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Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Decemystery (2019) 17: The Phantom Fleet of the Great Lakes

A creepy ship. I don't know the artist though, so I'm unsure as to who to credit.
Last year, we covered a few maritime mysteries. This year, we'll be covering two more. To start, we’re headed to the Great Lakes to search for some ghost ships. This is the story of the Phantom Fleet.

We All Befall The Same Fate: The Mystery of the Phantom Fleet

The idea for this Phantom Fleet comes from an article published on Mysterious Universe entitled “The Ghost Fleet of the Great Lakes” by Brent Swancer. I’d originally only intended to write about one of these ships—the SS Kamloops—but I’ve decided to more or less parrot what Swancer wrote as it gives a clearer image to the paranormal history of these lakes. As such: all credit goes to him. One final note: as to why I changed the name of the Ghost Fleet to the Phantom Fleet, I think the latter sounds better. With that out the way, let’s begin.

The Griffon

Said to be both the oldest and first of the Phantom Fleet, the Griffon set sail in 1679 and, during her maiden voyage on Lake Erie from Niagara, subsequently vanished. As for what caused it to vanish, a man by the name of Louis Hennepin claimed that the ship was lost in a vicious storm that had taken place. Other said that fur traders were the cause for its sinking. Then there are those who blame Ottawas and Pottawatomies, who boarded the ship, slaughtered the crew, and then burned the ship. There are also theories that Jesuits were the reason the ship vanished.

In one final theory: there’s a theory that an Iroquois witch doctor named Metiomek who cursed the ship. Metiomek supposedly believed that the ship was offensive to the Great Spirit and warned the ship’s builder that if it were to ever sail, it was destined to sink and that LaSalle would also be doomed to die (to which he was later killed by his crew during a mutiny).

Whatever the case may be: the ship is now considered to be the “Holy Grail” of Great Lakes shipwrecks and to this day there are still those that search for the ship in hopes of finding the centuries old vessel.

According to some though: the ship yearns to be found. Since the The Griffon went missing, there have been reports of a ghostly, glowing ship that’s said to manifest from the fog banks of Lake Michigan. This ship—which is said to be The Griffon—is claimed to have a habit of setting itself on a collision course with other vessels that are sailing. However, the ship will vanish immediately before making contact. If you wish to see the ship for yourself, and perhaps become its next near-collision target—it’s said to appear on foggy nights.

The Hudson

After vanishing on September 16, 1901 on Lake Michigan near Keweenaw Point, the ship known as The Hudson would later reappear 39 years later on September 16, 1940. It was on this day that a tugboat captain and his crew saw the ship drifting aimlessly near Keweenaw Point.

Figuring there was something wrong with it (no thanks to the brown slime that covered the rusty ship), the captain approached the ship and boarded it, only to discover that the ship was empty. Curious, the captain went to the pilot house and discovered the captain and helmsman of The Hudson. After asking what was wrong, The Hudson’s captain explained that the he and the helmsman were doomed to eternally relive the ship’s sinking every year. After that, the tugboat captain was warned to get off of the ship, to which he did.

Big time.

The tugboat captain jumped into the water and swam back to his own boat and promptly got away from The Hudson, which is now said to sometimes be seen off of Keweenaw Point on September 16.

Western Reserve

The Western Reserve and her sister ship, the W.H. Gilcher, were sister ships that were built towards the end of the 19th century.

While sailing from Cleveland, Ohio to Two Harbors, Minnesota to pick up iron ore, the Western Reserve encountered a severe storm on Lake Superior. 25 of the ship’s 26 crewmembers died in the sinking. The ship’s wheelman, a man by the name of Harry Stewart, amazingly survived. Perhaps more would have had the captain, Benjamin Truedeil, heeded a supposed premonition he had while sleeping, where in he saw the storm and subsequent sinking in what he claimed to be “great detail” prior to having even left the harbor. That particular topic will one day be discussed though. For now, how about the actual ghost ship?

Allegedly, the Western Reserve is said to haunt Lake Superior in the general area of Deer Park, Michigan. It’s claimed the ship creates large banks of fog and even larger waves as she sails on through. Those who’ve claimed to see the ship also say that they can hear talking and laughter aboard the ship. I have no idea if these waves the ship creates have ever sank a smaller vessel, but it’s good to know that the ship’s crew seem to be taking death in stride.

W.H. Glicher

In a tragic tale of two sisters, the Western Reserve’s companion ship, the W.H. Glicher, would also go poof two months after the Western Reserve.

