PORT HOOD: “Has anyone here seen the ghost ship? Or the burning ship?”

That question was asked by Cathy Gillies, an expert on local history, as she stood before a crowd of visitors to the Chestico Museum.

The discussion of the ghost ship — formally known as the Ghost Ship of the Northumberland Strait — came about at an event where members of the Chestico Museum and Historical Society gathered to tell tales of Port Hood Island, an island sitting 4.6 kilometres off western Cape Breton. The event took place on October 9.

For those who believe the spectre is related to the supernatural, much speculation has been had about where the ship originated. Some say it was a pirate vessel that met with an untimely end, and others insist it was a ship carrying immigrants.

Of the things known for sure, the ship seems to be unique to the Northumberland Strait. It’s not been reported elsewhere.

“People will see the outline of a schooner or three-masted ship,” Gillies said. “It’s on fire, and it’s vivid. It’s so vivid that people have described seeing men running along the decks. There are records of people going out in their boats to try to rescue the sailors.”

Photos by Grant McDaniel
(From the left): John Gillies, Cathy Gillies, and Susan Mallette were dressed in period clothes while Barbara Cameron and Blaise MacLellan provided some wonderful tunes during a special event in Port Hood on October 9.

In the early 1900s, Gillies noted a group of men left Charlottetown, P.E.I. on a rescue mission, because they saw the burning ship. The closer the sailors got to it, the more the ship seemed to recede.

“Some people think there might be a scientific explanation of what’s happening out there,” Gillies said. “But there have been many times when the ship was sighted by many people on the same night.

“It’s been recorded so many times that there is something there, but nobody has a real explanation for it.”

Generally speaking, the ship is sighted at night and often times before a storm. The fall is the season when it’s most often spotted, and the month in which it’s most often seen is October. Sometimes it is associated with a booming sound, like the sound of cannons going off. The sightings go back at least 200 years.

“If you see it, don’t start swimming out,” said John Gillies, Cathy’s husband.

The Gillies weren’t alone at the discussion. With them were Susan Mallette, president of the historical society; Barbara Cameron, who lived on Port Hood Island for many years before coming over to Port Hood; and Blaise MacLellan, who provided some music for the occasion. Mallette also lived on the island for several years.

The Route 19 museum was packed for the occasion.

Both Cameron and Mallette had experiences where, with groups of people, they saw something that bore a striking similarity to a burning ship. In Cameron’s case, she saw the vision from Park’s Beach on Port Hood Island in her early 20s.

In Mallette’s case, it was Barbara’s son, Roger, who was responsible for drawing her attention to the ship.

“He and a neighbour came running into the house and said, ‘Come on, Sue.’ We ran to the end of the island, and we could see it in the distance just floating,” Mallette said. “It was exactly like Cathy described.”

Also bearing witness to the ghost ship was an audience member whose father caught an eyeful of the apparition off the coast of Colindale, several years ago.

“He said it was late in the day, when he was taking the cows home,” the visitor said.

When asked if he ever saw the ship from his property on the Hillsdale Road, MacLellan said the sight eluded him. However, like many locals, he’s heard tales of people seeing the vessel.

“And I’ll be sleeping with the lights on tonight, I tell you,” he added.

Some of the natural explanations for the ghost ship include St. Elmo’s Fire, a rare weather condition where ionization of air molecules produces a faint glow in low-light conditions. Of course, that wouldn’t explain the vivid nature of some of the group sightings.

In addition to discussion of the ghost ship, the Chestico Museum event allowed folks to get a real appreciation for the history of the Port Hood Island.

Cameron and Mallette told personal stories of their time there, and Cameron and MacLellan provided wonderful tunes to set the stage. In Cameron’s case, some of her original songs related to her time on the island, like “My Sister and Me” and “Waves” written for her by her late husband, Earl.

With them, John and Cathy are spectacular storytellers who outlined the legacy of the island to the days before Port Hood and Port Hood Island went by those names.