly a week after the Bannockburn’s departure, she had still not arrived at the Soo, and newspapers began to express concern for her, but noted that she had survived worse conditions in the past.

An important piece of the puzzle arrived on Thursday, November 27th, when the Canadian grain carrier Algonquin arrived at Toronto.  The Algonquin had been one of many vessels crossing Lake Superior that day and was upbound light for Port Arthur.  Captain McMaugh, seeing the news accounts on his arrival at Toronto, recalled that he had passed about 7 miles to the North of the Bannockburn while around 40 miles southeast of Isle Royale on the morning of Friday the 21st.  He noted that both vessels were on the same course, which is well charted on the maps of the day.  Captain McMaugh noted that he was familiar with the Bannockburn, as both the Algonquin and Bannockburn were similar vessels on the same routes in the Canadian grain trade.  He recalled that he “watched the vessel narrowly several times” because of the heavy sea that was running, but saw no obvious distress.  Captain McMaugh noted that the seas were running very high, visibility was hazy and his own vessel was “filling considerably.”  When he looked a few minutes later, the vessel was gone and he even remarked that she went out of sight rather quickly.  He later stated that she may have exploded her boilers to have disappeared so quickly, although this was purely speculative. 

In the following days, many claims poured into the news outlets, mostly claiming that the Bannockburn had been sighted aground on Caribou Island, Michipicoten Island or on the east shore of Lake Superior.  The steamer Majestic reportedly sighted her ashore on the mainland opposite Michipicoten Island; a claim which the steamer’s crew later denied making.  Other claims were levied that the Bannockburn must have struck Caribou Island, as the light keeper at Caribou Island had quit, causing the light to go dark.  Tugs were dispatched to comb the north shore and the Islands for evidence of the Bannockburn, but none was found.  These multiple reported sightings would plant the seed for her legend as a “flying dutchman.”

Word also came out that the Canadian passenger steamer Huronic believed they saw the passing lights of the Bannockburn, while they were upbound from the Soo the Port Arthur.  Future author and historian, Fred Landon was working as a waiter on the Huronic at the time and noted in his diary that they had been buffeted by a substantial storm and that they believed they had passed the Bannockburn in the night on the 21st based on her lighting configuration.  The Huronic had locked up at 11:20 AM on the 21st and, given the bad weather, might have been in the area of the Bannockburn by 8 or 9 PM.  However, the passage of 8 – 12 hours between the confirmed Algonquin sighting and the possible Huronic sighting, casts some doubt on it.  Although the Huronic crew likely did know most of the boats on the Port Arthur run, there were over 40 different freighters that were on Lake Superior that night according to the records of the Soo Locks and a misidentification seems possible.  If the Huronic did see the Bannockburn still afloat that night, she may have been disabled, as she should have been almost to the Soo by that time with the gale at her back.

The next important development in the Bannockburn saga occurred on Sunday, November 30th when the whaleback steamer Frank Rockefeller (later the Meteor) arrived at the Soo and reported that they had passed through a wreckage field off Stannard Rock the previous day.  The Rockefeller had been downbound with iron ore and was on the shipping lane around Keweenaw Point.  The Rockefeller did not stop to examine the wreckage, but as no other vessel was lost on Lake Superior at the time, it was almost certainly the Bannockburn’s. 

Based on the accounts of the Algonquin, the Rockefeller, and the failure to find any evidence on the Islands or east shore, the Bannockburn was declared lost.  Along with her cargo, the loss amounted to $210,000, a grand sum when adjusted for today’s dollars.  She had been one of the most profitable grain vessels in the Canadian fleet.

A final, definitive event in the Bannockburn story occurred on December 12, 1902, around three weeks after the vessel’s loss.  Captain Ben Trudell of the Grand Marais Life Saving Station found a canvas life jacket floating off the beach stenciled “Bannockburn.”  The life jacket was secured as though it had been on a body and it had blood stains on its straps.  A further search revealed additional minor wreckage.

There are two additional accounts that seem spurious but are worth mentioning.  Several months later, on June 19th, 1903, another life preserver and an oar were recovered near Caribou Island.  These were probably authentic, but as with most of the facts surrounding the Bannockburn, the story has been embellished over the years to include the name Bannockburn being carved into the oar and etched with blood.

