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A Canadian History Lesson: The Phantom Ship of PEI

This article is part 5 in a series taking you through a small piece of Canadian history in each province and territory. 

Canada is home to many urban legends, such as the Ogopogo, Loup-Garou, Bigfoot, and more. However, one of the most famous Canadian legends – especially in the Maritimes – is that of the Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait. 

The Ghost Ship is said to be a flaming, phantom boat that haunts the body of water between PEI and Nova Scotia. The ship has been spotted in the area since 1786, usually between September to November. 

One sighting in 1900, reported by a group of sailors in Charlottetown, described the burning ship drifting in the strait. The group recalled setting out in rowboats hoping to rescue the crew, only to find that by the time they reached the ship, it had disappeared. 


boat in front of a sunset
Photo by Katherine McCormack from Unsplash

Another famous sighting of the ghost ship happened in 1950, when a husband and wife in Glengarry looked out their bedroom window at night and witnessed the vessel sailing down the Northumberland Strait, fully engulfed in flames. 

The ship is famous in Canadian lore, appearing in ghost novels, tv shows, and even featured on a Canadian stamp. The legend says, as many residents of P.E.I (near the Northumberland Strait) suggest, that spotting it is an omen that a storm is coming. 

Reports of the ship have differed greatly throughout the years. Some say it moves at incredible speeds down the strait, others say it floats slowly. Some even argue that in their experience, it doesn’t move at all; it simply disappears. Despite differences in the story, all reported sightings (except for one rare instance) have taken place at night. 

Among historians, there is no consensus on where the actual ship came from and why it haunts these waters. Nobody knows when it sailed or where it was headed, although there is some speculation that it may have been a ship full of immigrants headed to Quebec, or the ghost of a vessel which was heading to Nova Scotia from Scotland, among other theories. 

Regardless of its true origins, one legend – summarized by folklore historian Edward D. Ives – suggests that the ship caught fire after sinking another vessel, causing the death of all the sailors and the old captain, who promised to go down with his ship and sail the Atlantic forever. Another legend states that a pirate burnt a ship full of nuns and priests on its way to North America from the “old world” (Europe, that is.) The sunken ship, according to this story, now haunts the Northumberland Strait. 

Others believe they have disproved the myth of ghost ship all together. In 1905, for example, nearby residents and locals began to doubt the existence of a phantom boat, chalking it up to the glow of St. Elmo’s fire – a scientific phenomenon that occurs as a product atmospheric energy, causing a flame-like light to appear. 

Regardless of its origin, the phantom ship of P.E.I. has become a quintessentially Canadian urban legend. With close to 200 reported sightings in the Northumberland Strait, this spooky boat is one of the most interesting pieces of Maritime history here in Canada.

 

Maddie is a fourth year student at the University of Ottawa majoring in History. She is a major fan of Friends, and The Office and is a geek for all things history. Maddie loves food, relaxing, and her cat.
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