A Weird Experience Writing About Great Lakes Shipwrecks

I got spooked by a coincidence while researching Great Lakes shipwrecks for a story. The coincidence involved a shipwreck so terrifying I decided not to write my story at all.

I had planned to write about each category of maritime disaster: shipwrecks, ghost ships, and disappearances. With a proper shipwreck, the fact of the sinking is undisputed, but the wreck itself may or may not ever be found. A ghost ship has been abandoned but doesn’t immediately sink, sometimes not for years, resulting in haunting sighting reports. I had written a story about a ghost ship already. Now I wanted to write about a ship disappearing. With such missing ships, a sinking is often assumed, but the ship is simply gone; it may as well have sailed into a black hole.

My disappearance tale remains unwritten. The story I was going to write was of a ship vanishing in plain sight as it sailed under the Aerial Lift Bridge. The mystery would be where did it go, and how — was it all an illusion/what is reality anyway, etc. The ship’s possible fates would include “what if the lift bridge acted like a teleporter.” The end would reveal a document recording an encounter with the ship in the distant past, describing the crew as phased half into the deck — a nod to the Philadelphia Experiment. The story would end with this horror image of the still-alive crew, instead of with an explanation. Dude this story was going to rock. All I needed was the name of this doomed hell ship and I could start writing.

As I have been doing with many names in this story series (see “The Secret History of Duluth, Minnesota”), I brainstormed the ship’s name. This was on June 20, 2021. I picked the first name that popped into my mind from wherever ideas come from. I thought, “What am I going to call this ship?” And the words came to me: “The Bessamer.” I tried thinking of other names, but kept circling back. The Bessamer had a ring to it I couldn’t explain.

That night, I searched the name online to see if it was a thing. What I found initially was an alternate spelling, “Bessemer.” That had two meanings that fit thematically so I tweaked my spelling to match. Firstly, I saw there is a small town in Michigan called Bessemer. That fit because Michigan is on the Great Lakes, so “Bessemer” made perfect sense for a ship name. Secondly, there was an inventor named Sir Henry Bessemer from an earlier industrial age who invented a steel-making process. This intrigued me. Was the town named after the inventor? (I have confirmed this.) Maybe the town was founded for its industrial capacity related to steel, iron ore, and so forth. (It was.) It all had a nice bit of regional flavor. How funny this unknown word had popped into my head with such resonant associations. I was on to something.

Continuing into the night, I went down the rabbit hole researching ideas and the “disappearing ships” theme. Around midnight, I stumbled across a wiki list called “List of Missing Ships.” Perfect, I thought. I could mine this list for ideas and details to inform my story’s mix of the real and unreal. Pairing real details with a fictional gloss had worked for me in my previous tales. Many people think they are true stories which is precisely the effect I’m going for. So I dove into the list of missing ships. I clicked through the links of the North America section because specifically I wanted to incorporate Great Lakes stories — Lake Superior stories if I could find them. But any Great Lakes details would have that ring of truth to enhance my fiction with the tone of half-reality I was looking for.

What I found blew my mind and left me spooked.

Clicking on North America, brings up a list of ships by region that includes the category of “Undetermined Area.” That drew my attention immediately. Anything indeterminate boosted the feeling of mystery I was going for.

I clicked through to read the stories of these shipwrecks in “undetermined areas.” This where I found the coincidence — attached to a real missing ship that was way scarier than my story idea. It is so scary in part because the shipwreck led to an attempted murder while the ship was sinking. Add in contradictory information given by witnesses and you have a quintessential true-life shipwreck horror story, freighted with the added air of unsolved mystery.

This real-life wreck occurred on Lake Erie — we know that much. Only half the bodies were recovered. Among them was the body of a crewman who seems to have taken knives and a cleaver from the galley before abandoning ship. Also among the bodies was the ship’s Captain — which bore “severe slash marks.”

The speculation is that the crewman took the opportunity of the shipwreck to attack the Captain, either blaming him for the fate befalling them all, or from some other lost grievance.

As if that isn’t scary enough, there’s more. The wreck has never been found, leading some to suggest that it literally sank twice: once beneath the waves amid scenes of violence and madness, and then again beneath the silt and muck at the bottom of Lake Erie.

Gone was my Philadelphia Experiment rip-off. The idea of sinking twice crowded everything else out of my mind. This second sinking — being swallowed in the muck at the bottom of a Great Lake — germinated into a new story — The SuperiorLab-Marquette Disaster. Although there are horror aspects, this story is more like speculative fiction. But basically I tried to make it the most spectacular shipwreck ever.

It’s still got nothing on the true story. The real ship didn’t just sink. It sank amid a violent scene of revenge and madness, a horror above and beyond that of dying during a shipwreck which is horrible enough. And then, when it hit the bottom, it sank again.

The name of this real ship chilled my blood. Even a small coincidence sometimes seems so powerful. The ship’s name, which I discovered literally at midnight, was the “Marquette and Bessemer no. 2.”

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