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SS Kamloops: Wreck Event

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artist sketch of SS Kamloops turned on its side on the bottom of lakebed
Sketch of the SS KAMLOOPS resting on lake bottom.

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Wreck Event

The last trip of the 1927 season would be Kamloops' final trip. The doomed vessel cleared Port Colborne, Ontario on the Welland Canal upbound on December 1 at 9:30 AM (Detroit Free Press, Dec. 2, 1927). The ship passed Detroit at 11:30. Apparently Kamloops passed through the Soo on December 4 in the company of Quedoc, a 345-foot bulk freighter (Owen Sound Daily Sun Times, Dec. 13, 1927). From Sault Ste. Marie, Capt. Brian wrote his wife in Toronto, saying that the weather was very bad and that he was going out to anchor his ship (Ibid., Dec. 14, 1927). Mrs. Brian expected her husband home for the winter season six days later on Saturday, December 10.

The giant freeze-up of vessels the year before was still fresh in memory as the 1927 navigation season drew to a close. A rumor had circulated from Buffalo that Lake ships, fearing another blockade, would end their season on November 30, but executives of Canada Steamship Lines denied the rumor. A company official was quoted in the Fort William Daily Times Journal on November 29:

The day following the executive's statement, a 36 mile-an-hour northeast wind began, causing the upbound vessels to shelter overnight on November 30 at Whitefish Point and the Welcome Islands. The temperature was 8°F. at Duluth, 10 F. at Port Arthur, and storm warnings were raised at the Soo. The temperature continued to drop as a massive cold front advanced from the northwest (Sault Daily Star, Dec. 1, 1927). This cold front would be closely followed by a worse storm.

The storm increased as the second front arrived, sweeping Lake Superior with high winds on December 5. Upbound vessels, including Kamloops, had been delayed and anchored at Whitefish Bay. The downbound grain fleet had weathered the storm at Fort William. Valcartier, the first ship to reach the Soo, arrived heavily laden with a thick coating of ice, and reported temperatures of 40 degrees below during the storm (Sault Daily Star, Dec. 6, 1927).

Storm signals were raised once again on December 7, as a northeast wind began blowing at 20 to 30 miles per hour. The temperature dropped to 10 degrees below at Port Arthur. The storm became a major blizzard. The weather remained at sub-zero levels with lows of 10-38 degrees F. below zero reported. The situation on the Lakes grew worse as the storm raged the 7th and 8th. 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.

By December 12, grave concern was mounting regarding the fate of Kamloops, which was now overdue at Ft. Willliam. A search for Kamloops began in earnest December 12. Islet Prince, commanded by A.E. Fader, began searching the north shore (Ft. William Daily Times Journal, Dec. 12, 1927). The government tug Murray Stewart left from the Soo to join the search (Sarnia Canadian Observer, Dec 13, 1927).

Speculation on the whereabouts of Kamloops centered on Isle Royale. Captain R. Simpson of Quedoc arrived at the Soo and discovered Kamloops still on the unreported list. He gave the following account:

As more time passed without a trace of wreckage, and hope was reluctantly abandoned, the general feeling grew that Kamloops would remain a Lakes mystery (Sault Daily Star, Dec. 14, 1927). The Coast Guard ceased its search of the Keweenaw in the face of heavy seas and ice, and suggested concentrating efforts on the shores of Isle Royale and Manitou Islands (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette, Dec. 16, 1927). The Islet Prince, which had seen no wreckage, was called back to port by CSL officials.

Isle Royale and Manitou Island represented the last shred of hope for the searchers. Captain Henry Gehl of the tug Champlain believed every bay of Isle Royale should be inspected. "I would like to give the Isle the once-over to be certain. It might be that some member or members of the crew got ashore and are wandering about the island. It must be made certain that no one is on the island before the search for the missing steamer is given up as hopeless" he said (Port Arthur News Chronicle, Dec. 16, 1927).

Capt. Gehl was not alone in his belief that survivors might be on Isle Royale. Another tug captain, Sam Wright, said that practically every tug captain, mate and engineer was ready to start a close search of the shore of Isle Royale, and the waters and islands between Port Arthur and the big island, to ascertain the fate of the freighter Kamloops. Wright believed that the missing ship would be found ice-locked on the inner side of Isle Royale between Washington Harbor and Gull Rocks, a stretch of 15 miles of sheer rock where there is no shelter for ships, or else in one of the numerous bays and island-sheltered nooks that extend from Gull Rocks to the outer point of the island (Port Arthur News Chronicle, Dec. 17, 1927). The prospect of finding survivors still alive on Isle Royale was considered remote (Daily Mining Journal, Marquette Dec. 16, 1927).

By the beginning of the new year, there was little mention of the loss of Kamloops. In January the Ontario Workman's Compensation Board judged the crew lost and were waiting for receipt of the official report so compensation to the widows and children could begin (Owen Sound Daily Sun Times, Jan. 12, 1928; Detroit Free Press, Jan. 17, 1928). It was known that there were two women aboard Kamloops during its final voyage. Jennet Grafton and Alice Bettridge were the first and assistant stewardesses. This was to have been the last season on the Lakes for Grafton; it was the second season for 22 year-old Bettridge (Owen Sound Daily Sun Times, Jan. 12, 1928).

On May 26, the electrifying news that the fishermen of Isle Royale had found bodies believed to belong to the crew of Kamloops reached the newspapers (Calumet News, May 26, 1928; Detroit Free Press, May 27, 1928). The cutter Crawford, which postponed entering the drydock in Duluth at Marine Iron and Shipbuilding for repairs, went to investigate. Two bodies had been reported found by David Lind:

On June 4, six more bodies of Kamloops' crew were found, again by fishermen. News of the discovery was relayed to the port cities from Isle Royale by the captain of Winyah. The bodies were decomposed, but one appeared to be that of a woman (The Calumet News, June 5, 1928).

At first, the woman, reportedly found attired in nightclothes, was believed to be stewardess Netty Grafton of Southampton (Owen Sound Daily Sun Times, June 6, 1928). The woman was later identified as Alice Bettridge, the assistant stewardess, an identification based on the fact that the body had a set of natural teeth; it was known that Netty Grafton had false teeth (Port Arthur News Chronicle, June 7, 1928). The report that Bettridge was found in her nightclothes was denied. Brock Batten stated, "She was fully dressed and wore a sweater and a coat (Ft. William Daily Times Journal, June 7, 1928). This evidence supports the belief held at the time by many that the bodies found were the occupants of a lifeboat that made it to shore. All had been found with lifebelts.

A ninth body was found inland some distance from shore, believed to be the remains of Honore (Henry) Genest, first mate. The body had no lifebelt, although one was found in the vicinity. It was surmised that the first mate was able to make it to shore and remove his lifebelt before succumbing to the elements (Ft. William Daily Times Journal, June 14, 1928).

Isle Royale National Park

Last updated: February 17, 2021