The Great Lakes and the mystery of the Marysburgh Vortex

Photo by Cole Wyland on Unsplash

Every year at Halloween I do posts about folklore or mysteries, from the ghosts and Jinn of the Middle East, to ghosts across cultures. As I am writing this, however, the most popular page on my blog is a book review about a young Canadian woman, who was the center of an alleged poltergeist case during the 19th century in Nova Scotia, Canada. As Thompson and Norris’s marvelous book (Haunted Girl: Esther Cox and the Great Amherst Mystery) makes clear, the truth was far more complicated than this simple narrative, and perhaps involved trauma, self-loathing and exploitation. I have no idea why this review is being discovered now, but I’m glad to see that Norris and Thompson’s thoughtful and well-researched book is receiving the attention it deserves. But today I want to talk about another mystery, one that is closer to home for me.

I grew up in southern Ontario, and did my undergraduate studies in Kingston, Ontario on the wonderful campus of Queen’s University. The old buildings were often built out of limestone, near the point where the St. Lawrence river meets Lake Ontario. When I was there in the 1980s the local bars still had a rich folklore about the Prohibition era, when local rum-runners brought alcohol to the US across the lake. But the eastern end of Lake Ontario was also known for its inordinate number of missing ships. There are some truly odd cases, such as the Bavaria, a Great Lakes Mary Celeste. The crew went missing in 1889, and (as so often the case in the folklore of shipwrecks) the people who boarded the ghost ship allegedly said that they found food set out in the kitchen. The story of the Picton’s disappearance in 1900 -complete with a message in a bottle- is at least as odd.

As Max Hartshorn describes in his wonderful newspaper article, ‘Strange things out there’: Inside Lake Ontario’s ‘Bermuda Triangle’ at, these missing ships are not the only part of the local folklore. People also describe strange events affecting planes, and even UFO sightings. The article has a map of this area in folklore, which stretches from Kingston to Prince Edward County on Lake Ontario’s north shore, to Oswego in New York state. Hartshorn interviews a number of people about their experiences, and their first hand accounts are certainly queer.

As Hartshorn also describes, Hugh F. Cochrane’s 1980 book Gateway to Oblivion, first coined the term the Marysburgh Vortex. As he points out Charles Berlitz’s, the Bermuda Triangle almost certainly inspired Cochrane. Hartshorn even noted that the two covers of the books looked very similar. Berlitz’s book was a best-seller, which inspired people around the world to find an endless number of triangles (why no rectangles or pentagons?). The Great Lakes did not escape this trend. Jay Gourley wrote a book, the Great Lakes Triangle in the 1970s. But Hartsthorn points to a plethora of other triangles: “The Bass Strait Triangle in Australia, the Broad Haven Triangle in Wales and the Bennington Triangle in Vermont are just a few examples of the triangle boom of the 1970s and ‘80s.” But the Great Lakes can have treacherous waters, so there is little need to invoke the supernatural to understand shipwrecks. As Hartshorn argues, Lake Ontario narrows at eastern end, which makes it easy for a ship to hit a shoal or island.

Still, there are a lot of strange things under the Great Lakes waters. In the Maryburgh Vortex there is a roughly kilometer long area called the Charity Shoal structure, which -allegedly- creates a magnetic anomaly. Scientists wonder if it might have been created by a meteor strike as this video (by Andrew King, a reporter at the Ottawa Citizen) suggests: Did a meteor strike give birth to the mysterious ‘Bermuda Triangle of the North’? There are also strange structures of old rocks under Lake Michigan. One argument is that the rocks were created as drive lines and blinds by ancient hunters. That land has been under water for perhaps five thousand years. So archaeology can find wonderful things under the waters, without any need for a vortex or triangle. Yet the Great Lakes also have lingering mysteries that are harder to explain away, such as the 1994 Lakeshore UFO incident in Western Michigan. If you are curious to learn more about the mysteries of eastern Lake Ontario Global News also has a wonderful video by Darryn Davis, who interviewed local people about the region’s folklore. This video makes good viewing for Halloween; its also safe for children to watch.

I love the series Stranger Things. I think that Kingston, Ontario or Oswego, New York, would be a great location for a follow up series. Maybe they could use Krista Muir’s Marysburgh Vortex as a theme song (2011 on the “Between Atoms” album). Yes, there is even a song about the vortex, although it seems to have recently disappeared from Spotify. Even songs disappear in this area. According to the song, the vortex is always “calling.”

I also want to recommend Mysterious Islands: Forgotten Tales of the Great Lakes by Andrea Gutsche and Cindy Bisaillon. If you want to explore the history and mysteries of Great Lakes Islands, this book is carefully researched and rich in historical photos. Every brief section describes the history or folklore of one island. Who knew that Madeline Island -now a restful site for yoga retreats- had such a dark history? If you like stories about strange shipwrecks, please also read my post about the mystery woman of the ghost ship Baltimore, which must be one of the oddest stories in Canada’s history (although it happened in Nova Scotia, not the Great Lakes).

Reader, if you are in Canada or the United States, have a good Halloween. And if you are trick-or-treating with kids, please be sure that they have glow sticks or lights.

Shawn Smallman, 2021