The year was 1892. After leaving Buffalo, New York to go for Milwaukee, Wisconsin with a cargo of coal, the ship entered Lake Michigan and into a heavy storm, only to succumb to the wrath of mother nature; all 18–22 (the reports are unclear) of her crew succumbing with the ship herself. Nowadays, it’s claimed that you can see the ship appear off of Mackinaw Island. It’s said that she’s covered in a veil of fog and that the ship’s captain, Lloyd H. Weeks, is still at the helm. It’s also claimed that the ship will sometimes set off its fog horn.

As a bit of fun trivia: as of the time of this writing in 2019, the W.H. Gilcher is the second largest unidentified shipwreck in all of Lake Michigan. The only ship larger is the car ferry, the Pere Marquette 18.

The Emperor

The Emperor sank during a storm in 1947, her crew of 12 going down with her. Nowadays, the wreck is a diver’s tourist attraction that is said to be extremely haunted. In 1988, one diver claimed to have seen the spirit of one of the crewmen lying in his bunk, staring at the diver before vanishing.

Another story comes from a different diver, who said that they saw the ghost of a crewman working in the ship’s engine room. The spirit turned to stare at the diver with eyes that were described as:

“Dark pools of nothing, really just black holes, but still they asked these silent questions. ‘Why me? Where are my friends? Why am I alone?’”

After some time, the ghost went back to working as if the ship were fully operational and out at sea.

The final story—or rather stories—are that of divers who hear the engine noises and allegedly hearing a voice that’s described as “rapsy”, “sinister” and “metallic” that tells them to die.

SS Kamloops

The story that was intended to be today’s entry, the SS Kamloops is a story that I must admit is one of the most unnerving ghost ship stories I’ve ever heard of. A Canadian freighter that began her life at sea in 1924, the Kamloops sank on—or around—December 7, 1927, taking with her her crew 22 with her to the bottom of Lake Superior.

Her story doesn’t quite end there though. A year after the sinking, a message in a bottle was found by a trapper in Ontario that was written by Alice Bettridge, a lady in her early twenties who served as an assistant stewardess. In the letter, she wrote:

“I am the last one alive, freezing and starving to death on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. I just want mom and dad to know my fate.”

The ship wouldn't be found for half a century; it was only in 1977 that it was discovered and it quickly became apparent that those who perished aboard it weren’t at peace whatsoever. Within the ship’s engine room, there was a remarkably well preserved body of a man who’s become known as “Grandpa.” It’s said that the body will float up behind those who dive down to the ship and stalk them around the room. Some chalk this up to the currents of the lake and the somber history of the ship. However, those who have been then swear up and down that “Grandpa” will move on his own thanks to forces unseen. If you wish to see the Kamloops’ wreck—along with “Grandpa”—click here for a video that shows the ship in all of her glory.

The Bannockburn

Known as “The Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior”, the Bannockburn is probably the most famous of all the Phantom Fleet. Once a freighter from Canada, the Bannockburn vanished on Lake Superior on November 21, 1902 while en route to Fort William. Vanishing with its 21 crewmembers and its cargo of wheat.

The ship was sighted sometime after it had departed; the captain of another freighter called the Algonquin, James McMaugh, had said he saw the Bannockburn off of Isle Royale several times. However, with each sighting, he’d quickly lose sight of it. As such, he figured that it was the heavy fog that had rolled in around that time.

The day that Captain McMaugh had sighted the Bannockburn, a terrible storm also rolled in. As such, we now set sail to the next ship that saw the doom freighter: a passenger steamer called the Huronic, which allegedly passed by the Bannockburn while en route to its own destination. However, the freighter didn’t send out any distress signals or show any signs of being in any sort of danger. As such, those aboard the Huronic figured that all was fine and continued on through the hazardous storm.

These two sightings would lead one to figure that all was alright aboard the Bannockburn. However, as the days went on and the freighter failed to arrive at its destination, family members of the crewmen grew increasingly worried and requested a search be performed. This yielded not a single trace of the ship and five days after the Bannockburn had initially set sail for Fort William, it was declared lost.

Officially, the explanation for the ship’s disappearance was that it ended up beached on Caribou Island which is said to be a hazardous location that contains numerous reefs. Despite this explanation, the wreckage of the Bannockburn has never been discovered—save for one life preserver and a single oar.

Since the ship was lost, the Bannockburn has been sighted quite often on Lake Superior, with most sightings occurring between Port Arthur, Michigan and the Soo Locks that rest between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. As for where it’s final resting place is, one can only speculate as to where it now rests.

Erie Board of Trade

This ship—which vanished on Lake Huron in 1883—is one that’s said to have been brought by a ghost. According to the story: the ship’s captain ordered a crewman to go to the main mast of the vessel, despite the conditions being very unsafe. Unsurprisingly, the man fell to his death. After this, the crewman’s spirit was seen quite often by others and when the ship stopped at a port, the crew told the story to others. When the ship set sail once more, it vanished, never to be seen again…

At least, physically.

