Ghost Ship SS Kamloops: Lost Ships of the Great Lakes
The story of the SS Kamloops and her crew
For the SS Kamloops and her crew their early December trip to Thunder Bay on Lake Superior was to be the last of the season, unfortunately it would end up being the last trip ever.
The SS Kamloops was built in 1924 in England for use as a Great Lakes freighter. At 250’ she was a relatively small vessel for the Great Lakes even in the ‘20s, but she was limited in size in order to fit through the existing Welland Canal locks of that time. Due to this design she was called a “canaller” class ship and spent most of her time hauling package freight west and bulk freight like grain east between Canadian ports.
SS Kamloops, circa 1920s. Isle Royale National Park Archives
The Kamloops’ owners were known to push her as late into the season as possible. In fact, in 2 of her 4 years of service she found herself trapped in ice in the St. Marys River that drains lake Superior. Once in her first year in 1924 and once in 1926, with the latter being considered one of the largest ice jams in Great Lakes history with over 100 ships stuck. The Kamloops ended up stuck for 9 days in the ice before being freed and finishing her last trip of the 1926 season.
The SS Kamloops’ was carrying machinery, food, and building materials on her last trip of the 1927 season to Thunder Bay, Ontario. She made her way through the Soo Locks into Lake Superior on December 4th and then anchored off Whitefish Point to wait out a storm front. On December 5th she followed the 345’ bulk freighter Quedoc across Lake Superior. The Quedoc and Kamloops made slow headway across the lake due to a winter storm from a second front that had blown in. With temperatures below 0°F, wind whipped snow, and lake induced fog, visibility was poor to say the least.
Kamloops' Likely Planned Route
The Quedoc is the last ship to have seen the Kamloops, claiming she was covered in ice as she made her way through the storm. The Quedoc was operating under the assumption that the Kamloops was following behind her and December 6th the Quedoc reported seeing a land mass appear ahead of them and having to make a hard turn, they signaled to the Kamloops, who had no wireless communication, but never saw the ship. The reports from the Quedoc never mention what landmass that might have been.
The Kamloops never showed up in port and by December 12th the search for her and her crew began. The search correctly focused on Isle Royale, but being so late into the season only minimal searching was conducted before operations were postponed on December 22nd due to heavy seas and growing ice and wouldn’t resume until the spring.
Once spring broke up the ice on Lake Superior fishermen off the coast of Isle Royale discovered 2 bodies washed up on shore, the bodies would be identified as crew members of the SS Kamloops. Then in early June of 1928 fishermen discovered 6 more bodies on the island, 5 of them huddle together, including 22 year old Alice Betteridge (one of the 2 women stewardesses on board). Later that year a trapper discovered a message in a bottle that read, “I am the last one left alive, freezing and starving to death on Isle Royale. I just want mom and dad to know my fate.” The letter was signed, “Al, who is dead.”
These new clues painted a horrifying picture of the end for those 6 survivors. Much of Isle Royale’s shoreline is rocky cliff, so upon reaching the shore they would have had to scramble up some 20 plus feet of ice covered rocks just to get onto the island. Once there they would have been faced with gale force winds out of the northwest, temperatures down to 38°F below zero, and a remote and dangerous wilderness.
Kamloops' Point on Isle Royale
That Alice had the time to find a bottle and write a note combined with her mentioning that she was “starving” indicates these crewmembers managed to survivor for at least a few days on the island before succumbing to the elements. Other searches reported indications of shelters and resting places near the remains, adding to the theory that they survived for some time on Isle Royale before succumbing to the elements. The fact that they made it more than a few hours in those conditions indicates they made it to land via lifeboat and relatively dry. Anyone swimming to shore without dry clothes to change into would not have likely made it through the night in those conditions. With no tools or time to make shelter and food supply being limited to whatever they brought on the lifeboat or might have washed up from the wreck it would have been a slow cold death for these crew members.
The wreck was thought to be near Isle Royale due to reported debris found near the bodies on the island, but nothing was ever found, and the reported debris had been washed away by the time official searches made their way there. It wasn’t until 1977 that the SS Kamloops would be discovered, off of what is now Kamloops Point on Isle Royale. The wreck lies only 400 feet from Kamloops Point in around 260 feet of water. Thanks to Lake Superior’s depths never getting far above freezing the wreck is remarkably well preserved.
