Bannockburn Afloat

by Robert Aitken 12th March 2008

History to me is an absorbing subject, a matter of questions to find the authoritative truth about an event in the past. In this story the truth is hidden in the mists in more ways than one, more questions raised than answers, after all lakes have a long tradition of mystery and sailors one of superstition. In the year 1893 a propeller driven 1,620-ton steel steamer, 245 ft long with a beam of 40 ft and a depth of 21ft was built by Dixon &Co at Middlesbrough England. Her official number was C102093 and she was named Bannockburn. Her fame came not at sea but on the Great Lakes of North America working for the Montreal Transportation Company of Quebec.

On November 20th, 1902 the Bannockburn loaded with 85,000 bushels of grain (as the history of the bushel is complex, for our purposes we will call it a lot of grain or full to the gunnels to use a nautical term) attempted to leave harbour at Fort William but promptly grounded, she cleared on the 21st and made her way towards Midland Ontario via Lake Superior into a storm, in fact one of the worst of that transportation season. Captain James McMaugh of the steamer Algonquin confided in his friends that he sighted the Bannockburn on the evening of the 21st, apparently he saw her then turned away for a few seconds and when he turned back she was gone. Of course this started the controversy. Later that night another steamer the Huronic thought she recognised Bannockburn by her lights.

When the Bannockburn failed to reach her destination she was posted as overdue as a matter of routine, most people thought she had sheltered on the North shore and would turn up o.k. The steamer John D. Rockefeller reported a wreckage field off Stannard rock on the 25th but attached little importance to it, as they at this time did not know the Bannockburn was overdue and certainly did not link it to any particular boat. By the 27th of November it was clear something was very wrong and the owners officially gave her up as lost. The very next day a report that she was ashore north of Michipicoten Island started a search by three tugs, Boynton, Ossifrage and Favorite, hoping to find captain George Woods and his crew of 20, despite a comprehensive search nothing was found.
Whilst patrolling the beach on December 12 a surfman by the surname of Dean from the life saving station at Grand Marais found a cork lifejacket still tied and marked Bannockburn, the only one ever found. A tied life jacket probably means there was someone in it at somepoint but was not considered to be evidence that the bannockburn had floundered as crewmen were swept overboard in heavy weather almost routinely. Another account reports the finding of a lifeboat but no date or name is given.

Captain Mc Maugh later said his theory was that Bannockburns boilers had exploded but nobody heard or saw any proof of this. The possible later sighting (held to be very likely) by the Huronic adds to the mystery. The bad storm did not affect either the Algonquin or the Huronic, so why would it cause a problem for the Bannockburn? The grounding may be significant as the Bannockburn had stranded at sand beach 13 months before, was there hidden damage then, later compounded by the grounding? Once again no evidence, the skipper was an experienced master and she was a well-built seaworthy vessel. Lloyds of London listed her as A1 after the loss.
There is a further tale that the relatives of the lost sailors all received telegrams to say that their loved ones were safe.

A legend attached to this incident is that 18 months after the disappearance a trapper found an oar among some driftwood, unwrapping a piece of tarpaulin protecting the oar the letters B A N N O C K B U R N were seen to be carved into the wood, each mark was filled with human blood so the letters would stand out. Sightings of the steamer in stormy weather running without lights by sailors have persisted since she disappeared and continue to this day. I expect this little bit of history/legend will never have a definitive answer and will always remain a mystery, as all the best stories should.

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