Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ghost Ship: S.S. Kamloops

Early in December of 1927, the steamship S.S. Kamloops was seen for the last time intact with her crew alive and well. 

She was traveling on the last leg of her journey from Montreal to Port Arthur, now known as Thunder Bay. She entered Lake Superior through the Sault St. Marie canal—she passed through the Soo Locks on December 4th destined for Fort William. Tragically, this was to be the last journey for the Kamloops.

The Kamloops was following the steamer Quedoc on December 5th when a massive storm hit Lake Superior. Both were making steady headway through this heavy north gale in fog and sub-freezing temperatures on the night of the 6th when the captain of the Quedoc suddenly saw a black mass loom up before his ship, he turned to avoid it while sounding a danger signal to warn the Kamloops. 

Because of poor visibility, it was not known if the Kamloops heard the signal in time and was able to make the turn. The Quedoc made it to Fort William, but the Kamloops would never arrive.

As the storm grew fiercer that night, many ships were stranded on various parts of the lake. At first, hope was kept alive when several ships at different ports reported seeing the Kamloops, but by December 12th, all ships had been accounted for except the Kamloops. 

At this point, the search for her started in earnest. Efforts where made until December 26th when fading hopes and the ice and winter weather made it impossible to continue the search.

This was not the first time in the Kamloops' history that she had shipped cargo so late in the season, on two other occasions in her short career she had been trapped by the ice in St. Mary’s river pushed by her owner to make one last run. 

In December of 1927, she was carrying a load of expensive paper making machinery that her owner—the Canada Steamship Line expected her to deliver before the lake iced in. But this time her luck ran out, her entire crew, including two women, were never again seen alive.

This tragedy was made worse when in the spring of 1928. A group of fishermen discovered the remains of several of the crew. They had managed to make it to shore on the island of Amygdaloid. It is believed that these surviving crewmembers died of exposure for this island offers minimal shelter, and the winds the night of December 6th had reached 62 miles an hour, the temperature had dipped nine degrees below zero. 

Also in 1927, the crew would not have had a radio, and this was before searches were done by air, all these factors combined, doomed the crew from the start.

For fifty years, the disappearance of the S.S. Kamloops remained a mystery, so she was classified as a ghost ship; various witnesses saw her decks, port, and starboard sides covered in ice and frost even in the summer months along the lake during this period.

S.S. Kamloops at the bottom
of Lake Superior.
The Kamloops was unusual in that she was a small steamship only 250 feet in length. She also had four distinct tall king posts—each rigged with a 5-ton derrick used to load and unload the freight she carried. 

So in August of 1977, when divers found a sunken ship northwest of Isle Royale resting on its starboard side, two hundred and sixty feet down, there was no doubt it was the Kamloops.

Lake Superior is known for its rough weather—its waters are frigid year-round. The surface temperature rarely reaches above 55 degrees Fahrenheit; below 50 feet divers experience 34-37 degrees Fahrenheit. Because of the cold conditions, the wreck of the Kamloops has been preserved, even though it has been eighty-four years since she sank. 

The cargo that once was so important is still in almost perfect condition in her hold. Divers have seen, wire fencing, high top shoes, candy lifesavers, and crates of Honey Bee Molasses.

The Kamloops also holds well-preserved human remains. Because of the frigid temperatures, no fish are found at this depth. 

One story often told by divers is of a body seen in the engine room they call “Grandpa” or “Whitey.” Witnesses have said that he floats or follows quietly behind them as they explore the engine room. Some divers state that their movements have caused currents that make this happen, others say that Grandpa seems to have a will of his own. 

Regardless, his appearance has scared more than one diver in this compartment. His skin is described as very pale or white, and divers have seen his wedding ring on his left hand. 

The cause of the sinking of the S.S. Kamloops remains a mystery.

The Kamloops is one of twelve ships and smaller vessels in the area around the Isle of Royale that has been claimed by Lake Superiors’ powerful storms. The National Park Service protects all these shipwrecks as cultural treasures.

A side note: dives to the Kamloops are not advised because she is located at an extreme depth, so the danger of decompression is high. 

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