The Tragic Fate Of Ghost Ships
It was the morning of the 25th of March 1882 and the clouds hanging low over the port of Vicksburg with dark and foreboding. Down on the docks, the captain of the Iroquois chief watched on impassively as the men hurried back and forth across the deck, eager to secure their cargo and cast off ahead of the approaching storm. They were inexperienced crew, most of whom had spent the bulk of their lives traveling up and down the Mississippi river, and her tributaries, giving him complete faith that they would achieve the task before the coming downpour.
The Sinking of SS Iron Mountain
The unexpected blast of a ship's horn suddenly shocked him from his thoughts and as he looked up, he saw another ship passing by heading out of port. The captain smiled and cheerfully waved back as the other vessel pulled away, towing five heavily laden barges behind her. It was the SS Iron Mountain, a fellow paddle steamer which they regularly encountered whilst traversing the river. From the looks of things, she was carrying cotton and molasses on this trip, most likely as far upriver as Pittsburgh.
Within the hour, his own ship was ready to depart, casting off and following northwards. They had hardly cleared the port when the expected rainfall came in, hammering down and drastically reducing visibility. As a precaution, orders were issued for the engine speed to be harmed and the number of lookouts doubled. Mercifully, the river traffic that afternoon was light, but a short time into the journey, there was a sharp cry of alarm from the bow. The captain instinctively ordered the engine room to stop the engines, before hurrying forwards through the driving rain to ascertain the issue.
As he neared the lookouts, he suddenly saw a pair of dark shapes flowing downriver along the starboard side of the ship. He immediately recognized them as the barges he had seen being towed behind the Iron Mountain. Both were now loose and drifting in circles, as the swirling current propelled further downstream. Barely had he reached the two crew members standing at the ship's bow, before two more barges materialized, one of which bounced harmlessly off the Chief's hull before continuing on its way.
Assuming something serious must have befallen the other vessel, the captain ordered the rest of the crew upon to the deck equipped with ropes and poles. As the paddle steamer slowly labored upriver, its horn repeatedly sounded and the crew bellowed offers of help and assistance into the veil of the torrential downpour. A short distance upstream, not far from where the river joined Lake Providence, the ship encountered the fifth barge, held fast along the riverbank by a fallen tree. As the Iroquois chief slowly maneuvered alongside the stricken barge, the crew gasped in horror as they caught sight of a female body, trapped by the fast flowing current against the side of the boat.
It soon became clear that there was no significant damage to the barge itself, although the rope that had been used to secure it appeared to have been severed rather than frayed. The dead woman's clothing identified her as a stewardess and she would be the only member of the Iron Mountain's 55 crew to be found that day. Once the matter had been reported to the authorities, naval divers were deployed along the river, but no wreckage was to be found despite the significant size of the ship which had disappeared.
It would not be until several months later that any trace of the Iron Mountain was uncovered in circumstances that raised far more questions than answers. Workers ploughing the land near the town of Omega uncovered wooden timbers and furnishings, which were subsequently identified as originating from the missing vessel. How these remains had come to be buried in a field situated so far away from the river defied explanation, as did the whereabouts of the rest of the steamer.
It was as if a mighty force had come down from on high and plucked the helpless ship right out of the water. Some commentators believed that this is exactly what happened, citing the incidents as one of the earliest cases of alien abduction. They hypothesized that an extraterrestrial technology removed the vessel and her crew from the river hidden by the poor weather conditions, depositing minor wreckage further inland as they departed.
A more rational explanation may lie in the geography of the Mississippi river itself. Prone to heavy flooding in poor weather, some believe that the steamer suffered a catastrophic accident of some kind, breaking into smaller debris. This wreckage may have been washed clear of the waterway through pursed levees, quickly becoming concealed under the flooded and muddy fields that bordered the river. The official cause attributed to the ship's disappearance was that she must have struck a submerged tree and rapidly sunk, the barges breaking free as she went down. This should, however, have resulted in her wreckage remaining largely intact, making it easy to locate. Until more of her remains are found, her disappearance will remain one of America's most enduring maritime mysteries.
Fate of SS Valencia
In the same year that the Iron Mountain disappeared, further along the eastern seaboard in the shipyards of Philadelphia, construction was finally completed on the latest passenger ship commissioned by the Red D Shipping line. The SS Valencia would spend the next 16 years ferrying passengers back and forth between New York and Caracas, before she was pressed into military service during the Spanish-American War.
