Ceremony honours S.S. Kamloops sailors

They call it Kamloops Point now, a promontory on Isle Royale in Lake Superior near where the steamship Kamloops sank in 1927.

Next Wednesday - 84 years after the small freighter floundered with loss of all hands - a memorial service in Thunder Bay, Ont., will honour four of the unknown sailors.

Why these four and why did it take the better part of a century?

Tory Tronrud, director of the Thunder Bay Museum, said it has taken that long to put the pieces together to a mystery surrounding the tragedy.

"Scott Cameron, a marine historian in Owen Sound, has been working on a book on the S.S. Kamloops for several years now," Tronrud explained. "There were several reports about how the ship went down."

As columnist John O'Fee recounted in a Daily News article a year ago, S.S. Kamloops was last seen Dec. 4, 1927, en route to Fort William, now Thunder Bay. Many ships were later caught in a gale, the same sort of storm on the same lake that Gordon Lightfoot sings of in The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (coincidentally, Lightfoot sang that same song in Kamloops just last week). All other vessels made it to port safely except the Kamloops.

These were the days before search and rescue services or effective radio communication were established. A search didn't begin until Dec. 12 and found no trace of the ship or its crew.

Not until the spring of 1928 did a group of fisherman find the remains of several crew members who made it to shore. They almost certainly died of exposure in the harsh late-fall conditions.

From the 22 crew members who died in the wreck, only nine bodies were recovered. Five were identified and their remains sent to families. The remaining four were buried in an unmarked grave in Thunder Bay.

As part of his research, Cameron looked into the question of the unidentified sailors. He uncovered a notice issued by Canada Steamship Lines not long after the remains were recovered, promising to erect a memorial. The historian approached Canada Steamship Lines - a company owned by former finance minister Paul Martin - and they agreed to follow through all these years later.

There has been keen interest in the laying of the memorial stone, both from the public and the media, Tronrud said.

"It brings the tragedy to light as well. It's still a bit in dispute how the ship sank. Some believe the ship struck a rock and went down."

A note left by one of the crew who reached shore indicated the ship capsized. More than likely the sinking was caused by a combination of stormy weather and ice build-up on freight - coils of iron, probably barbed wire destined for Western ranches - lashed on deck.

The fate of the S.S. Kamloops remained a mystery for half a century. In nautical lore, the vessel was classified as a ghost ship. Then, in 1977, a dive team located a wreck, largely intact but on its side, 90 metres down. They concluded it was the Kamloops. Due to the frigid conditions at that depth, even the cargo was still identifiable - high-top shoes, wire and crates of Honey Bee Molasses. Not surprisingly, ghost stories persist.

And how did a canaller (small freighter) on the Great Lakes come to be named after a town on the other side of the country? The lakes, of course, are an integral part of the national transportation grid linked by rail. Fort William is a railhead and Kamloops is a hub of that network.

Eventually the name Kamloops would be given to a remote shore on the other side of the country, recalling not the place but the ship that was its namesake.

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