Nowadays, should one be lucky enough, you can see the ship and her ghostly crew around Lake Huron. As for what really made the ship sink: that’s anyone’s guess.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald

This one isn’t listed in the Mysterious Universe article, but I’m nonetheless putting it here as it’s—supposedly—a part of the Phantom Fleet.

The largest ship to ever be on the waters of the Great Lakes when made her maiden voyage on June 7, 1958, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior during a storm on November 10, 1975. To date, it’s the largest vessel to have ever sunk there.

Unlike the other ships that have been reportedly sighted multiple times, the Edmund Fitzgerald has only been seen once As such, most believe that what was really seen was the Bannockburn.

With those ten ghastly ship stories out of the way, what’s the reality behind these sightings? Well, there are a few theories, so let’s go over them.


1. They’re illusions/mirages

The world is a weird place and there can be many ways for mirages and illusions to occur. Water and ice particles can create things like Sun Dogs, the way the horizon works can create the illusion of entire islands off the coasts of the world, and a plethora of other phenomena that I don’t understand in the slightest can occur.

This carries over to this theory: that the ships that are claimed to be seen are nothing more than the works of natural phenomenon that make one think they’re seeing a ship. Now granted, I haven’t the faintest idea as to how that would work in the case of The Griffon, which is said to chart a course straight to your ship and your face, but perhaps there’s some really obscure mixture of light, water, and fog that creates the illusion of a ship desiring to make you into a sea pancake.

Nevertheless, some skeptics blame these sightings—or some of them anyway—on the illusions and the like. You make heads or tails of some of these stories and this theory though.

2. They’re just old sailor’s tales

Let’s not kid ourselves: sailors have a history of embellishing stories sixty-thousand ways from Sunday. The Kraken, mermaids, sirens, the Flying Dutchman, and a lot of other stories ranging from mere storms to sea leviathans all originate from those who wish to make the ordinary into something extraordinary.

As such, there are those who think these stories are products of that; from those who saw another ship, but took it as a long lost vessel that supposedly belonged to one that was lost from times of yore. Whether this be by a simple tragic accident, from a mutiny, from a raid, or a storm, it matters not. All that matters is that the ship is long gone and people now mistake the normal for the paranormal.

This theory is, yet again, one that skeptics use and I must admit: if these stories really are cases of mistaken identity or embellishment, I believe this more than the idea of mirages somehow forming ghost ships that want to take me down a few knots.

3. They’re really ghosts

The third and final theory of the bunch is that the ships really are, well, ghost ships. The spirits of those lost aboard the ship are damned to sail for eternity until they somehow find peace. How they’ll find peace is anyone’s guess, but they’re presumably stuck there until the wrecks are either salvaged or somehow manage to find their way to the other side.

Theories Round 2

The second round of theories—a first I think—is dedicated to the ships that were lost and their wreckage has never been found. It’s a bit of a broad generalization on my part, but I’d like to cover the possibilities/theories that are floated around.

1. They were taken away by aliens

Let’s start off with the most entertaining theory: aliens abducted the crews of the vessels—or at least the vast majority of them—and whisked them away for experimentation or some other nefarious purpose. This idea is as old as recorded history when it comes to those who mysterious vanish and it’s especially popular when it comes to ghost ships; the Mary Celeste is arguably the most famous ship with missing crews (which is probably the least of its problems).

So could it be true? Could these ships have been taken away by extraterrestrials? Well, to answer that, we first need to answer a few questions since not all of these ships were lost in the same manner. One had a crew member who survived, two are a diver’s tourist attraction (in the cases of the Kamloops and the Emperor) and some had wreckage found. So the question here is: did the aliens take the crews and the ships or just the crew? Should they have just taken the crew, did they obliterate the ship or did they whisk it away to a remote location and dispose of it?

These questions are important as they let us know is the aliens had any interest in making the disappearances look like an accident or if they wanted to make the entire ship go poof. Given that variations in the disappearances, one can only suspect that different aliens—perhaps different species (this is relevant if you’re familiar with the different kinds of aliens that have been spotted; we will cover them sometime next year for those unfamiliar with them)—were involved in every case.

As such, those who subscribe to this theory would likely say that the ones involved in these events were either Greys (the most common depiction of extraterrestrials you see in entertainment media; big heads, large, black eyes, tall, and thin bodies) and/or Reptilian or Draconian aliens. With that explained, do we have any evidence of this? Well, the Great Lakes have a history of UFO sightings. There’s also the claims of UFOs that have dived into the water. However, in the way of heavy evidence, such as reports of UFOs around the time that the ships went missing or even sightings on the exact day of them going missing: no. Everything I’ve said is merely speculative in nature, but it’s worth a bit of thought if you’re a believer in alien abduction—especially if you subscribe to the theory that aliens reside on Earth and are deep in the oceans.

