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The Ships and Legends of the Mississagi Strait

Information Compiled from the following resources:

  • Mississagi Lighthouse Legends by Clara Eadie,
  • The Meldrum Bay Historical Society,
  • and Alone in the Night: Lighthouses of Georgian Bay,
  • Manitoulin Island and the North Channel by Andrea Gutsche

  • As early as the 1850's, plans were made to build a stone Imperial tower on Mississagi Strait, but it took until 1873 before the Manitoulin light was actually constructed. The Strait was filled with lumber ships heading to the United States and the mariners welcomed a light to help them navigate this perilous passage which harbored the dangerous Magnetic Reef and Castilian Shoal. Magnetic shoals and islands were a navigator’s nightmare. At the turn of the century, compasses responded to all magnetic sources whether it was the North Pole, minerals in the soil or a wrench in one’s pocket. A reef, such as the one off the Mississagi Strait lighthouse, could create a compass deviation significant enough to direct a ship’s crew to founder on the very shoal they wished to avoid. (Although the mechanically-operated gyrocompass was introduced in 1910, it was not used on the Great Lakes until 1922.) After several ships including the Quebec, a fish freighter from Sarnia ran aground on the magnetic reef during foggy weather, southwest of the lighthouse in the fog and was lost in 1881. It is believed that this was the wreck that brought the urgent need for the foghorn plant to be built by 1883 to assist the lighthouse in its duties to provide navigational aid through the sometimes treacherous Strait. Ten years later, following complaints from ship captains, the horn was replaced with a screeching “wildcat” steam whistle. In 1908, the whistle was upgraded to a diaphone type. D.N. Sullivan (keeper 1946-70) recalls arriving at the station after World War II, to find the machinery worn out: “You had two machines to run air for the fog plant, and if you had a long stretch of fog you would always have one machine down, and you would be working on it, trying to get it ready. Everything was kerosene lights, I remember my wife standing down there half the night holding the lantern for me. I had an assistant, but he thought I would never get the machine running so he wouldn’t stay down there.”

    DIVE THE BURLINGTON

    The Burlington and the Green

    Not all ships that were lost at Mississagi were victims of natural disasters. Between the year 1913 and 1915, the Burlington burned at anchor right in front of the lighthouse where the fuel storage shed still stands. D.N. Sullivan has his own opinion about the ship’s fate: “I think she burned for the insurance to tell the truth. She was steam...an old wooden barge. It was in the days that they were getting obsolete.” The remains of the Burlington still lay on the bottom of the strait 25-50ft from a Hydro poll in campsite #2. This has now become a well known divers paradise, and even a snorkellers’ dream on a clear day being able to see the remains even from the surface. Divers are able to follow the the hydro line underwater directly to the wreckage. Another ship, the lumber barge Green, grounded on Magnetic Reef in broad daylight. The lightkeeper William Grant went to its assistance. Warning that a heavy blow was headed their way, he suggested the captain remove a number of items such as the ship’s swivel chairs and several 31-day clocks. The Captain refused, insisting “they were going to come and pull her off.” The crew and the Captain spent the night at the lighthouse and as predicted the storm destroyed the Green. “There was nothing left of her, “ recalled Sullivan. “Everyone knew it was for the insurance, in those days that’s what people did. It was understood.”

    The Griffon Controversy

    Long before the advent of the lighthouse, this area proved to be a graveyard of ships. The most famous foundering is said to be that of the Griffon or as the Cockburn Island Natives called it “The French Man’s Ship.” Having gained official sanction to follow the Mississippi River to its mouth, and to set up a string of fur-trading forts along the way, Rene-Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle commission a barque, the Griffon, to be built at Niagra Falls in 1678. By September 1679, he was in Green Bay, on Lake Michigan with the ship full of furs. Chronically in debt, La Salle ordered the cargo to be taken back to Niagra, in order to pay off the expedition’s financial backers. The Griffon sailed with a skeleton crew of five under the command of the pilot, a giant of 7ft nicknamed “Luc the Dane”. She was last sighted from the north shore of Lake Michigan, running eastward before a gale. Some said she made it into Lake Huron. In any event, she never reached her destination. Debris, including an ensign staff, a hatch, and bales of beaver skins washed up on Mackinac Island in the Straits of Mackinaw, but no one knew the spot where she had gone down. For centuries, local Indians had been aware of an early wreck on the beach a half mile north of the present lighthouse. It was often used as a source of recycling material, some being turned into spears, fish hooks and weapons used by the natives. During World War I, when fisherman could not purchase lead, the metal used to caulk the ship’s planks, was pried out and melted down to make excellent net sinkers. Farmers used the iron bolts to make harrow teeth. Around 1927, when he was thirteen, keeper D.N. Sullivan recalls visiting his cousin John Grant. The bow of the “Griffon” was sitting on the beach. The two boys set it on fire, planning to sell the iron to Jimmy McColeman- “Jimmy the Devil”- from Thessalon, who collected metal. Sullivan remembers the wreck smouldered for weeks under the cobble beach - “we thought we were going to get a bush fire going.” By the time an official investigation was ordered, what was left of the wreck had been carried out into deep water. Nevertheless, there seemed to be enough evidence to make identification possible. The wood samples corresponded in age, rings, fibre and consistency to sample of seventeenth-century Niagra growth; the Musee de la Marine in Paris, France confirmed the Mississagi wreck followed French ship design of La Salle’s era; the lead caulking used in the hull was typical of ships of the period. (Caulking was necessary to fill the cracks which appeared when the green lumber used in construction, dried and shrank.) A less scientific discovery added to this evidence. Mississagi’s keeper William Cullis and assistant John Holdsworth came upon some odd buttons (one with a raised triangle in the middle) and coins while searching for timber to make a sail boat mast. On searching further, they discovered a shallow cave entrance on an overhanging cliff. Entering, their hearts stopped. Leaning up against the wall were four skeletons, one so big and 7ft tall, its skull would have fit over an average man’s head. Some thought these were the remains from missing men from the American Garrison on Mackinaw Island while others believed after further exploration revealed two more skeletons, six in all- the exact number of men believed to be on the Griffon’s last voyage. Later John had also found the case of a crudely made watch which had long rusted away. For years, the buttons and other trinkets were kept in a baking powder can in the fog plant, while the skulls were lined up along the boathouse dock, until someone kicked them into the water one night. Not everyone believes this wreck is the Griffon. The hull is said to be too big; the large amount of iron is questionable and threaded bolts point to a later era. Orrie Vail of Tobermory came forward with another potential Griffon. His grandfather, William Vail, one of the first white men on the Bruce Peninsula, had been told by Indians of a wreck on an island they call “Wabus” or Rabbit Island, about two miles northwest of Tobermory. When Orrie showed this wreck to a reporter and two Griffon experts in 1955, it was still in good condition, with the keel, bow, stern, thirteen ribs, and quite a bit of planking intact. Its length and shape matched the Griffon’s... and the bolts were hand-hammered. Although these experts affirmed their belief that the Tobermory wreck was the Griffon, the controversy still rages.

