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
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
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, MishiPeshu, 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.