By Jed Jaworski
The infamous loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald shocked the entire Great Lakes community. How could one of the largest vessels, using modern technology, simply vanish with all on board? Leelanau County experienced its own version of the Edmund Fitzgerald story in the 1890s, when the largest and most technologically advanced ship of its time “sailed through a crack in the lake” off the Leelanau coast. The ship still lies undiscovered in the cold dark waters, and the mysteries of its loss remain unresolved.
The 1880s and ‘90s experienced many revolutions in ship design and construction on the Great Lakes. One advent greeted with great skepticism was the use of iron and steel as hull materials. Despite doubts and grim predictions, the first iron-hulled carrier, the Onoko of 1882, proved a great success. 1890 saw the construction of the Western Reserve and W.H. Gilcher. These ships’ 300-foot hulls were of steel, not iron. Longer than a football field, they were among the largest ships of their time. The two vessels had different owners and slightly different construction details, but were considered sister ships. They met their owners’ fondest expectations for speed and efficiency. Almost at once the Gilcher captured the grain-carrying record by transporting 113,885 bushels of wheat from Chicago to Buffalo, New York.
But August 30, 1892 found the Western Reserve bucking against a summer gale on Lake Superior. In addition to her regular crew, the owner, his family, guests and the captain’s sons were aboard. At about 9 p.m. that evening a sudden jolt shuddered through the hull, and the mainmast crashed to the deck. Forward of the spar, a break appeared in the deck, groaning and widening with the passing of each wave. Two lifeboats cleared: a wooden boat with the owner, his family and some crew, and a metallic yawl with the others. The yawl capsized, and the lifeboat picking up two survivors. The 19 occupants of the lifeboat bailed and drifted in the blackened sea for 10 hours, when within a mile of shore a wave suddenly capsized the boat and all but one man drowned. The lone survivor struggled 10 miles along the desolate and uninhabited Lake Superior coast to reach the Deer Park Lifesaving Station, and there, news of the tragedy spread. Bodies from the lost ship began to wash ashore, and the Deer Point Lifesaving men buried them above the wilderness beach in lone graves with a simple prayer.
Harsh and bitter criticism soon rocked the owners and builders of the Western Reserve, and investigations questioned the safety of steel ship and lifeboat construction. But no flaws were found in the design or construction of the ship.
Meanwhile, at 2:20 p.m. on October 28, while public debate on the Western Reserve’s sinking continued, the W.H. Gilcher passed through the Straits of Mackinaw and into a storm-swept Lake Michigan. Fully laden with coal and making headway for Milwaukee, Capt. Lloyd H. Weeks, veteran master of the Gilcher, did not doubt the integrity of his vessel. The Gilcher was the finest vessel lakes technology could produce, and she was ideally loaded for heavy weather, unlike her lost sister, which had carried no cargo and traveled in water ballast. Other ships were seeking shelter as the intensity of the storm increased. South Manitou Harbor was crowded with storm-beaten vessels weathering at anchor or aground. Somewhere in the ragged, black expanse of northern Lake Michigan the W.H. Gilcher, with it’s crew of 22 men plowed on.
The intensity of the storm peaked in the late afternoon and early evening. At Glen Haven, barrels of cranberries setting on the big dock washed into the bay. On a rocky shoal near what is now The Homestead resort, the schooner Flying Cloud lay stricken. As the rocks gored the sailing vessels hull, its cargo of 2,300-barrels of oat spilled out onto the beaches along the Glen Arbor coastline. People attending a political rally at the Traverse City Opera House could not hear the brass band performing over the din of the storm outside. Farmyard fences and barns all around Leelanau County were laid flat by the fearsome winds.
During the light of the next day the weather began to abate, and ships left their protective anchorages for their ports of destination. As vessels arrived, or failed to arrive, the tragedies of the storm became apparent. Among the list of vessels overdue was the Gilcher. None of the ships in South Manitou harbor reported seeing the lights of any ship pass into the open lake. Some, however, reported sailing through fields of wreckage, including a battered pilothouse. The steamer White & Triant picked up a piece of cabin work in which “James Riley 9 PM” was carved. The mail carrier at South Manitou reported wreckage including a box labeled “Lackawana” drifting ashore on the west side of the island. The steamer Shaw reported a schooner, found to be the Ostrich, bottom up and wrecked upon the shore of South Manitou with no apparent survivors. The majority of debris found was from a steamer.
Nearly everyone presumed the Lackawana had been lost — until she sailed into Green Bay. Damaged by the gale, the seas had swept her decks clear. Hopes that the Gilcher may be disabled and at anchor or adrift prevailed until detailed reports of the debris field came in. Owners of the Gilcher claimed the description of the cabin work and pilothouse “matched that of the Gilcher exactly”.
Dock gossip spread like wildfire. Theories ranged from a collision with the Ostrich, to sinking after hitting the Fox Island shoal. No lifeboats were ever found. Later, the lifeboat strongbacks from the Gilcher were located. They had apparently been struck with an axe as the crew, in desperation, slashed through the canvas boat cover to gain entry. This would indicate that the Gilcher might have foundered very suddenly, the crew not having time to release the cover in the usual fashion. Few of the Gilcher’s crew was ever found. On January 5, 1893 the Leelanau Enterprise, noted unusual efforts to locate second mate Thomas Finley’s body. “Mrs. Thomas Finley accompanied by Mrs. M.J. Zinysfer, a clairvoyant, doctress, and life reader of Buffalo, were in town today on their way to North Manitou Island. Mrs. Finley has strong hopes of recovering her husband’s body.”
While the fate of the Gilcher may never be known, its effect upon Great Lakes shipping is clear. The Gilcher was the heaviest single loss ever incurred by insurance underwriters on the lakes. This dramatically affected the underwriter’s future policies. The new era of steel shipbuilding came to an abrupt halt, as everyone questioned the use of steel in Great Lakes vessels. Ship builders fully tooled for steel construction worried as orders for new ships ceased.
Seaman accused builders of sacrificing sailor’s lives with experimental building techniques. Ultimately, some answers were found. Both of the “sunken sisters” were built of a new, (and less expensive) steel formed by the Bessemer process. Investigators testing this steel “found it impossible to get a homogenous stock of steel even in the same plate. Lab tests found that the plates and angles would crack in handling, heating and punching.” To this day Bessemer process steel is not accepted for marine use.
The fate of the Gilcher may be presumed as catastrophic structural failure, but only with the discovery of the wreck in the timeless depths of the lake will the story be completely told.