SS Baychimo: Unsinkable ghost ship hunted by the government

SS Baychimo vanished in 1969, following four decades of unearthly activity. Her fate remains ultimately mysterious despite recent efforts from the Alaskan government to establish an understanding. It’s the ultimate ghost ship story – because it’s 100 per cent real

As with any urban legend or ghost story, everything started in a perfectly conventional fashion.

Launched quietly in 1914, SS Ångermanelfven quickly established herself as a successful – if rather unexceptional – cargo steamer. She may have topped out at only 10 knots (12mph) and looked relatively small in her 230ft length, but the ship offered an indefatigable service of the highest magnitude.

Under the original command of Baltische Reederei GmbH, SS Ångermanelfven found herself regularly dispatched on steadfast routes across the Baltic Sea. Her main circuit between Sweden and Germany proved a profitable one, ferrying vital trade between nations while the industrial foundations of 20th century Europe changed the course of societal development.

Her tenure carrying valuable consignments between nations was cut short by the outbreak of conflict in 1914, but the ship would find a second calling at the hands of the British, following European repatriations for The Great War. It all sounded like the makings of an ocean-going Brontë-family novel, but things would take a strange turn.

Now traversing the Atlantic under a rechristened name, SS Baychimo set a benchmark for maritime and commercial success. Those strife-free years flickered by without anguish until, out in the barren Alaskan tundra, events conspired to create the ultimate blueprint for ocean-going phantasm.

Some say the SS Baychimo became possessed - but by what? Credit: Shutterstock

The moment Lady Luck turned her back, a demonic presence seemingly encircled the Baychimo to lock her into a spiral of eventual isolation and mystery. Stranded in the ice and abandoned to a friendless fate, the ship instead took on a life of her own and meandered the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea, off the coast of Point Barrow – the United States’ northernmost point – for no less than 38 years without a crew.

By 2006, the Alaskan Government had dispatched various experts to track the 1,322-tonne cargo steamer down. Decades’ worth of recorded spectral instances revolving around SS Baychimo pushed authorities into action, spearheaded by ever-increasing global interest regarding the real-life ghost ship.

Yet, despite the technical and emotional intelligence possessed by the Government-backed team, the Baychimo’s destiny remains untold. What can be told, however, is the remarkable story.

SS Baychimo was never built for fame, but her urban legend continues to this day. Credit: Reddit

Tracking down a real ghost ship

To Alaska’s elite maritime trackers, the search for SS Baychimo was an abnormal one. Their target had found herself forsaken amid the harsh icy wasteland of Alaska’s northern coast, just as so many ships do; except this wasn’t an event of recent occurrence. SS Baychimo had been uninhabited since October 1931.

Understandably, the mission created a resounding fear of the unknown. Nobody wanted to return from those mysterious heights and explain nothing was there.

On the flip side, nobody wanted to be the main character in a frightening situation akin to Hollywood’s finest horror. The rusted corridors of an antiquated ship ultimately gaggle with nightmarish elements of unrestrained terror.

Documented sightings and photographic evidence had previously showcased the ship’s backstory, nothing from which sounded untoward. It all created a fantastical aroma of sparkling brilliance-turned-bizarre.

Built by Swedish shipbuilders Lindholmens for a German company based in Hamburg, powered by a triple-expansion compound steam engine (high pressure passing through three stages towards the condenser) and capable of hauling considerable cargo across Mother Nature’s most treacherous climates, the SS Ångermanelfven of 1914 was the shipping equivalent of today’s white goods.

Constructed to serve the Baltische Reederei GmbH until industry-wide advancements fed her to the breakers’ yard, SS Ångermanelfven should now simply exist as a formal title upon various historical logbooks. Fate often selects the most humdrum vehicles for legend, does it not?

SS Baychimo became British under the Treaty of Versailles following World War I. Credit: Picryl

A soured change of ownership

The First World War witnessed a change in combat. Never before had national conflict spread across our continents in such a catastrophic domino effect. Whereas war had typically been confined to the battlefield, the public was no longer exempt from attack. Neither were merchant ships.

Put bluntly, if you sailed upon open water in an otherwise busy channel, the enemy would seek to plant your ship into the seabed with the loss of everything, and everyone, onboard.

