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Canadian Folklore: Flaming Ghost Ship Of Northumberland Strait

Updated: Mar 11

For over 230 years there have been reports of a Ghost Ship that has been seen sailing the waters of the Northumberland Strait, which lies between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. It has been described as a beautiful schooner that has three masts, which become completely engulfed in flames as onlookers watch.

These visions are also apparent before a northeast wind, and folklore has it that this brilliant ghost ship is a forewarning of a storm. Sightings have occurred throughout the seasons, but they seem to be more prevalent from September to November, with the most recent sighting of this ghost ship in mid-January 2008, by 17-year-old Mathieu Giguere, who noticed the “bright white and gold ship” as he looked across Tatamagouche Bay in mid-January. His story was featured in the Truro Daily News.

Some firsthand accounts are often preluded by the sounds of cannon fire, and then a large ball of flame that can be seen from all shores. As the schooner soon becomes visible, the ship’s crew can be seen frantically running on the deck trying to extinguish the fire, but to no avail. Sometimes upon seeing the burning ship, mariners have attempted to rescue the crew aboard. One of the more famous rescue attempts took place in Charlottetown Harbour about 1900. A group of sailors boarded a small rowboat and raced toward the flaming ship to rescue the troubled crew. During their struggle to reach the distressed vessel, the phantom ship completely vanished. A thorough search was immediately carried out by divers, but no shipwreck was found. Some believe that it was a pirate ship, sunk by the British Navy, and has often been referred to as “The Chaleur Phantom” by those who have seen it in the Bay of Chaleur, Nova Scotia.

Eye witness accounts

The first documented sighting was in 1786. It occurred at Sea Cow Head Lighthouse. The keeper, in horror, saw a three-masted schooner, sails full and swollen by the terrible winds of a northeast gale, drove in closer and closer to the treacherous rocks at the base of the cliffs. Just as it seemed utterly hopeless, the ship turned into a storm and was lost to sight in the rain squall. Another sighting took place in January 1988. A burning ship was spotted just off Borden from the ferry. The ship's radar was directed at the vision, but it was not detected by the instruments. Captain Angus Brown of Wood Islands remembered that he and a crew had taken the ferry Prince Nova out from Wood Islands one night to help a ship that appeared to be burning. As they approached, it suddenly vanished. The same night, a couple near Glengarry saw the burning full-rigged ship from their bedroom window. It was sailing northward at an impossible speed. They didn't raise an alarm as they knew what it was, but they were able to watch it for more than an hour.

One time a group of men, including the late John P. MacLean, were working at their jobs in the port of Charlottetown when word was received of a ship in peril in the Charlottetown Harbour. It was a large three-masted sailing vessel which was ablaze from bow to stern. The crew were seen frantically running from one side to the other in an effort to stop the many blazes on the vessel. A rescue boat began rowing to the scene in hopes of saving the men, but before they could arrive, must engulfed the burning ship and she was never seen again although a thorough search was made.

“As it came nearer it seemed to lose speed, and as it came opposite our house it stopped still. I said to Fred, “Perhaps they are coming ashore.” We got up on the banks to watch. There was no sign of anyone on board and no dory on tow. I can’t remember just how long it was, but I think about ten minutes after she stopped I seen smoke rising very slow all over the deck. Then it was only a few minutes I seen men that seemed to come up from below and they were running around the deck every way. Then as they were running around I seen a low flame all over the deck. When the flames started the men climbed up the masts of the vessel. When they was about halfway up the masts the sails caught. All the sails seemed to catch at the same time. I could not see the men any more as the flames hid my view. We watched it until the flames died and everything crumbled to the deck. There was nothing left but the hull on the water, and gradually it seemed to sink lower and finally disappeared as if it gradually filled with water and sunk.”

One night near Cape John, Nova Scotia, drivers along the coastal road were startled to see a strange vision on the seaward horizon. One witness said, "It was a vessel, outlined with a fiery glow. I wouldn't say it was actually flames I saw... But the whole vessel was aglow and it was moving fast." The apparition lasted for two hours and was seen by dozens of people along the road.