Wheel of the SS KAMLOOPS NPS
A package of Life Savers candy from the Kamloops' cargo Shipwreck Explorer’s LLC
The refrigeration like temperatures and absence of life at that depth preserves everything. From the wood steering wheel on the bridge to the Life Savers candy in her hold to the crewman still in the engine room. Yes, you read that right, there is a crewmember still floating in the engine room. Divers to the ship have collectively nicknamed the crewmember “Old Whitey” and/or “Grandpa”. If you did watch the above video you may have noticed a rather human like pair of white legs at the around the 1:50 mark, that would be “Old Whitey”.
Bodies in cold water undergo a process called saponification (colloquially called “soapification”) which leads to his ghostly white appearance. In this process the body fat turns into a wax (or soap) like substance that covers the body. The below video about Lake Superior and its preservative properties is worth a watch.
The condition of the ship itself only added to the mystery of how it sank. The hull is largely intact with only minor damage that would not have been sufficient to sink the ship.
Sketch of the SS KAMLOOPS resting on lake bottom. NPS
Makings of a Disaster
Without eyewitness accounts and no direct communication with the ship the only way to determine what happened is to analyze the wreckage.
The biggest clue to her demise is her location. The Kamloops was found on the windward side of Isle Royale. No experienced captain would have navigated to this location purposefully. There’s only one reasonable answer as to why the Kamloops would have been there: she was blown to that location, meaning she had lost power.
There are a variety of clues that support this hypothesis. First, the telegraph on the bridge is set to “Finished with Engines” meaning the triple expansion steam engine was shut down. And second, divers have reported that one of the cylinder heads is removed. The cylinder head being removed means the Kamloops would have been drifting for a while before sinking.
Another odd clue is the fact that the port bow shows indication of being run aground. The immediate conclusion is to say she ran aground on Isle Royale causing her to sink, but this doesn’t make sense for a few reasons. First, the wind was out of the northwest, any captain would have kept the ship's bow pointed into the wind, meaning she would have run aground stern first. But, the stern has no visible damage to the hull or the propeller.
Kamloops’ Propeller Superior Trips LLC
Based on the forward hull damage the Kamloops had to run aground upwind from Isle Royale, the next land mass from there puts here directly in Thunder Bay. The Kamloops is theorized to have run aground on the Welcome Islands (a mere 5 miles from the safety of the Thunder Bay port), though it’s possible it ran aground elsewhere like Sibley Peninsula at the entrance to Thunder Bay. Whether she ran aground and then had engine trouble or had engine trouble and then drifted onto a shoal is something that just can’t be determined.
Divers have also noted that the anchor chains ran out some distance from the ship. This would also be another tell tale sign the ship had been drifting without power. With the anchors out, they likely finally caught and held the Kamloops in place just offshore of Isle Royale. Listing from her hull damage, her crew would have been making every attempt to make repairs as abandoning ship in that weather was a likely death sentence. Local fishermen also reported the sound of a distress whistle being blown all through the night from the end of Isle Royale, adding credibility to the theory that she spent some time anchored just offshore attempting any repair she could. Her eventual demise is likely due to rolling over from a combination of worsening list and being very top heavy having a heavy deck load and accumulating ice.
Ice covering the bow of a Lakes freighter, 1930s Photograph by A. E. Young, courtesy of the Dana Thomas Bowen Collection, Great Lakes Historical Society
For 50 years the Kamloops was a ghost ship that disappeared with little trace, her whereabouts unknown. Her ghastly legacy continued after her discovery with the discovery of “Old Whitey” and diver reports that he seems to follow you about the ship. Other divers have even reported apparitions of crew members eating in the mess and working in the engine room. And the legacy of the Kamloops grows as she adds more souls to her count. In 2013 a diver to the site lost consciousness while underwater and was unable to be revived. There are a great many ghost ships and tales on the great lakes and the Kamloops is one of the most tragic and fascinating.