2. They were lost to storms

Probably the most likely scenario: this theory posits that bad weather took the ships and their crews to a watery grave. Given that most of these stories saw the ships enter a storm, it’s very easy to imagine how they would’ve gone under. So case closed, right?

Well, to some: yes. However, in the eyes of others, there’s more to these stories, so let’s discuss them.

3. Pirates or other raiders

Pirates are an entertaining topic to discuss, but the stark contrast between reality and fiction when it comes to them is staggeringly massive. While we may see pirates as swashbucklers who plundered for gold, drank, and are a few pretentious attempts at being artsy short of being Johnny Depp, the fact of the matter is is that pirates were monumental dicks.

Well, if I’m to be blunt about it anyways.

Nowadays, pirates are even worse—at least until they try to shoot at a United States Naval Ship. My point is: this theory, while it may seem a bit questionable at first isn’t too hard to believe. Pirates board the ship, slaughter the crew, burn the entire thing unto ash, leave with the goods, and then sail off into the night. I’d say this theory applies more to the earlier stories we discussed rather than the latter ones though. Nonetheless, I’d say it’s more plausible than one may give it credit for.

4. Sea monsters

This theory posits that sea monsters were responsible for the sinking of the ships. Whether they were eaten by Bermuda Beast sized monstrosities, by creatures like Champ, or by the Kraken. Sea monsters have always been a favorite amongst sailors and while it’s true that the ocean is largely unexplored, the idea that ship-eating beasts are responsible for the disappearance of every ship, or most of them anyways, we discussed is a bit more than odd. Nonetheless, it’s a favorite amongst those who speculate whenever a ship vanishes.

5. Rogue waves

If you’ve ever seen the movie The Poseidon Adventure or the 2006 remake Poseidon, then you know what a rogue wave is. If not: it’s a large wave that appears that’s generally depicted as being akin to a tsunami. As such, one can easily imagine how they’d take out a sizable ship and leave nothing behind.

This, along with the theory that storms took the ships to their watery graves, is a favorite among those who would call themselves rational thinkers. Understandably so given that rogue waves aren’t too implausible in massive bodies of water. The one question is: were they really the cause?

Given that technology back when these ships vanished (the last ship to vanish in the Great Lakes was 1975) wasn’t as sharp as it is today, it’s not impossible to imagine that these ships were more or less eaten by the waters of the lakes themselves. However, to know for absolute certain is next to impossible—not unless a captain’s log has somehow managed to survive all this time.

6. Mutiny

The idea with this theory is that the crews, for one reason or another, had some sort of disagreement and ended up with a captain and likewise: without leadership. As such, they all went their separate ways, died at sea, and the ship was later either plundered taken to the seafloor by a storm or rogue wave. I don’t think it’s likely, but people are unpredictable (to say the least).

My Take

I may be heavily biased in my views on the paranormal, but I do believe that this ships truly are what people claim they are. In my eyes, there comes a point when one has to stop and wonder if there’s some truth to what people claim they’ve seen. Now, does that mean that every story out there with a bunch of reported sightings is true? No, of course not. However, in the case of these stories, I think there may be some legitimacy to them.

Now as for the second batch of theories: I think that the ships were lost to a mixture of severe weather and rogue waves. Simply put: if the ships vanished without a trace—or at the most: a bit of wreckage—it’s likely that the sea went to war with the ships and the sea was the victor. As entertaining as the idea of aliens abducting the crew (and likely the ship too) is, I’m highly doubtful that they were the cause of it. That said: there is a mystery involving sea aliens that we’ll be covering in the coming months that may prove me wrong. Who knows, but my money is on nature in this case.


There are a lot of ghost stories out there and with any luck, we’ll cover more of them in the coming years as I write on this little blog. For the time being though, hopefully I’m not sued to Davy Jones’ Locker by Mysterious Universe for using their article as a citation. Should I end up down there though, I’ll make sure to send a Christmas postcard to you, dear reader.


  1. ............I want some hardcore adventure novels about these ships now. Not dimestore trash, like real good stuff.

  2. Tyler "Bio" RodriguezDecember 17, 2019 at 5:10 PM

    Adding to the real theory, alright the Edmond Fitzgerald looks like most ore carriers if a bit larger. Alright. The Bannockburn looks like nothing else on the lakes because she wasn't built in America. Rather it was a British made vessel. So many people over so many years describing this one distinctive ship is pretty damn interesting.