Back in the fall of 1973, Marvin MacLeod was coming home from Murray Harbour via the shore road around 12:30 a.m. The night was frosty and clear. It was hunting season so he had a pair of binoculars in the car. “I could see what appeared to be a three-masted schooner with its sails on fire and people running around the deck and jumping overboard. I was about to head home and call the Coast Guard when it up and disappeared before my eyes.”

In October 1978, the last light keeper at Wood Islands, Leon Patton, received a phone call from Bernice Smith, a lady who lived up the road. She asked him, “What are you burning?” He replied, “I’m not burning anything.” She told him to look out one of his windows heading east. When he did, he could see the phantom ship heading down the Strait towards Murray Harbour. It was a schooner totally ablaze. As he watched it vanished into thin air.

Larry Hooper of Murray River remembers more than one sighting of the burning ship. The first was in early October, sometime in the 1980s, while he was on the lookout on the bridge of Prince Nova around 10:00 p.m. It appeared to be just off Pictou Island. “It was a clear night. You could see for miles. The sails were on fire with people all around the deck. Then it disappeared.” His second sighting was on a clear evening in the late 1990s when he and his uncle, Haldon, were driving on Norman’s Road. They saw the burning ship with sailors aboard running about on the deck.

"One October night I was returning from visiting a neighbor; while walking along I was looking out over the Northumberland Strait where I saw a ship burning. It was a clear night and I could make out the outline of the ship quite indistinguishably. I watched it for about twenty minutes and then it disappeared. I had heard so much about the phantom ship that I decided that it must be it."

"At the time I first saw the Phantom Ship it was early evening in the fall of the year, November 26, 1965, just turning dark. I was busy with my housework, having no thought of such a thing as a Phantom Ship. I was standing near my kitchen window, and when I looked up, I was so startled that I could hardly believe my eyes. There was this ship, on fire and sailing down the Strait. The telephone was right beside me on the wall, so as I watched the ship, I called some of my neighbors up the road that keeps close to the shore. Those others looked and saw what I was seeing, and the word spread up the Cape {this sighting is from Cape John}. Many, as they told me afterwards, stood at their back doors and saw for the first time in their lives the Phantom Ship of which they had heard. As we watched, the ship just seemed to disappear. There was no mistaking it for a real ship. "But that wasn't the end of it. Two nights later, almost under the same circumstances, I saw the Phantom Ship for the second time. Again I phoned others to make sure I wasn't seeing things. They, too, as before, saw that same ship. Word was flashed to River John, some six miles away, and soon our Cape road was crowded with cars, loaded with people eager to catch their first sight of the ghost ship. And they weren't disappointed. That time the Phantom was visible to hundreds of people for a half hour, and then, like the other time, it just seemed to fade away, and where the bright light had been, there was only the blackness of the water."

Roland Sherwood wrote a book on “The Phantom Ship” documenting over 40 years of research, and witness accounts. Sherwood also saw the phantom twice, once at Caribou, and the other along the shoreline near Wallace. This book is very hard to find, it is less than 50 pages --- and, even though I've now seen it cited several times, it must be pretty rare. It looks like the Toronto Public Library has a copy in their reference section.

There are some that believe what people are seeing is just an optical illusion or the result of methane gas burning on the water, but with such a large number of accounts, complete with details and dates, it is quite believable that people are witnessing a very real supernatural event on the waters of the Northumberland Strait. An event that will no doubt continue to play out for any of those lucky enough to witness it.

Canada Post issued a special stamp in June 2014 showing the ghost ship from the Northumberland Strait. The stamp was issued as part of a series of Canadian ghost-story stamps on Friday the 13th.


I have not been able to find any more recent accounts of sightings since 2008 but I believe that this ship is still out there its just been waiting for the right time to be seen again. I for one would love to see this ship.



+ many more little articles for little details.


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