The Ghosts of Lake Superior

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called “Gitche Gumee.” The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy.

© 1976 Music and Lyrics: Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Chippewa Indians, one of the largest Native American groups in North America, inhabit primarily the northern regions of the U.S., especially Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. They were perhaps among the first to encounter the vast, frigid body of water named Lake Superior.  Their legends speak of water gods and the fact that these waters rarely release the spirits of those who perished, which number well into the hundreds.

The Ojibwe call the lake gichi-gami, meaning “a great sea.” The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first wrote the name as gitche gumee in The Song of Hiawatha, as did Gordon Lightfoot in his renowned 1976 homage to the sailors who died there.

In the 17th century, French explorers approached the great inland sea by way of the Ottawa River and Lake Huron.  They referred to is as lac superieur. Translated, the expression means “Upper Lake.” The lake is fed by more than 2,000 rivers and tributaries.  Some legends claim the lake’s bottom has never truly been discovered, giving it the reputation of being a monstrous beast.

We now know that there is enough water in the lake (3 quadrillion gallons) to flood all of North and South America with 6 feet of water. That’s more water in one lake than all the other great lakes combined. The deepest point is approximately 1,300 feet (400 meters) beneath the surface.

The lake itself remained isolated from other bodies of water until the 18th century, when fur trading in the region boomed. Later, iron ore became a booming commodity, but the rivers and tributaries that fed the lake were far too shallow to handle any of the enormous ships being built and set asail.

As water travel became more prominent and shipping lanes established — and the fact that one major body of water was the best access to the great northern lake (Lake Huron, which is 21 feet lower than Superior), the Soo Locks were constructed in 1855 and owned and operated by the U.S. Army since 1881. The locks themselves now handle more than 10,000 ships per year.

According to shipwreck historian Frederick Stonehouse, the southern shore of Lake Superior between Grand Marais, Michigan, and Whitefish Point is known as the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes.”

November is notoriously the most dangerous month to sail Superior’s waters, as unpredictable storms and squalls capsized many boats and kill countless sailors. According to legend, “Lake Superior seldom gives up her dead.” [1]  This is attributed to the exceptionally low water temperatures, estimated at under 36 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius).  In cases where water temperature is not as extreme, bacteria feeding on a submerged, decaying body will generate gas inside the body, causing it to float to the surface after a few days.  In Lake Superior, bodies tend to sink and never resurface.

In July 1994, explorer Frederick Shannon’s Expedition 94 to the wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald discovered and filmed a man’s body near the port side of her pilothouse, not far from the open door, “fully clothed, wearing an orange life jacket, and lying face down in the sediment.” [2]

It’s further reported that so-called “ghost ships” appear on these waters with some regularity.  Skeptics write them off as mirages caused by atmospheric temperatures clashing with water temperatures.

Many seasoned mariners, however, believe the lake is home to a “ghost fleet,” made up of ships that have disappeared without a trace somewhere between Duluth, MN and Sault Ste. Marie (“The Soo”).

The fate of the lumber hooker Adella Shores (Lumber hooker is a nautical term for a Great Lakes ship designed to carry her own deck load of lumber and to tow one or two barges) was sealed as she was launched. Built in Gibraltar, Michigan, and towed to Ashland, Wisconsin, before she was finished, the Adella Shores was constructed for Ashland mill owner Walter Shores, a leading supporter of the temperance movement in Wisconsin. Rather than have a ship named after his daughter christened with champagne, a bottle of lake water was used to launch the vessel. Mariners considered this very bad luck and an act that doomed the ship. In April 1909, the Adella Shores left her home dock in Ashland with a load of lumber. She was never seen again.

The Bannockburn also disappeared from Lake Superior, but she has been seen again—in spectral form. The steamer vanished November 21, 1902, while on her way from Port Arthur to The Soo with a load of wheat and 21 men on board. Only a life preserver and an oar were ever found. Still, several sailors claimed to have seen the Bannockburn on stormy nights. This has caused many to call the Bannockburn the “Flying Dutchman of Lake Superior,” after the legendary phantom ship that disappeared off the coast of Good Hope.

The Hudson was lost near Michigan’s Keweenaw Point on September 16, 1901, and like the Bannockburn, she has been seen since. Even boarded. As the story goes, a tugboat captain and his mate were near Keweenaw Point on September 16 in the late 1940s when they spotted a rusty ship covered in brown slime. The tug captain claims to have boarded the vessel to see if it was in distress. In the pilot house he encountered the ragged apparitions of the Hudson’s helmsman and captain, who explained to him that the ship and its crew were damned to relive the sinking each September 16 and warned him to get off. He leaped from the boat and swam in icy waters to the tug, refusing to explain to his mate what happened to him on board. [3]

Ships are not the only source that generates tales of the paranormal.  Lonely lighthouses also produce ghosts. In northern Michigan, two of them hold haunted tours: Seul Choix Point just east of the Garden Peninsula, where a keeper died in 1910, and Ontonagon on Lake Superior, where a young woman died of diphtheria in 1885.

West of Marquette, MI, another keeper was found as a skeleton hanging from a tree and is said to haunt Big Bay Point Lighthouse.

Could the former inhabitants of those perfectly preserved bodies lying beneath the surface of Lake Superior be the spirits that now wander the waters of gitche gumme? Are they fated to forever relive their horrifying deaths? Perhaps only the God of the Seas, Neptune, can be sure.

[1] Kohl, Cris (1998). The 100 Best Great Lakes Shipwrecks, Volume II, p. 430. Seawolf Communications, Inc. ISBN 0-9681437-3-3.

[2] MacInnis, Joseph (1998). Fitzgerald’s Storm: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Berkely, CA, USA: Thunder Bay Press. p. 101. ISBN 1-882376-53-6.

[3] True North: Alternative & Offbeat Destinations in and Around Duluth, Superior, and the Shores of Lake Superior, copyright © 2003, Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.

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