Ghost Ships of the North Atlantic
From Newfoundland to Prince Edward Island, Canada’s Atlantic Provinces are home to some of the richest folklore in all the country. This notion is attested to by the metaphorical library of Maritime folktale collections compiled by local historians, like Frank Harold MacArthur’s 1966 book Legends of Prince Edward Island, and Helen Creighton’s 1957 classic, Bluenose Ghosts.
The archives of Fortean scholar Mr. Gary S. Mangiacopra contain many forgotten tales of haunted lighthouses, sea serpents, and phantom ships endemic to Canada’s Atlantic Northeast, which add to the growing body of material that is the folklore of Eastern Canada. We will explore some of those stories in this video.
Ghost Stories from Newfoundland’s Western Shore
One of the items in Mr. Mangiacopra’s archive is an article in the September 1st 1975 issue of The Hartford Courant, an American newspaper based out of Hartford, Connecticut. The piece, which was written by journalist John Lacy and entitled ‘Newfoundland Ghosts Linger,’ details the author’s interview with Hartford resident Robert Russell, who Lacy wrote, “was a boy growing up in Newfoundland in horse and buggy days.”
Russell began his meeting with Lacy by sharing anecdotes about his childhood in the town of Bay Roberts, on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. Back in the 1910s and ‘20s, for example, young Russell and his fellow students were each required to carry a bundle of wood to class each morning, in order to ensure that the potbelly stove in the town’s one-room schoolhouse had the fuel it needed to drive away the damp Atlantic chill. Russell told Lacy about the pungent dried cod that was a staple in his family home, and about the many inlets and coves which featured in some of his earliest childhood memories.
After reminiscing for some time, Russell produced a homemade book entitled Folklore History of Newfoundland, a mishmash of forgotten ghost stories and local historical anecdotes typewritten on paper of varying thickness, “gathered directly from the people of Newfoundland”. One of the tales in Russell’s book is set in Lark Harbour, a small fishing community which lies at the heart of Newfoundland’s desolate western coast, a region known as the French Shore on account of a bygone treaty which once gave French fisherman the right to cast their nets into its rough waters. Long ago, the story goes, a ship crewed by some of those Gallic sailors was tossed into a cluster of sea rocks in the Bay of Islands, not far from Lark Harbour, and sank with all hands. “There were no survivors,” wrote the book’s nameless author, “but when a storm blows up, you can hear the cries of drowned sailors calling for help.”
Another story in Russell’s book takes place in Bonne Bay, another tiny community on Newfoundland’s western shore, located at the base of the Great Northern Peninsula and the edge of Gros Morne National Park. Many years ago, so the tale goes, a large ship sank in the natural harbour for which Bonne Bay is named. “One evening, about 20 or 30 years after it had sunk,” wrote the unnamed folklorist, “the people heard a noise in the harbor… What did they see but the ship coming towards shore, same as the day she went down. The ship was shining with lights, but nobody was seen on board. She came in to about one miles from shore and then she disappeared.”
The last story referenced in Lacy’s article told of a 16-year-old girl from Woody Point, a village just south of Bonne Bay, who died after suffering epileptic convulsions. “During the funeral service,” the folklorist wrote, “they heard a knocking from the coffin. The undertakers, having shoveled the earth over her, were startled and started to dig savagely.
“When the opened the coffin, she was face down and her eyes were open as if she had died of fright. The question arises: How many people have been buried alive?”
The Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait
Another Maritime tale in Mr. Mangiacopra’s archive is an article entitled “The Phantom Ship,” which appeared in the May 1954 issue of the magazine Fate. The author- one Roy Grant of Warwick East, Bermuda- claimed that his father had an unusual experience in about 1904 while sailing with six other men on the Northumberland Strait, the strip of Atlantic Ocean which separates Prince Edward Island from the mainland provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
“As my father told the story,” Grant wrote, “it was just after sundown and not yet dark, and he was steering the schooner. One of the men said, ‘Look out! Don’t you see that ship crossing our bow?’ Father looked and saw a full-rigged ship going across the bow not more than 200 yards away. The men watched the ship and when it was about a half mile off it suddenly burst into flames. Then they knew it was [a] phantom ship.”
Rather than flee from the ghostly spectacle, Grant’s father and his fellow sailors decided to approach the burning schooner head-on. As if in response, the spectral vessel instantly set sail and drifted away from them at exactly the same speed. “First the sails and rigging seemed to burn brightly,” Grant wrote, “then the entire hill appeared to be on fire. During this time, the figure of a man could be quite clearly seen walking along the deck.”
The astonished shipmates pulled every trick in the book in an effort to overtake the mysterious craft, but no matter how fast they sailed towards it, the phantom ship remained the same distance ahead of them. As they tailed it, their phantasmal quarry slowly began to sink lower and lower into the water, as if it were being consumed by the inferno which engulfed it. When the tip of its mast finally kissed the surface of the water, the flame separated into three great balls of fire. These fireballs skipped along the waves for some time before coming back together again, flaring up into a roaring blaze as they rejoined. This great conflagration eventually subsided to reveal the original schooner, whole and unconsumed once again, which sailed on unmolested for a brief spell before bursting into flames just as before, repeating the cycle.
Grant’s father and his fellow shipmates maintained their futile pursuit all night long, until finally, at dawn, the ghostly schooner melted into the twilight.
The fiery phantom ship which Grant’s father described, referred to by some authors as the Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait, evokes another spectral schooner seen from time to time near Nova Scotia’s famous Oak Island. This mystery ship is believed to be ghost of an American privateer called the Young Teazer, whose cargo hold was set ablaze by a suicidal sailor during a naval battle in the War of 1812… but that’s a story for another time.
- “Newfoundland Ghosts Linger,” in the September 1st, 1975 issue of The Hartford Courant
- “The Phantom Ship,” in the May 1954 issue of Fate