American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

GREAT LAKES MYTHS AND LEGENDS. The Great Lakes are as rich in maritime myth and legend as are the oceans. From the 1840s on, Great Lakes navigation expanded dramatically due to the westward movement of population and the resulting increase in commerce. The Lakes provided the natural highway to carry the vast numbers of immigrants and resulting trade on to the new lands. Originally, saltwater sailors crewed the large fleets of sailing craft and steamers. Eventually, homegrown men sailed the fleets. Pay and working conditions were considerably better on the inland seas, and the saltwater men were eager to sail freshwater. There were no bucko mates or cat-o’-nine-tails. Trips were shorter, and the food better. Doubtless, many of the ocean myths and legends followed the sailors to the Great Lakes, changing somewhat in the transition. Others, perhaps, are unique to the Lakes.

The Great Lakes are often beset by thick and persistent fog. In the spring and fall, blinding snowstorms race over the water. Freezing temperatures can cause thick ice to coat a ship’s topsides, spars, rigging, and sails, making them unmanageable. In the fall, storms raging out of the North can bring hurricane-force winds and house-size waves of great power. The seas themselves are steeper and closer together than on the ocean, presenting saltwater sailors with conditions far different from what they are used to experiencing. It is an environment that lends itself well to maritime myth and legend.

Ghost ships are perhaps the most common legend on the Lakes. Unlike the famous Flying Dutchman of Cape Horn* fame, sighting a Great Lakes ghost ship does not necessarily foretell disaster. The earliest ghost ship is Rene Robert Cavelier, de la Salle’s Griffon (built 1679). On her return trip from Green Bay, Lake Michigan, to Lake Erie in 1679, she disappeared with all hands. Some said she was the victim of the curse of a Native American chief. Ever since, Great Lakes sailors have reported briefly seeing her ghostly form scudding through storm and gale. The steamer Bannockburn (built 1893) was said to have reappeared numerous times after her 1902 disappearance on Lake Superior. James Oliver Curwood* cites her tale in his book Falkner of the Inland Seas (1905). The legend of the ship grew when it was claimed that one of her oars was found on a north shore beach with the name scraped crudely into the wood. To assure visibility, each letter was filled with what was claimed to be a dead sailor’s dried blood.

Seeing some ghosts ships, like the Hamilton (built 1809) and the Scourge (built 1811), meant death. Both vessels were part of the American fleet on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. As the American and British fleets lay becalmed within sight of each other on the predawn of 8 August 1813, a sudden squall burst on them. The Hamilton and Scourge, both converted merchant vessels and top-heavy with cannon, capsized with the loss of at least fifty lives. Legend claims that both vessels periodically appear in the clouds and re-create their death scene. Should these ships be sighted, one of the crew of the sighting would die within a day. The big steamer Chicora (built 1892) was lost with all hands in a terrible Lake Michigan storm in 1895. For years afterward, Lake Michigan car-ferry sailors reported seeing her ghostly image again, usually foretelling a bad storm. In 1926 a steamer captain in northern Lake Michigan sighted her blowing distress signals in a gale and nearly lost his license when he reported the incident to the Coast Guard. They thought him either drunk or crazy.

The infamous “three sisters” legend is rooted in both fact and fiction. Old sailors believed that during especially big storms giant waves traveled in groups of three with a pause between the groups. To observation, this is true. The legend part is the number of ships supposedly lost to the three sisters, surviving the first two waves only to be overwhelmed by the monstrous third. In modern times some sailors blame the 1975 loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald* (built 1958) on the three sisters.

A long-held sailor’s myth is that Lake Superior never gives up its dead. Many examples can be cited to support this belief. In November 1918, the French navy minesweepers Inkermann (built 1918) and Cerisoles (built 1918) disappeared in a Lake Superior storm while down-bound from their Thunder Bay, Ontario, shipyard. Not a single body of the seventy-two sailors aboard was ever found. Great Lakes sailors expected none would be. Once a sailor disappears beneath the waves, he is gone forever. While there are exceptions, there is much truth to this old legend. The water temperature is often so cold, especially in the open Lake, that bacteria cannot grow, and consequently gas does not form in the tissue. Without the buoyancy of the gas, the bodies remain on the bottom. The Lake truly does not give up her dead; not a single body has been recovered from the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Old-timers believed that those areas where many shipwrecks* occurred and numerous sailors drowned were haunted. When sailing near them, they could hear the cries of the drowning men and see the ghostly forms of the wrecks happening again. Although Lake Superior’s Whitefish Point has often been called the Graveyard of the Lakes because of the large number of ships wrecked in the area, other locations can lay equal claim. Long Point on Lake Erie, Point aux Barques on Lake Huron, and Death’s Door Passage on Lake Michigan are all notorious ship traps and equally haunted by their victims.

There are also legends of captains going down with their ships rather than abandoning them. A case in point is the steamer Arlington (built 1913), lost in a gale in the middle of Lake Superior in 1940. As the steamer sank, the captain was said to have waved a final farewell to his crew in the lifeboat from his pilothouse door. He would not leave his ship. Lighthouses* also are the stuff of legends. A popular example involves old Presque Isle Light on Lake Huron. Although abandoned in 1870, there are claims that a mysterious glow continues to be seen from its stone tower. White River Light on Lake Michigan is said to be haunted by both Captain William Robinson, a former keeper, and his wife, Sarah.

Legends of sea monsters also abound on the lakes. In Ojibwa lore, Mishi- Peshu, a large lynxlike creature, lives underwater waiting to seize an unwary canoe. In 1812 Northwest Fur Company voyageurs claimed to have seen a “merman” near Thunder Bay Island, Lake Superior. Local Native Americans claimed it was Manitou Niba Nibas, also known as the god of lakes and waters. Other voyageurs claimed to have sighted the creature in the same area on later trips. Sailors have reported sea serpents on all of the Great Lakes. In 1895 the captain of the steamer S.S. Curry off Whitefish Point watched one with a neck fifteen feet long keep pace with his ship for five minutes. Two years later, a group of Detroit yachtsmen stated they were attacked by a giant squid off Duluth, Minnesota. Reports of sea serpents near Kingston, Ontario, on Lake Ontario are so numerous that the creature is known locally simply as “Kingstie.”

Legend and myth on the Great Lakes continue to grow. Ships still sink under unexplained circumstances, and bizarre phenomena continue to puzzle sailors. [See also AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA; GHOSTS AND GHOST SHIP LEGENDS; MERMAIDS]

FURTHER READING: Boyer, Dwight. Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1968; Dorson, Richard M. Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers: Folk Traditions on the Upper Peninsula. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1952; Floren, Russell, and Andrea Gutsche. Ghosts of the Bay, a Guide to the History of Georgian Bay. Toronto: Lynx Images, 1994; Stonehouse, Frederick. Haunted Lakes, Great Lakes Ghost Stories, Superstitions and Sea Serpents. Duluth, MN: Lake Superior Port Cities, 1997.

Frederick Stonehouse