Rio History: Lost Treasures and Ghost Ships

By Steve Hathcock

Baychimo at dock.

The cargo steamer Baychimo, built in Sweden, in 1914 for the Hudson Bay Company, spent its early days plying the frigid waters along the Victoria Island Coast of the Northwest Territory trading supplies for pelts with the people who lived in the cold northern wilderness.

The Baychimo was homeward bound in October 1931, when it became trapped in the ice. The ship was briefly abandoned, but the crew managed to break her free from its icy prison and the vessel resumed her journey. A few days later the Baychimo again became stuck in the ice and this time most of the crew was airlifted to safety. Fifteen men remained behind in the hopes that the vessel could be freed from the ice.  A great blizzard sprang up and the crew took shelter in a cabin on a nearby shore. When the storm lifted the ship had vanished and the crew assumed that the Baychimo must have sunk during the storm.

A few days later, the Baychimo was once again sighted some forty five miles away. Again, the crew re-boarded her. A brief inspection revealed the craft to be un-seaworthy.  After removing its cargo of furs and pelts and expecting the ship to sink at any time, the crew once again abandoned the old steamer. Incredibly, the Baychimo continued to float on the sea on its own for another 38 years, and was seen many times.  Several times the ghost ship was boarded, but due to either bad weather or the lack of necessary equipment to salvage her, the Baychimo continued on her last voyage. The Baychimo was last seen stuck in the ice of Beaufort Sea in 1969, and has not been seen since.

Baychimo trapped in ice.

According to legend, one of the most famous of the ghost ships, the Flying Dutchman, can never go home, but must sail the sea forever.  If she is stopped by another ship at sea, her crew of the dead will try to send messages to people ashore (who are also long since dead).

In most versions of the story, the (Dutch) captain swore that he would not stop sailing in the face of a storm that threatened to sink his ship. The crew and passengers begged him to change course, but the captain, who was either drunk or crazy, swore he would continue to round the Cape of Good Hope until Judgment Day. Monstrous waves crashed against the ship and a howling wind shredded the sails and bent the mast but the captain stayed his course alternately shouting curses at the heavens or drinking great draughts of beer and smoking his pipe. In some versions, the captain shot a mutineer and the crew was infected with a plague or curse. (Witness who claim to have seen the ghost craft, swear that an ungodly blue light engulfs the entire vessel.) The penalty visited upon the crew was absolute, and they would never see port again. Recently, the legend of the Flying Dutchman was used in the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean.

During the American Civil War the Union Navy blockaded all the southern ports. The effects of the action were soon felt throughout the south and all would have been lost had it not been for the efforts of a few daring souls who became known as blockade runners.  

From top: The Baychimo crew rescue, with rescue plane preparing to take off, with the Baychimo seen in the background. Middle: Th Baychimo trapped in ice. Bottom: Dog team salvaging cargo of fur pelts.

Late one night in October, 1864, one such craft running under the cover of fog, slipped by some Union gunboats at the entrance to Galveston Bay and made it safely to port with its cargo of food and medical supplies. The master of the small vessel, Louis Billings, was preparing to weigh anchor when he was startled by an uncanny wailing from one of the crew.

“A strange, old-fashioned schooner with a big black flag was rushing down at us. She was afire with a sort of weird, pale-blue light that lighted up every nook and cranny of her.” He said in one interview. “The crew was pulling at the ropes and doing other work and they paid us no attention, didn’t even glance our way. They all had ghastly bleeding wounds, but their faces and eyes were those of dead men. I rushed forward, shouting to the others as I ran. Suddenly the schooner vanished before my eyes.”

Some say that it was the ghost of Jean Lafitte’s pirate ship, the Pride. Lafitte left the island in 1821 not before he burnt down his fortress and the settlement. He then took an immense amount of treasure with him and reportedly buried an even greater fortune somewhere on Padre Island. Later, his ship was ambushed in November 1821 and Lafitte himself was taken prisoner. Was the craft seen by Billing’s and his men actually Lafitte’s flagship? Supposedly the Pride was sunk near Galveston sometime around 1822-23. The last recorded sighting was in the same waters in 1892. Even today, oil rig workers claim to have seen billowing sails on the horizon just before sunset. Others claim to have heard the flapping of sails and the cry of ghostly voices calling out to each other in the gathering darkness. Perhaps the pirates, like the unfortunate crew of the Flying Dutchmen are doomed to sail the seas forever. Lafitte’s treasure remains hidden to this day.

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