    The Shed Museum beside the lighthouse now exhibits large beams, square spikes, washers, bolts, and other miscellaneous items found at the bottom of the Strait. Most pieces are from the Government funded dive of the “Griffon” in the late 80's and are now over 300 years old.

    William Grant and the Bootleggers

    Grants’ 33-year tenure at Mississagi covered the period of Prohibition in the Untied States, 1919 to 1933. Prohibition created an instant underground economy, as Canadian bootleggers and rum-runners cashed in on the American thirst for illegal booze. Communities along the North Shore with liquor stores, like Thessalon and Blind River, became key suppliers. Canadians delivered the liquor to prearranged islands and shoals, where it was retrieved, under cover of night, by Americans in high speed boats. In the Mississagi Strait area, Green Island was the drop-off spot. On one occasion, the Straits liquor boat, which was fitted with an airplane engine for extra power, ran aground on Magnetic Reef. After unloading the beer, the crew managed to bring the damaged vessel alongside the lighthouse. The rum-runners said a bearing had burned out, after they ran aground on nearby Cockburn Island. Grant fashioned a new one, and did not question their story. Perhaps he was influenced by the Captain’s artfully exposed gun, or maybe he had heard the rumor that the Captain had shot a man and thrown him overboard on a previous trip. Afterwards, Grant, on a hunch, went out to the Magnetic Reef and found the sacks of beer hanging from a buoy. “I don’t know how many cases he got but he had an awful slew,” recalls his nephew Sullivan. Word about the free liquor soon spread through community. Cockburn Island residents took to rowing out, and after setting their nets, fisherman would take their daily constitutional swims at the reef. If they were lucky, they found some beer on the lake bottom, chilled and ready to serve. Fearing the return of the Captain and his gang, Grant hid his share of the contraband in a hole cut into the wall of one of the upstairs bedrooms. Eventually, the rum-runners were arrested, D.N. recalls, “they wanted to give the head of the gang a good trip. He was locked up, I don’t know for how long. But Mr. Grant was always worried he might come back.” As it turned out, Grant set up a little business of his own with the contraband, selling it to a local hotel which soon after was raided by police. (Grant no only got off scot-free, he earned enough money from the sales to buy himself a car!)

    The Land Link

    D.N. Sullivan took the job as Mississagi’s keeper when he returned from the war in 1946. For the first ten years, he hiked the seven miles to Meldrum Bay with a packsack full of supplies. Thankfully, unlike his uncle, William Grant, he didn’t have to walk backwards pounding a metal pan to discourage a bear from stealing his food. By the late 1940's the road was improved enough so that Sullivan could drive his Model A to and from the lighthouse- the road was so bad, but it was a lot better then carrying the supplies on your back: “It was 12 miles by water and I never had a boat for heavy weather. It was just a bush trail. I worked on it until the last two years I was there, you would get it to pretty fair shape in the spring, the tourists came, get it fair shape again, then the hunters would come and the wet weather. No end to it.” As the economy changed, traffic through the Strait, once filled with barges carrying lumber, pulp wood and coal, declined. In 1968, an automatic beacon was erected beside the old Mississagi light, and the station was offered for lease. Happily, the Meldrum Bay Historical Society turned the lighthouse into a museum . The lease is now held by the Manitoulin Tourism Association and the lighthouse is part of the Mississagi Lighthouse Heritage Park.

    There are many more unknown and untold stories of ships that traveled the Straits as well as other legends and adventures. We are looking for other stories, wrecks or dive findings of any other ships related to the Mississagi Strait for our museums. For more information or if you have correctional or additional information to provide, please Contact Us.

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