The world’s largest group of freshwater lakes, the Great Lakes are definitely fascinating: formed 14,000 years ago from retreating ice sheets, they contain 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water and are important geologically, hydrologically, ecologically, and historically.
Academic considerations aside, though, the lakes are also the focus of some pretty fantastic legends—many of which have never really been fully explained. If you’re looking for some spooky stories to tell around the campfire this season, look no further than our own mysterious Great Lakes.
The Lake Michigan Triangle
You don’t need to travel to Bermuda for weird things to happen to your boat or plane—looks like Lake Michigan has that covered. An area that stretches from Ludington to Benton Harbor, Michigan and to Manitowoc, Wisconsin forms the Lake Michigan Triangle, which has been implicated in the disappearance of ships, people and airplanes alike since 1891, when a schooner called the Thomas Hume and its crew disappeared without a trace. In 1937, the captain of the O.M. McFarland, George Donner, retired to his cabin after a long night guiding the ship through icy water and subsequently could not be found—ever again. Finally, the most recent mysterious tragedy involves Northwestern Airlines flight 2501, which vanished on its way to Minneapolis after changing its course to fly over Lake Michigan. Massive searches by the Coast Guard turned up a blanket from the flight, but nothing else.
The Black Dog of Lake Erie
This creepy story takes place in the Welland Canal, where a ship’s mascot—a large black Newfoundland dog—fell overboard and was crushed by the gate of a canal lock. Perhaps angered by the crew’s inability or unwillingness to rescue him, the black dog was then said to haunt them at night with endless baying howls. The black dog is said to appear on ships that are about to get into trouble, appearing on deck (or climbing aboard from the water), crossing the ship and leaping off the other side. The dog is linked to the wreck of the Mary Jane in Lake Erie in 1881, and has even travelled to other Great Lakes, being sighted on doomed ships on both Lake Ontario and Lake Michigan.
Ghost Fleet of the Great Lakes
No bodies of water that have had as many shipwrecks as the Great Lakes are able to get away without being haunted by ghost ships, and there are so many on the lakes that the spectral vessels are collectively known as the “Ghost Fleet.” Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes weren’t unusual—their size and potentially devastating weather patterns make them closer to inland seas, with the accompanying risks to ships.
The oldest of the Great Lakes ghost ships is Le Griffon, which vanished on Lake Michigan in 1679. It was rumoured to have been cursed, and has since been seen tracking a collision course with other vessels in Michigan Harbour, only to vanish before contact. Its wreck has never been definitively located.
Another ship in the ghostly fleet is the Bannockburn, a Canadian freighter which disappeared in 1902 on Lake Superior. It is still reported to be sailing the water of the lake, most often between Port Arthur, Michigan and the Soo Locks between Lakes Superior and Huron.
Other ships in the Ghost Fleet include The W.H. Gilcher (Lake Michigan), The Western Reserve (Lake Superior), The Erie Board of Trade (Lake Huron), and The Hudson (Lake Michigan).
Also known by some as the Dragon of Lake Superior, Mishibijiw (Anglicized as Mishipeshu) is an Ojibwa figure of a fearsome water-dwelling creature that has the body of a horned lynx with scales and webbed paws. A picture of Mishibijiw appears at the Agawa pictograph site in Lake Superior Provincial Park, showing the powerful water spirit with horns and spines on its back. Accounts from early French and English settlers report seeing a water creature that resembled a large lizard in Lake Superior, but First Nations stories more often refer to Mishibijiw as a shape shifter or a water cat.
South Bay Bessie
Why should Loch Ness or Okanagan Lake (home of the famed Ogopogo) get all the glory? Lake Erie has its very own sea monster known as South Bay Bessie. According to reports—the first of which happened in 1793—Bessie is about nine to 12 meters long, and is grey and snake-like (although it’s also been reported to have a dog-shaped head, sparkling eyes and a pointy tail). Since no one is sure what Bessie is, there’s a $5,000 reward for anyone who captures it.
Wreck diving in the Great Lakes is a popular pastime—but it has a creepy side, since many of the wrecks are also the final resting place of the ships’ doomed crews. Needless to say, lots of wrecks are said to be haunted. The wreck of The Emperor in Lake Superior is said to be haunted by a crewman who continues to go about his duties, even in death. The creepiest haunted wreck, though, is the SS Kamloops, which sank off Isle Royal in Lake Superior in 1927. There, a well-preserved corpse (nicknamed Old Whitey) in the engine room houses a ghostly spirit known as Grandpa, who is known to float up behind divers and follow them through the engine room—perhaps looking for his other lost crewmates.