The SS Kamloops was built by Furness Steamship Company in Durham, England for one of their shipping operations in Quebec, Canada. It boasted a length of 250 feet and was rated for 2,402 gross tons but was a relatively small vessel for the Great Lakes in the 1920s. She had two rigged masts and a 1000 HP triple expansion steam engine with Scotch boilers. Her size and design allowed her to fit inside the Canadian run locks and canals during the years prior to the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Kamloops was first dispatched up the Great Lakes in late November of 1927 carrying machinery, coiled wire for farm fencing, piping, and several food articles desired at her destination. The crew consisted of twenty-one souls including Captain William Brian, Alice Bettridge the ships young steward, and an Engineer Michael White or Whitey as he would later be known. Most of the crew was optimistic about the seasons progress especially after last year's fiasco when the fleet became bogged down in port because of the winter weather. This season was different, everyone was looking forward to returning home for the holidays.
Captain Brian was standing up on the deck as the ship approached the end of Lake Huron and looking towards Michael White taking his break topside said, “It seems we are going to have an easy go this season Michael not another fiasco like what you are predicting old timer.”
The seasoned engineer answered, “I hope your right Captain, but things can change fast on Lake Superior, but rest assured if they do, I'll be in the ship's engine room trying my best to give you the power you need to protect the ship and crew.”
To which the captain replied, "I am sure you will Michael that's why you're always aboard my ships."
Alice the captain's young steward showed up just then on deck bringing coffee, “Well I for one am happy to be here with you both but looking forward to the best Christmas ever when we return home.”
To which captain Brian responded, “Well sounds like your money is already spent you better keep that coffee coming so I and Mr. White don't fall asleep stalling the ships progress.”
They all laughed but truth be told the entire crew of twenty-two were all optimistic about the winter season thus far. Meanwhile, the Kamloops steamed her way up Lake Huron and was preparing to enter into the locks at Sault Ste. Marie. By December 4th, the ship and crew were ready to face all the wind, the elements, and the challenges Lake Superior could throw at her. The Detroit Free Press published a statement from a key shipping line executive that proudly touted their enthusiasm.
"We will run our ships as long as the weather holds good, and as long as there is grain to carry. The experience we had last year does not deter us because we realize that a thing like that may not happen again for another 50 years." The executive's declaration would prove ironic on two counts: Company vessels would be lost in 1927, and others would end their season icebound in the very same channel as the year before.”
Unfortunately, the day after the shipping company put out this statement, a 36-mile-per-hour northwest wind began blasting the ship closely followed by a second front sweeping across Lake Superior with high winds on December 5th. A number of smaller vessels arrived at the Soo heavily laden with a thick coat of ice and reporting temperatures of 40 degrees below zero during the storm. The situation on the Lakes grew worse as the storm raged on the 7th and 8th, and damage reports began filtering in on the 9th. In all, five vessels were eventually declared a total loss by the underwriters-Kamloops was among the missing. When December 12th rolled around, grave concerns were mounting regarding the fate of Kamloops, which was now overdue at Ft. William.
Owen Sound Daily Sun Times Dec. 13, 1927
The QUEDOC passed upbound December 4. Beside her was the KAMLOOPS upbound loaded with package freight, with 21 [sic] men aboard. The Quedoc was leading, and the KAMLOOPS was one-quarter of a mile astern. At ten o'clock Tuesday night [Dec 6], the lookout on the steamer QUEDOC suddenly saw a dark mass ahead and gave the alarm immediately while sharply turning to avoid the rocks. The visibility was poor, and the seas were heavy on account of frost and fog. It is unknown whether the Kamloops heard the signal or saw the rocks and has not been seen since.
The signal or alarm was not heard and the Wheelhouse man on the Kamloops screeched in terror at the sight of the rocks, "Captain brace for impact."
The captain shouted to the engine room, "Hard Left." It was attempted but it was too late, and the ship still hit the rocks. Michael Whiting the ship's engineer became trapped under the staircase where he was thrown, and several men toppled into the bone-chilling waters unconscious from the shock only to very quickly revived by the heart stopping cold before they died.
The captain realizing the ship was taking on water and all was lost screamed out, "Abandon ship." Seeing his young steward, he grabbed her by the arm and made sure she got on the lifeboat along with 9 others. Alice begged the captain, "Get on board!" To which he replied, "Myplace is here with my ship and besides Michael is still down in the engine room." Speaking to his crew he said, "Listen, head due south for Isle Royal and there you will see the lighthouse."
They were in the boat until the day passed into night and many of the remaining crew were near death because of exposure, but they made sure to keep Alice alive and as warm as they could, she was only twenty. Then one of the men called out, "There is the lighthouse beacon!”and the remaining men that were able used the remainder of their strength to get the boat ashore. Every sailor on the Great Lakes understood the dual symbolism of the lighthouse: on the one hand it was phallic, mighty, erect, and denoted power and spirit reaching from the earth to the heavens. On the other hand, it was feminine, reminiscent of an enclosed area, a walled sanctuary, and a safe haven. The Virgin Mary was given the name the tower of ivory in her protective role of offering refuge and comfort.
The sailors knew that light in the distance was their only hope because conditions on the beach were icy, extremely cold, and the winter storm still ferociously blowing on them in their weakened conditions, and wet clothes. Things seemed dismal but they could still catch glimpses of that lighthouse but only Alice and one other man had any hope of reaching it and getting help. Alice didn't want to leave but they insisted because they knew that light was her only hope, she reluctantly agreed.
Two hours into the journey, her companion started uncontrollably shivering and shortly after couldn't continue and lost consciousness. Alice felt profoundly alone and no longer connected to the men of the Kamloops, but she did finally reach the lighthouse only to find absolutely nothing inside except herself. Then she remembered something she had read in a book of Carl Jung's, "The meeting between the individual consciousness and the vast expanse of the collective unconsciousness is dangerous, because the unconsciousness has decidedly disintegrating effect on the consciousness."
In that instant she understood that she was now part of the collective unconsciousness, so she sat down to write one last letter that was found on December 1928 by a trapper working at the mouth of the Agawa River in a bottle before she herself perished. She wrote, "I am the last one left alive, freezing and starving to death on Isle Royale in Lake Superior. I just want mom and dad to know my fate."
Of the nine bodies recovered from the Kamloops, five were identified and the remains shipped back home to their families. Four could not be identified because of wolf predation so were buried at Thunder Bay.
In August 1977, the wreck itself was discovered northwest of Isle Royale by divers carrying out a systematic search for the ship. They found it resting on the lake bottom on its starboard side in about 260 feet of water near an underwater cliff. Because of the extremely cold conditions of the water everything is perfectly preserved including cargo in the holds and strewn around the wreck. There are still human remains aboard including the remains of a crew member lodged under the stairway in the engine room, nicknamed "Old Whitey."
A collective memorial stone was placed over their gravesite in 2011.
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