Ghost Ships

A "canal sized" schooner similar to the St. Peter loading coal, as that ship did before setting out on its final voyage. This ship is alongside the trestle at Fair Haven. The St Peter started out from Oswego. Courtesy Sterling Historical Society

I’ve sailed upstate’s inland waters for nearly 40 years and have seen some strange and wonderous things. Dancing waterspouts, bizarre mirages and rain squalls that dropped snails on my boat are odd to be sure. But recently I learned that even stranger things can happen on Lake Ontario. Last winter while researching my latest book on shipwrecks, I learned that the lake is haunted.

Tall ships and graceful schooners once sailed the lake, a place with a rich maritime heritage dating back 300 years. Part of that heritage exists today in the form of some of the best preserved underwater shipwrecks anywhere in the world. One of those wrecks is that of the St. Peter, a three-masted schooner that went to the bottom in 1898 during a storm. She foundered just a few days before Halloween. She was deep loaded with coal and was running before a storm. At least one person, the captain’s wife, is known to have died with her. Their bones lie today just east of Pultneyville in 117 feet of water.

The ship is intact and well preserved, and each year underwater tourists attempt the challenging deep dive to visit her grave. But in late fall, some scuba divers report strange occurrences in the wreck’s vicinity.

The captain’s wife is known to shoreline residents living near the site of the tragedy as “Martha.” It’s said that she makes an appearance to wreck divers when danger lurks upon the lake. Sometimes in October the water surges in a peculiar way in and out of the little harbor at Hugh’s Marina where most divers launch their boats. The flow is almost like a tide, and the divers say that the captain’s wife is pushing the water to draw the little boats back into the safe harbor. Some believe she is trying to keep people off the deep deadly lake where she died. She also occasionally appears in human form, again usually in the fall. It’s said that ever since the big anchor from the wreck was brought ashore and hung up under an oak at Hughes Marina that she started coming ashore.

Jenkin’s Misfortune
Several stories exist of ghosts that appear to Lake Ontario sailors and divers in times of danger, as if in an attempt to warn the living of mortal peril. There is even a tale of a ghost dog that once saved a sailor’s life. Back in 1875 when cargo schooners were still common on the lake, the crew of the I.G. Jenkins, a stout Oswego-built schooner, was locking their ship through the Welland Canal. A sailor said to be given to the second sight (and/or an occasional dram of whiskey) was at the helm when a large, very wet black dog climbed over the ship’s railing, walked across the deck and disappeared again. The helmsmen took this to be a warning of things to come and promptly left his post, grabbed his duffle from the forecastle, and cleared out.

He followed the ship down the towpath, warning his mates that they, too, should leave, until the captain cursed him and drove him off. Then the Jenkins towed out into Lake Ontario on a late November day, loaded with 20,000 bushels of “number one” wheat from Milwaukee bound for the mills of her homeport of Oswego.

In the wee hours of the following night, the witch of November stirred up a storm on the lake and a strong northwest wind began to roar, driving the Jenkins before it. Several other ships managed to stagger into port the next day, but the Jenkins, stout and sturdy and only two years old, never appeared. A few days later a bit of wreckage from her came ashore just a short ways west of Oswego. Perhaps sometime near dawn of that fateful night, that seventh wave dealt her a mortal blow. She went down with eight men and one woman aboard, alone on the wild waste of waters. The next day a large black dog came ashore up by Sheldon’s Point, a few miles west of Oswego. The farmer who found him said he was a strange dog and that he seemed very tired. His hair stuck to his sides as if glued there.

October and November have long been deadly upon the lake. In late October the gales begin to blow and during the age of sail, the last few trips of the season were by far the most dangerous. Moses Dulmadge, a sturdy young sailor, was blown away while rowing out to his schooner in his little yawl boat on Halloween night in 1879. He was swept across 20 miles of open water that wild windy night. The next morning the Stony Point lighthouse keeper found his frozen body still tied to the thwart of the row boat as it bobbed among the freezing slush near shore. In November 1993, two men aboard an old barge being towed across the lake died after a storm blew up during the night and sank the vessel. It’s hardly surprising most ghost ships and stories seem to circulate in late fall.

The Banshee of Lake Ontario
One of the most famous Lake Ontario ghost stories that has been published several times is that of a hapless sailor who crossed tracks with a bloodthirsty night-flying spirit. Several versions of the tale exist. One story, by the well-known upstate novelist and muckraking reporter Samuel Hopkins Adams, involved a banshee.

Stories of female demons, jumbees and banshee spirits that fly upon the wind have been recounted for many years by sailors of Celtic heritage, as well as by the men of the Caribbean isles who recall African spirits. In his book, Grandfather Tales, Hopkins called her the Carcagne. His version of the tale takes place off Oswego, and involves a man who crossed her. He was an unsavory sort, a smuggler and body snatcher who illegally sold cadavers to a medical school in Albany.

Lake Ontario’s banshee is said to soar over the lake on gale winds. She has a wolf’s head, a vampire’s fangs and the black wings of a bat. One October night in 1829 a powerful storm swept the lake. As the breakers crashed on the shore beneath Fort Ontario, word went around the waterfront that Munk Birgo was putting out with his sloop. Birgo was a man with a reputation to match that of the lake’s demon. Born in the malaria-
ridden swamps of Montezuma, he and his mother were said to possess dark powers. Birgo practiced a number of unsavory trades upon the lake.

A group of idlers gathered to watch him cast off. Some thought they heard the flutter of wings. Some caught the faint odor of corruption upon the air. Was it the leach of the sloop’s jib they heard? Or was it the lingering odor of the fish hold they smelled? Was it something more? Birgo cast off at the stroke of midnight. He sailed out of the river directly into the wind and witnesses said they heard him recite the Lord’s Prayer backwards.

The loafers turned and hurried home. Some said that night they heard a high, mad wailing. Was it the gale whining among the chimney pots and the rigging of ships in port? Or something more? At dawn the next day Birgo’s black-hulled sloop was seen returning to port. She was under full sail and some saw a small dark cloud just ahead of her. She steered straight up the river faster than any mortal sloop could sail. And at her helm sat Munk Birgo’s bones, picked clean and white. Then they say the sloop abruptly vanished, and a wild cry sounded over the harbor.

These days I think the spirits of the nether world have a harder time intruding upon our own reality. They have to compete with so much contemporary noise and distraction. I think ghosts and spirits thrive in quiet settings where people have time to observe their surroundings or hear the wind in the trees.

Still, I believe there will continue to be ghost stories told on and by Lake Ontario for as long as sailors and divers respect its power. Stories like these stem in part from the sense of wonder that lives among those who follow the water.

For more ghost stories and shipwreck accounts, check out Susan’s new book, Ariadne’s Death, Tales of Heroism and Tragedy on Lake Ontario at www.chimneybluff.com.


by Susan Peterson Gateley