Loss of the Gilcher, The
DESCRIPTION: "On October 28, Oh how the wind did scream! The last time that the Gilcher and crew were ever seen." The ship vanishes on the way to Milkwaukee. The reason is unknown. A note claims she was caught in a storm off Manitou. All aboard are lost
EARLIEST DATE: 1933 (Collected from John E. Hayes by Walton)
KEYWORDS: ship wreck disaster death
Oct 28, 1892 (or thereabouts) - Sinking of the Gilcher
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Walton/Grimm/Murdock, pp. 197-199, "The Loss of the Gilcher" (1 text)
NOTES: Although this song talks primarily about the Gilcher, it is really a tale of two ships -- and all of the sources I checked (Walton/Grimm/Murdock, Ratigan, Wolff, Shelak, and Thompson), agree on this.
The story begins with a boat called the Western Reserve, one of the first steel ships on the Great Lakes. (For what follows, except when another source is cited, see Thompson, pp. 218-225; there is a sketch of the boat on p. 213). Built in 1890, she was 300 feet long and the pride of the Minch family fleet. In the summer of 1892, she set out from Cleveland for Lake Superior. Having passed through the "Soo," a storm caught her in Whitefish Bay. On the night of August 30, a mast fell to the deck, the ship's plates developed large cracks, and within moments, she had broken in two (Wolff, p. 66). Apparently it was only about ten minutes from the time the cracks developed to the time she broke in two and went to the bottom (Ratigan, p. 253).
The crew took to the boats, but one of them overturned. The only other boat managed to rescue some of them, but it was too overloaded, and the storm too strong, for it to be steered. And it had no way of signalling other boats -- one went by in the night without spotting them (Wolff, p. 66). As they neared the beach, the boat capsized. Only a few of those aboard had life jackets, and only one man, wheelsman Harry Stewart, made it to the beach to tell the tale. 26 others were lost in the disaster (Shelak, p. 159).
The cause of the Western Reserve's loss was never determined, though many hypotheses were advanced. Many at the time suspected problems with the steel of the boat -- a genuine possibility if the weather had been colder, but it was August! Even the waters of Lake Superior are fairly warm by then. Others suspected design flaws, or improper loading (the latter, however, seems improbable, since Ratigan, p. 252, says she was mostly empty; according to Wolff, p. 66, she was on her way to Two Harbors, Minnesota to pick up iron ore.)
The worries about the Western Reserve did not cause the owners to do anything about her sister, the W. H. Gilcher. (Prior to the loss, the Western Reserve had made "several record-breaking hauls," according to Ratigan, p. 252. The ships were a point of pride; the Gilcher is said to have been the largest boat built in Cleveland to that time; Shelak, p. 158.) Although four months newer, the Gilcher was built to almost exactly the same design as the Western Reserve -- and was lost in the same year, on about October 28. This time, there were no survivors at all (Shelak, p. 159), so there was no clue whatsoever to what happened. It does appear that someone had tried to cut loose a lifeboat with an axe, implying extreme haste (Shelak, p. 159), but either the attempt failed or the boat was lost. It is believed there were 21 people on board when the Gilcher sank..
Ratigan, p. 12, has another speculation: That the Gilcher.collided with the Ostrich, also lost with all hands on or about the night of October 28, 1892. This speculation is also mentioned by Shelak. He says that wreckage was found on the Beaver Archipelago on Lake Michigan, though he does not mention the note later found allegedly from a Gilcher crewman.
Shelak, pp. 159-160, mentions a folktale calling the Gilcher a "Flying Dutchman," still seen in the area of Mackinac Island in a heavy fog.
Many at the time blamed the new-fangled steel construction (though of course steel vessels would in time prove to be very successful on the Lakes.) Wolff, p. 67, mentions that, in the aftermath of the loss of the Gilcher, new designs and stronger steel were specified for new steel ships; it would be more than seventy years until the next instance of a steel ship breaking up.
Ratigan, p. 11, quotes eight lines of text about the Gilcher, clearly the same poem as John Hayes's piece in Walton/Grimm/Murdock; unfortunately, he cites no source. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Ratigan: William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals, revised edition, Eerdmans, 1977
- Shelak: Benjamin J. Shelak, Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan, Trails Books, 2003
- Thompson: Mark L. Thompson, Graveyards of the Lakes, Wayne State University Press, 2000
- Wolff: Julius F. Wolff Jr., Lake Superior Shipwrecks,Lake Superior Port Cities Inc., Duluth, 1990
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