Shipping companies therefore lost a serious number of ships and sailors to the politically-driven conflict. RMS Carpathia was one high-profile casualty.

Following the Great War, Allied forces were given German ships (ceded to the British Government courtesy of the Treaty of Versailles) as repatriation for vessels destroyed by enemy forces. The SS Ångermanelfven was one such ship, taken from her Hamburg-based owner and acquired by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1921.

It was here that her name changed to SS Baychimo, alongside a newly adopted home port of Ardrossan, on the North Ayrshire coast of Scotland.

Of course, there was always scepticism of any vessel claimed from enemy states in lieu of home-built ships, but Baychimo swiftly won everyone’s trust and affection. It wasn’t long before she was assigned a route to Canada, visiting ports of trade and collecting furs for European buyers.

The next 10 years ran smoothly, with a fresh route dedicated to company prerogatives along the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The ship would often carry passengers, but there was a catch if you opted for such a route.

As carrying passengers wasn’t Baychimo’s legal right, ocean travellers had to become part of the crew – and they were put to work in exchange for their bunk.

There doesn’t appear to be any documentation that clarifies ‘passenger’ activity on October 1, 1931 – but if there happened to be, then they bore witness to a vital turning point in the ship’s history; her final manned voyage.

The remaining crewmen clear away ice from the stricken Baychimo's rudder. Credit: Wikicommons

Freak weather: SS Baychimo goes missing

Almost on the tail end of a trading run, loaded with pelts and furs and bound for home, a freak blizzard near Point Barrow engulfed the ship. Visibility deteriorated until travel became impossible, with the bizarre and unpredicted change in weather leaving SS Baychimo trapped in the ice.

Her crew engaged in discussions and decided that they would have to abandon ship until the temperatures improved. Exactly when that would happen was unclear. It was highly likely that the ship would be stranded until the spring, with no way to keep the ship heated that length of time.

The crew made for the local town of Barrow, roughly half a mile away, where they made camp. The biting cold would have terminated most people, but there was a ray of hope. Two days following the trek to Barrow, the Baychimo broke free – the warm journey home was back on, but it didn’t last long.

The ship became mired for a second time on October 8, 1931, and it became abundantly clear that the cargo steamer wasn’t going anywhere. The Hudson’s Bay Company sent an aircraft to bring the majority of Baychimo’s crew home. Fifteen personnel – including Captain Cornwell - remained behind to wait the winter out, building a wooden hut to protect themselves from the elements.

Throughout the next two months, members of the group returned to the ship on a daily basis to clear ice from the vessel's rudder and vital equipment. That was until November 24, when freak weather brought another blizzard to the area. Once the winds died down and the storm abated, SS Baychimo had gone. There was no sign of her, only a trail of broken ice.

The ship's crew remove valuable cargo before leaving SS Baychimo to her fate. Credit: Picryl

Abandoned for a second time

Once the remaining crew discovered Baychimo’s absence, the skipper concluded that the ship’s hull likely succumbed to the pressure of the ice. The storm was blamed for sending the ship into the deep, and an evacuation plan was hastily organised. Then it was abruptly cancelled.

Within days of paying tribute to a great ship, an Inuk hunter claimed to have spotted Baychimo 72km south of the crew’s encampment. Startled that the ship had survived such a fierce battering and decided to sail off on her own, the men tracked her down and climbed aboard.

For reasons unknown to us now, the crewmen then decided that the ship was unlikely to survive the destructive Alaskan winter, and promptly removed anything of value – including the most valuable furs – from the hold. With an aircraft inbound to collect men and cargo, the Baychimo was abandoned for the second and final time.

She now belonged to fate.

With the SS Baychimo stranded in the ice, her crew leave her behind. Credit: Wikicommons

Fate clearly likes to travel

With the captain and crew flying to Vancouver and all human souls accounted for, the shipping company wrote the vessel, and all negligible onboard belongings, off completely. The boardroom bigwigs and insurance hellhounds assumed that the ship would soon yield to nature’s force and wasn’t worth bothering with.

Fate, however, had other ideas. Much to the insurance company’s chagrin, the ship did not sink. Shortly after Baychimo’s complete abandonment, the cargo steamer was seen floating near the shores of Alaska – peacefully slicing her way through the cold and frigid waters.