Lastly, and perhaps most spurious, the steamer Crescent City reported on June 7, 1905, nearly three years after the Bannockburn’s disappearance, that they had found ship’s deck and pilot house floating about 15 miles west of Whitefish Point.  The debris was widely attributed to the Bannockburn, despite the vast gulf of time.  Several additional spurious debris and sighting reports followed, and by 1909, only 7 years later, James Oliver Curwood in his epic book “The Great Lakes and the Vessels that Plough Them” and pronounced her the Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior. 

In the ensuing years, the facts concerning the Bannockburn were retold verbally and in print, each time becoming a bit less accurate.  It is noteworthy that even in the printed accounts of the day, distances and times vary from source to source.  It was necessary to track down the original news source for each article and to use the most detailed and most primary account to get accurate data.  For example, the distance given from Isle Royale for the Algonquin’s sighting began in the first report as 40 miles southeast of Isle Royale and contained significant first-person detail from Captain McMaugh, but had changed to 50 miles and then to 80 miles in subsequent, less detailed news articles.

So, what did happen to the Bannockburn?  After separating the folklore from the facts, a coherent picture does indeed emerge of the Bannockburn’s last voyage.  To understand the likely scenario, it is necessary to refer to the 1898 nautical chart shown.  The chart shows the shipping lanes of the day, which are very important in understanding where ships would have been and where landmarks and important locations are relative to the direction of the storm.

A key point is the sighting by the Algonquin on the morning of Friday, 11/21 about 40 miles southeast of Isle Royale and we know there was a stiff gale out of the northwest, roughly at the Bannockburn’s stern.  Eight days later, on Saturday, 11/29, the Frank Rockefeller passed through debris off Stannard Rock while downbound from Duluth.  They would have been in a different shipping lane from the Bannockburn, shown on the chart much further south, as the Rockefeller was in the iron ore trade.  Then on December 12th, roughly two weeks after the debris sighting, the life jacket and debris are found at Grand Marais.  It is noteworthy, that these three locations are nearly in a straight line from the northwest. 

Given the known direction of the storm, which began out of the northwest then swung around out of the northeast, the known counter-clockwise current of Lake Superior and the location of the three solid reports, a search grid can be derived.  It seems unlikely that the Bannockburn made it much further than her sighting by the Algonquin, given the reported location of her debris by the Rockefeller and the wind and current direction.  Had she made it significantly further east, given the wind direction, her debris field would likely have been further east as well.  It is also noteworthy that she was not reported during the remaining daylight hours, despite several other vessels being in transit to and from Port Arthur that day.

One additional possibility was offered for her loss that I’ve not seen in print before.  The Buffalo Review of December 19, 1902 gives the following interesting account:

In conjunction with the loss of the steamer Bannockburn, the statement of Kingston blacksmith, John Maloney, may be accepted as important.  “I was the M.T. Co’s blacksmith,” said he, “and braced the rudder quadrant, as the hub was split.  I have no doubt that it broke and the combined efforts of the crew were insufficient to handle the rudder in a storm when the vessel quadrant gave way and the vessel, being at the mercy of the sea, foundered.”

It seems unlikely that Maloney would impune his own work unless he felt strongly about it, but it does offer an interesting possibility in light of the reported grounding.  Had the Bannockburn lost steerage due to her repaired rudder being weakened by the grounding, she could indeed have fallen into the trough of the following sea and foundered.  Although it is also possible that one of her boilers exploded, it seems statistically unlikely, given the rarity of such an event in a nine year old, modern vessel.  If she had lost steerage, it may also explain the reputed late sighting by the Huronic.

Other theories have been put forth, including speculation that she succumbed due to a lost hull plate when one was found in the Soo Locks when they were drained at the end of the year.  The discovery of Superior Shoal in 1929 also fueled speculation that the Bannockburn somehow ran into the uncharted pinnacle.  Superior Shoal however, is far from the known course of the Bannockburn, the sighting by the Algonquin and contrary to the direction of the storm.  It has also been searched and no vessel evidence was found.

In conclusion, I believe that the likely fate of the Bannockburn is more knowable than generally thought and that the facts, if distilled carefully, suggest a fairly succinct search grid along the shipping lane of the day.  It is easy to see why the legend has developed around the loss of the Bannockburn, given the hyperbole and confusion of the media during 1902.  I doubt very much that the Bannockburn will be the subject of a wreckhunting expedition anytime soon due to her distance from land, but it is a certainty that she will eventually be found, given advances in technology.  The search area shown on the included map would be a good place to keep an eye on.

 


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