The post-war years would prove to be difficult. She was hard to handle in high seas and the thickness of her bulkhead had fallen below recommended safety standards. There were a series of embarrassing collisions, followed by a scandal involving her purser overpricing the tickets he had been selling, all of which rendered the ship far less attractive to prospective passengers. In 1906, the Valencia was temporarily assigned to a new route running from San Francisco to Seattle due to one of her sister ships requiring an extensive refit.
On the 20th of January, as she was passing Cape Beale near Vancouver Island, deteriorating weather conditions forced her onto a reef a mere hundred yards from the shoreline. Against the captain's explicit orders, his panicked crew horridly launched the lifeboats. All but one were either ripped away or smashed to pieces by the angry seas that repeatedly crashed against the side of the ship. The whole of the stricken vessel then gradually began to disintegrate as the keel seesawed back and forth upon the rocks. Passengers hurrying from their cabins were washed overboard by walls of water, which swept across the deck.
Women hugging their children were consumed by the churning ocean, whilst others clung to whatever they could lay their hands on. A solitary life boat containing nine men eventually made it to shore, the occupant staring in anguish at the nightmarish scene, before worrying to find help. As the residents of Victoria hurried across land to the cliffs, three commercial ships also launched from the harbor, but when they arrived, they were unable to approach the disintegrating wreck due to the dangerous high scenes. Their crews watched on helplessly as those still alive were eventually cast into the waters or were crushed as the dying vessel's superstructure finally collapsed upon them. All but 37 souls were lost, including all the women and children.
Rescue ships frantically combed the raging seas for survivors, including the City of Topeka, which was filled with volunteers staff from Victoria's main hospital. In a small act of mercy, this ship was able to locate two life rafts containing 18 Sailors, their lives undoubtedly saved by the medical training of the doctors and nurses present.
It was whilst the rescuers were returning to port the next morning that the first mysterious incident associated with the disaster was reported. As the rescue ship approached Victoria, it slowed to inform another passing vessel about the survivors, when a number of the crew suddenly cried out in horror and alarm. In the thick black smoke pouring out of the steamer's funnel, the outline of the SS Valencia was clearly depicted, before slowly fading away into the morning breeze.
In the weeks and months that followed, the harbormaster in Victoria received a number of reports from other ships arriving at the port, that they had sighted an ocean liner in difficulty not far from the city. Some of the captains making these allegations described seeing a ship which resembles the Valencia struggling to make headway through the rough seas, before disappearing beneath the waves.
Other witnesses described seeing a doomed vessel breaking apart on the rocks, tiny figures helplessly clinging to her structure. When they tried to approach in order to render assistance, the ship and survivors promptly vanished, leaving the rescuers bewildered. Stories told by local fishermen were even more lurid. Several described how at night, life boats from the Valencia rowed up and down the coastline, oars being pulled by the bloated and waterlogged corpses of her long-dead crew.
Six months after the incident, a native hunter claimed to have located a lifeboat trapped in the sea cave, not far from Pachena Bay. He described how the cave was filled with seawater, but that the entrance was obstructed by a sizable fallen boulder. Inside, he had seen the small boat drifting in a circular motion on the water, with eight skeletons lying inside it. Despite an extensive search, the authorities were subsequently unable to locate the cave.
Bizarrely, one of the Valencia's lifeboats did eventually turn up, when it was found floating in the sea of Berkeley sound in 1933. Despite having been missing for over 27 years, it was recovered as polished and pristine as the day it had been launched from the stricken ship and remains on display in the Maritime Museum of British Columbia. No explanation of how it endured for so long without becoming damaged or degraded by the elements has ever been offered.
So, what are we to make of the inexplicable events that occurred in the wake of this tragedy? Was the incident somehow anchored to the present day, doomed to play out again and again, by the tortured spirits of those who died? Perhaps, but the emotional trauma of having witnessed such a senseless loss of life must have significantly affected the minds of those involved. This is likely what led to the image of the sunken ship being sighted aboard the City of Topeka. Reports of ghost ships and haunted lifeboats moving along the coast can be similarly explained, a product of overactive imaginations or even deliberate hoaxes, but the incidents involving with ship's lifeboats prove more troublesome to dismiss.