Her helm was empty, except for the ghostly figure many locals claimed to have witnessed, whisking the ship's wheel from port to starboard. Make of that what you will.

Several months later, she was spotted once again, nearly 300 miles to the east, and then again by a chap named Leslie Melvin. Melvin had been travelling with his dog sled team to Nome (within the Unorganised Borough of Alaska) when he spotted the ship gradually making her way along the coastal edges. Prospectors later clocked her while exploring the coast in search of minerals.

Some 18 months later, having survived a full range of seasons without guidance or preventative maintenance, the SS Baychimo was discovered lodged in the pack ice by a group of Iñupiat; native to the regions of Alaska. With an incoming storm on the horizon, the Iñupiat made themselves at home on the abandoned steamer for almost a fortnight.

Once the travellers disembarked and bid their temporary accommodation farewell, the Hudson’s Bay Company performed a U-turn on their previous decision. If the ship was still afloat, then they could salvage her. Except, SS Baychimo had other plans.

SS Baychimo has carved herself an exclusive urban legend that most ship's would kill for. Credit: Facebook

An elusive ghost ship

Almost akin to a real-life Tom & Jerry cartoon, the next few years would be spent by many different individuals and organisations trying to capture the Baychimo. With intentions that leaned towards hauling her in for scrap, almost as though fate had now become rather protective of the neglected vessel, the ship instead eluded all parties and made for the horizon.

The Hudson’s Bay Company tried in vain, but had to conclude that she was too far asea to get their hands on. Then, in July 1934, she was boarded by Captain Hugh Polson in a fame-driven attempt to lay claim. Polson was instead defeated by the creeping ice floes and, once again, the Baychimo continued on her merry way. He tried again in 1939, but to no avail.

Further reports from an incredible number of sources would continue to develop the ship’s legendary status, with efforts to bring Baychimo ashore always hampered by unknown forces. As time wore on, glory hunters and moneymen lost interest and the ship was considered ‘free range.’

Sightings gradually dried up with time’s onward march, with the penultimate recording of Baychimo activity taking place in March 1962, where she was spotted drifting along the Beaufort Sea by Inuit groups.

Records dictate that no official sightings of the ship occurred during WWII or the 1950s, but that doesn't mean that unwary travellers didn't spot her on the horizon. To most people, it would have simply looked like any other vessel upon the water and paid little-to-no attention.

Having suffered endless strains courtesy of Alaskan winters, and been subjected to untold rounds of destructive conditions, stupefying news later arrived that counteracted those who proclaimed that she had finally sunk.

The indefatigable ship had been found frozen in an ice pack during the winter of 1969. Almost four decades on the run, SS Baychimo was still afloat and roaming the seas from which she crafted her urban legend.

Trapped in the ice between Point Barrow and Icy Cape, off the Northwestern coast of Alaska, it almost felt as though the ghost ship would become more than just a spooky story for future generations – but a tangible item to go looking for.

Could SS Baychimo still be out there? Credit: Picryl

SS Bacychimo: A mysterious fate

The sighting of Baychimo in 1969 would prove to be the last recorded movement of the ship. Exactly where the cargo steamer went, or what happened to her since, has never been established.

That being said, common sense points to one forgone conclusion – she’s finally come to rest in quiet slumber somewhere beneath the ice. Perhaps such an event took place shortly after that encounter in Winter 1969, or perhaps she continued her wanderlust well towards the era of flared trousers and disco vibes.

We’d like to think that she’s still out there, and there’s evidence that she might still be.

When the Alaskan government started work on a project to find SS Baychimo – alongside 4000 other lost ships along the coast of Alaska – those industry experts returned empty-handed. They claim that nothing of the ship was found, despite searching thousands of square miles and scanning the seabed in search of Sweden’s indefatigable workhorse-cum-legend.

Not a single trace of Baychimo was tracked down, although that's possibly because the Alaskan authorities never fully commissioned the venture, as reports recently highlighted.

Yet, perhaps that’s just what they want you to think. Who says they didn’t find something out there, but remain too nervous to inform us?

Most recent artciles

About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.