The Western Reserve was a 301 ft., 2392 gt. steel freight steamer launched in 1890 at Cleveland, OH by Globe Shipbuilding. She was the first major steel freighter built for use on the Lakes. When she came out, her builders thought that her construction would put an end to disasters caused by hull failure. However, only two year later, on August 30, 1892, the Reserve was in ballast riding out a summer gale en route to Two Harbors, MN, when she simply broke in two and sank off Deer Park, MI in Lake Superior. There was little evidence to indicate what had happened to the ship as there was only one survivor out of the 27 crew. When her sister ship, the W.H. Gilcher foundered under similar circumstances, it was learned that that construction techniques needed to be drastically changed. These vessels paved the way for new more flexible marine steel to be used, and for designs which allowed for the flexing of the vessel’s hull in heavy seas.
On Sunday, August 28, 1892, her owner, Captain Peter G. Minch, himself and an experienced lake skipper, with his wife, son, and daughter, aged ten and seven respectively, together with Mrs. Minch’s sister and her little daughter, all boarded the Western Reserve at Cleveland for a vacation trip up the lakes. The freighter was without cargo and stood high in the water as she plowed out of Cleveland bound for Two Harbors, MN. She passed Port Huron at 9:20 PM on Monday the 29th and locked up through the Soo on Tuesday the 30th at 12:30PM in the company of the steamer Peerless.
According to reports of the lone survivor, 24 year old Harry W. Stewart of Algonac, MI, a wheelsman, a gale had been building and became quite severe, but nothing the vessel shouldn’t have been able to handle, when a crack appeared on her deck, forward of the boiler house. The crack quickly widened, and the passengers and crew took to the yawl boats. In ten minutes, the Western Reserve had gone beneath the rolling waves to the bottom of Lake Superior in six hundred feet of water. This happened about sixty miles northwest of Whitfish Point and 35 miles northwest of Deer Park at 9:00 in the evening of Tuesday, August 30th. Twenty seven persons from the freighter made it into the yawl boats. One of the yawls soon capsized, spilling the occupants into the water. Only two survivors were picked up by the remaining yawl, which was then dangerously overloaded. At 7:00 AM, about one mile off shore near Deer Park, MI, the surf capsized the remaining yawl. All occupants except Stewart who was an expert swimmer, drowned. Stewart swam for two hours, then struggled through the wilderness to the lifesaving station 12 miles distant. He related that they may have been saved if the yawl carried torches as they had sighted the lights of a passing vessel. Subsequent beach patrols picked up the bodies of 16 people including four members of the Minch family. Captain Minch was identified by an engraved watch he was wearing. The Minch family’s remains were shipped to Cleveland, while the rest were buried locally. The Reserve was a loss of $200,000, making her the greatest financial loss of the 19th century on the lakes.
Many years ago, in Mentor, OH, Phillip J. Minch son of Captain and Mrs. Peter G. Minch, who were lost along with his brother and sister, passed away. He named his home “Starboard Light” because that was the only part of the Western Reserve that was salvaged from the wreck. It floated ashore with some boards. Mr. Minch had it wired and it burned every night in his window as long as he lived. The lantern has since passed to the Western Reserve Historical Society which has placed it on the front gable of the home of James A. Garfield, 20th president of the US, at Mentor, OH.
Harry W. Stewart, the disaster’s sole survivor, passed away on May 18, 1938 at Algonac, Michigan, aged 70. He had continued to sail the Lakes, rising to the rank of Captain.
Despite occasional searches, the remains of the Reserve have never been located. They are believed to lie in 400 to 600 feet of water around 30 miles due north of Au Sable Point. A projection of the ship’s location can be made based on the accounts of the survivor, the time she locked through at the Soo and the likely courseline she would have been on given the charts of the day. Due to her distance from shore and the size of her search grid, she is unlikely to be located without the help of magnetic anomaly data.