In the chaos and confusion of the sinking, it is possible, even likely, that some of the lifeboats managed to drift free, perhaps even containing the bodies of the dead or dying. It's feasible that one may have been washed into a sea cave, where its occupants slowly wasted away until it eventually sank, still waiting to be found. Likewise it is conceivable that one may have been trapped in a sheltered area, subsequently found and recovered, and later released out of a sense of guilt or a desire to perpetuate a hoax. Whilst difficult to explain, these appearances do provide a means of revisiting the tale, keeping the tragedy alive in the public consciousness.
The Horror of the Great Lakes
The Great Lakes are some of the most hazardous maritime regions on the planet and have claimed the lives of countless sailors throughout the ages. Ships have been navigating these five vast waterways since the 17th century and it is estimated that the remains of as many as 25,000 lost vessels may languish on the muddy beds which lie beneath these seemingly endless tracts of water. It is the sheer geographical size of the area that makes it so deadly, the region possessing the ability to generate its own unpredictable weather systems.
When storms sweep in from one of the Lakes, they quickly grow in speed and intensity with no geological features to absorb or impede their power. Boats caught out in these tempests have no available refuge or hiding place, with little prospect of assistance should they succumb to Nature's fury. On the evening of the 5th of December 1927, the SS Kamloops was hurrying across Lake Superior bound for Thunder Bay. Like many other local vessels of the time, the steamer was designed for quick runs of mixed cargo, her owners eager to complete as many deliveries as possible before the arrival of winter prevented any further access across the Lakes.
Unfortunately for the Kamloops, that evening saw the onset of a massive ice storm. She was last sighted by another ship, heavily coated in ice and drifting towards the south eastern shore of Isle Royale, having apparently lost power. It would be another week before weather conditions eased sufficiently to allow a search to begin, an undertaking that would uncover nothing but misery.
Initial attempts to locate the missing boat proved fruitless. It was not until six months later, the fishermen discovered minor wreckage and the bodies of some of her crew washed up on Isle Royale. Only nine of the ship's complement had made it to the shore. With no available means of creating shelter or warmth, most would succumb to hypothermia whilst an unlucky few fell victim to the island's wolf population.
For years afterwards, there were reports of a phantom boat drifting through the area, half submerged and covered in ice, even during the summer months. Many ships and their crews claimed to have witnessed the Kamloops, these alleged sightings persisting until the summer of 1977. The missing shipwreck was eventually found northeast of Isle Royale, lying on her side under 260 feet of water, her cargo spread out on the lakebed around her.
As with many wrecks of the Great Lakes, the Kamloops quickly became a focal point for the international diving community and it was at this point that stories of a unique and terrifying phenomenon began to circulate. Both the hull of the vessel and its contents were remarkably well preserved, as was the body of one of her crew, who had failed to make it off the ship prior to its loss.
The Ghost of an adult male
During the earliest dives, the remains of an adult male were found trapped in the ship's engine room. Due to the extremely cold temperatures of the water, and the lack of marine predators of the location, this corpse was intact and fully clothed, a wedding ring clearly visible on his finger. Successive divers then mysteriously recorded that the deceased sailor, nicknamed 'Grandpa', was somehow moving around the wreck. Some visitors would find him lying on a bunk in one of the cabins, while others encountered him on the ship's bridge, staring out into the darkness.
Perhaps the most disturbing sightings came from explorers who claim to have been followed around by him. Several divers have reportedly fled the wreck in terror, having turned to see the pale figure silently moving along the dark corridors behind them, watching their progress through sightless glassy eyes. In a small number of accounts, witnesses state that the corpse has appeared to be reaching out in an attempt to touch them. A minority even claim that what they have encountered must be the dead sailor's ghost, as during the same trip to the boat they have subsequently found his body still inside the engine room, trapped between pieces of fallen wreckage.
Is it possible that somewhere deep inside Grandpa's remains, some small spark of consciousness is somehow being preserved allowing him to interact with visitors to his final resting place. Skeptics are quick to point out that the currents around the bottom of the lake and disturbances in the water caused by the progress of the divers themselves may have been sufficient to cause some degree of animation to the body. If indeed Grandpa's spirit still inhabits the wreckage of the Kamloops, then we can only hope that his existence is a peaceful one.
This is certainly the perception of the majority of those who encountered him, many describing the dead sailor as appearing inquisitive rather than hostile in any way. Whilst potential explanations have been offered for each of the mysteries we have featured in this post, pressing questions persist that often served to undermine them. It remains clear that our seas and oceans are a place that must be respected and feared rather than taken for granted.