Janet Kellough on the mysterious phenomena of Lake Ontario’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’.
Right at the eastern end of Lake Ontario where North America’s Great Lakes spill into the St. Lawrence River lies an area that has been dubbed “The Graveyard of Lake Ontario” because of the extraordinary number of ships that have gone to the bottom of its waters – nearly seventy have been documented so far, with speculation that there may be many more. A goodly number of them date from the latter half of the 19th century, when sailing vessels carried a vast quantity of trade goods between Canada and the United States. Canadian boats often took timber, or barley and other agricultural products across to New York State, and returned with cargoes of coal.
There is no question that adverse weather contributed to many of these tragedies – the eastern end of Ontario is notorious for sudden storms – and there is no question that compass readings are unreliable in the area, but there are also a number of stories that are so strange that they can’t really be accounted for by any of the usual explanations.
One of these is the strange fate of the crew of the three-masted timber drogher Bavaria in 1889. Fully rigged, but under tow by a steam barge, the vessels ran into mountainous seas near the southern shore of Prince Edward County. The tow line parted and the Bavaria was swept back down the lake. When she was found two days later, it appeared that nothing was amiss – the ship was intact, her lines were in place and her sails were stowed. The captain’s papers and freight money were still in his desk, a loaf of bread sat fully-baked in the oven, there was even a pet canary chirping cheerfully in its cage – but there was not a single sign of Captain John Marshall or any of his seven crew members. The disappearance of the Bavaria’s crew remains a mystery to this day.
And then there is this account from the year 1900, as told by a woman who worked as a cook aboard one of the vessels that regularly plied goods across the lake:
‘The strangest sight I ever did see was when I was barley boat cook aboard the schooner Annie Minnes. I remember there were three Prince Edward ships lying in Charlotte Harbour across the lake, waiting to sail for home – there was us, and the Acacia and the schooner Picton. There had been a storm the night before, but the weather was fair with a following sea and Captain Jack Sidley of the Picton was in a lather to get underway. You see, he had his young twelve year old son Vesey with him on that voyage, and he was anxious to get the boy home safe.
The Picton was fast – she ran like a scalded cat – still and all, I don’t think we were any more than fifteen minutes behind her, and the Acacia a half hour behind that. We were well out into the lake and making good time when all of a sudden we saw the Picton’s topsails coming off, and then her lower sails settled, and then, while we stood and watched, the Picton just disappeared.’
The captain of the Annie Minnes called to set the vessel down and the Acacia followed suit, but when they reached the area where the Picton should have been, there was nothing – no wreckage, no bodies, no sign that a ship had ever been there. It was as if the vessel had been swallowed up whole.
But the strangest thing of all is that several weeks later, a fisherman’s boy across the lake in Sackett’s Harbour, New York saw a bottle bobbing in the water. He didn’t think anything of it until he saw it the next day and the next and the next. Finally he decided to row out and see what it was. What he found was a glass bottle with a note inside, written in pencil. It said, “Have lashed Vesey to me with heaving line so that we will be found together.” And it was signed “Captain J. Sidley, Schooner Picton.”
To this day no one has ever been able to explain how the Picton went down so fast, or how Captain Sidley had time to tie his son to him, or to write a note and put it in a bottle. No bodies have ever been found, nor has the ship been identified amongst the documented wrecks.
Contemporary accounts attributed these strange disappearances to Divine Will, but some modern writers hold a different theory. They claim that there are strange forces at the eastern end of Lake Ontario that are akin to those in The Bermuda Triangle and have even given the marine graveyard a new name that references Prince Edward County’s easternmost townships. It is now popularly known as The Marysburgh Vortex and eerie events continue to be associated with it, from bizarre aviation experiences to claims of UFO sightings and alien abduction.
Whatever the truth of the matter, those who live along these shores will cite “The Vortex” as the cause of any odd or unexplainable event, and every so often the otherwordly sight of search flares over the lake signal that tragedy has struck once more.
Janet Kellough is the author of The Thaddeus Lewis Mysteries, set in pre-Confederation Upper Canada. The fifth book in the series, Wishful Seeing, was short-listed for Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. Her latest book, The Heart Balm Tort, was released in June 2017.
Photo: The schooner Picton, docked in Picton Harbour in the late 1800’s. (Courtesy of the Naval Marine Archive – The Canadian Collection, Picton)