Sinking Of The W. H.
By James Donahue
The one-year-old steel
steamer W. H. Gilcher was laden with coal, bound from Buffalo to Milwaukee, when it foundered during a gale on Oct.
28-29, 1892, taking its entire crew of 21 sailors to the bottom of Lake Michigan with it.
The Gilcher thus became
one of many fine ships that disappeared during the early days of lake shipping without the full stories of what happened to
them ever being known.
The vessel was one of
the Gilchrist Shipping Co. boats, commanded by Captain Lloyd H. Weeks of Vermilion, Ohio.
It was a sister ship to the Western Reserve that foundered two months earlier under similar circumstances on Lake
News reports said the
Gilcher was last seen when it passed Mackinaw on its way through the Straits at 2:20 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 28. It never arrived
Wreckage began washing
up on the Michigan shoreline south of Charlevoix on Nov.
2. Also Captain George Dennis, master of the schooner John Shaw, reported to Chicago
authorities that he passed “a large quantity of wreckage, doors, stools, windows, sashes and part of a steamers bridge
with the bell still upon it, floating in the lake.” No bodies were recovered.
That the wreckage of
a second ship, the schooner Ostrich, also lost in the storm and in the same area, also was found mixed with the Gilcher flotsam,
led to speculation that the two ships collided at the northern end of the lake. Six sailors were lost on the Ostrich.
Captain Duncan Buchanan,
master of the schooner Seaman, said he believed he was the last person to see the Gilcher before it went down.
“We were about
20 miles northeast of North Manitou Island and 15 miles due west of Fox Island light, at 8 o’clock, Friday night, when
we sighted the Gilcher just ahead,” Buchanan told a Chicago newspaper.
“She was in our
track and we burned a torch for the steamer to make room for us. She made not a move and was lying with her head west-northwest,
directly in the wind, and did not appear to be working her wheel more than to keep her head to the wind. We had to turn out
and pass within 300 feet of her. No attention was paid to us and I believe that Captain Weeks had already discovered the precarious
condition his boat was in. It is likely the crew was at work either trying to stop leaks or otherwise save their boat.”
The 302-foot-long Gilcher
was still considered a fine new ship and said by some to be among the finest steel vessels on the lakes. Only weeks before
the disaster, itt set a record of carrying the largest cargo of grain, 121,000 bushels of wheat, at Chicago.
In addition to Captain
Weeks, other crew members included Captain Ed Porter of Lorain, who shipped as first mate,
Chief Engineer Sydney Jones and Second Engineer Peter Schakett, both of Marine
Two other vessels were
lost in the storm. They were the schooner Hammond, wrecked on Lake Michigan, and Zach Chandler,
on Lake Superior. Eight lives were lost in the other wrecks.
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