Week 48: #52 Ancestors – Thief
By Eilene Lyon
Note: The Historical Society of Michigan published a version of this story originally in Michigan History Magazine May/June 2018. Due to length, I will present it in two parts.
South Haven, Michigan, 1894
The schooner George L. Wrenn rested lightly in the South Haven harbor. Her 250 barrels of salt ballast wouldn’t be loaded until she reached Ludington. Known around the lakes as a fast sailor, she had worked hard as a freighter since her debut in 1868. Now, on July 4, 1894, she was about to embark on an entirely new career – global gadabout.
It would be the first time a Great Lakes ship would attempt to sail around the world, and no itinerary in the annals of sailing history had ever been more ambitious, according to the media.
On the deck of the 129-foot sailboat, some of the company assembled for the launch: students and young professionals, male and female, along with a small crew of experienced sailors. Virginia Doolittle, a reporter for a St. Paul newspaper, would chronicle the trip and planned to publish a book. Her husband of five days, Henry Doolittle, would work as a steward. This would be their extended honeymoon trip.
Roy Gilson, also a journalist, whose father owned the Benton Harbor Palladium, could be seen on board. The sensitive, non-athletic 18-year-old was about find out how hard sailing could be. He would report his adventures to the readers in his hometown. Several friends accompanied him; one was a botanist, another a geologist. They would be responsible for collecting and cataloging specimens along the route.
There was an artist from Chicago sketching for news accounts; two photographers would document the people and places they visited. An innovative phonograph could record native voices as a cultural artifact.
Most of the biological, cultural, and geological specimens would enter a permanent museum collection. The remainder would be exhibited on the Wrenn upon her return to the Great Lakes – a wondrous, educational floating museum.
People came from around the region to South Haven just to see the Wrenn during the Independence Day festivities. Her youthful crew transmitted their excitement to the gathered crowd.
Dr. Ransom’s Dream
The entire trip was the brainchild of South Haven’s own Dr. William C. Ransom, known as “W. C.” He had dreamed of this day for decades. No one in town could have been more excited than the trim, handsome, and gregarious 65-year-old physician.
He shook hands with friends and skeptics alike, his flowing white beard bobbing as he nodded in acknowledgement. Even his neighbors had scoffed at his wild idea to sail around the world. Now it was real, and he had made it happen.
W. C. Ransom was born in Belmont County, Ohio, and reared in the eastern Indiana swamps. The adventure bug bit early and hard. He sailed to California during the Gold Rush, going via New Orleans and Panama. He returned to Indiana after the Civil War and opened a medical practice in Hartford City. On December 31, 1865, he married Emily Hodgson. Their grown son, Harvey, also became a doctor, working in his father’s practice in South Haven.
According to a biography published in 1892, Dr. Ransom moved to Michigan “in April, 1881, and has since become one of the leading businessmen of the place, as well as a popular physician. He is a member of the firm of Hempstead Bros. & Ransom, clothing merchants, and is also a dealer in real estate and interested in commerce on the lakes.”
He’d begun promoting the “Trip Around the World Company” in January 1894 and soon had inquiries from across the northern states. The company incorporated in Chicago on March 17 with a $15,000 initial stock issue. Prominent South Haven businessmen served as directors: Mr. A. S. Dyckman, merchant, president; Mr. J. H. Johnson, attorney, secretary; and Mr. C. J. Hempstead, VP Citizens State Bank, treasurer.
The Trip Around the World
Dr. Ransom required everyone taking part in the three-year cruise to become a company owner, $500 minimum investment, supply their own kit, and work as well. There would be a cook, but no pampering. As the doctor said, “this is no kid glove expedition and all unnecessary services will be dispensed with.” No more than two dozen stockholders would be allowed to join him on the trip, given the size of the vessel.
Momentum picked up greatly when the company purchased the Wrenn in mid-April and began refitting her for the long voyage. Carpenters built a cabin on the after deck for the passengers and installed a third mast. They painted the hull black; it would eventually be sheathed in zinc for her salt-water travels.
Upon leaving the Great Lakes, she would sail to Britain. The Wrenn would cruise the Mediterranean all winter, visit the Holy Land, and go about 100 miles up the Nile. In the spring she’d sail around Africa, then up to Madagascar “where Dr. Ransom…was well known.”
They planned to stop at every country that could be reached by boat to collect artifacts. After Africa, they would cruise the Indian Ocean, visit Australia and New Zealand, then explore Asia and the Pacific Islands. One report stated that Ransom had been “court physician of the Sandwich Islands [Hawaii].”
Finally, the Wrenn would head to Alaska and sail around the American continents. Everyone had confidence in the success of the expedition, because “Dr. Ransom has been to nearly all the above mentioned places, having spent while a young man fifteen years in traveling over the world.” He would be the head of the enterprise at sea and chief navigator.
A Grand Send-Off
The Wrenn was decorated with flags for the patriotic holiday. The Hon. C. Monroe of South Haven and Roy Gilson’s father kicked off the celebration with speeches at 4:30 p.m. Mr. Dyckman, president of the Trip Around the World Company, read an original poem for the occasion, and two bands added pomp to the affair.
After the ceremonies concluded, a steamer towed the Wrenn from the Black River harbor to Lake Michigan. As the steamer surged forward, she “struck bottom in the river…and got a line wound around her wheel.” The mishap delayed the departure several hours. Later that evening, the crew began sailing north to Grand Haven.
On the morning of July 5 the schooner entered the port at Grand Haven to pick up legal documents, but she was unable to depart due to stiff headwinds. When she finally set sail again several days later, she made for Ludington to load the salt that would be used as trading goods. The people of Ludington feted the passengers, entertaining them with music and treating them to steam baths at the salt refinery.
Roy Gilson sent two glowing reports to the Palladium expressing delight with the jolly companionship aboard. He reveled in learning to sail:
The starboard watch went on duty again at 8 o’clock and for an hour and a half I held the wheel again. Dr. Ransom, who sat near the stern rail, dividing his time equally between watching the schooner’s wake and his trolling line for trout, said that I kept an unusually true course for a beginner and with these words of encouragement I sat down on the quarter deck to write in my log.
Supply Run to Chicago
At Ludington, Dr. Ransom took his leave of the ship to take care of last-minute supply needs. The two-and-a-half-month window to get the Wrenn remodeled had been tight. Even a few days before she left dry dock in Chicago on June 29, people had speculated she would never be done on time for the July 4 departure. They were proven wrong, but just barely.
From his home in South Haven, Dr. Ransom walked to the ferry on the evening of July 15, headed for Chicago. Emily and their 21-month-old grandson accompanied him, and they ran into Harvey along the way to the dock. Just before boarding the ferry, W. C. wrapped his arms around the little boy and hugged him as if for the last time.
Harvey and Emily later reported that the doctor had seemed unusually anxious that evening. They attributed it to his feelings about the final departure, when he would leave his family for three long years.
That same day, the Wrenn left Ludington, bound for Detroit to wait for Dr. Ransom. Additional company members from Ohio and Pennsylvania would join them there. The boat did not suffer any mishaps as she sailed through the Straits of Mackinac, across Lake Huron, and down the St. Clair River to the port in Detroit. The Benton Harbor boys were quickly learning the ropes, building muscles in the process. Gilson wrote:
We assisted in hoisting sails and tending the lines, but mindful that my arms were unaccostomed [sic] to such heavy service, I was careful not to pull too hard on the heavy, rough ropes that hurt my hands. However I remember distinctly that before the big foresail was in place I was panting with my exertions.
As they waited for the doctor, the newly arrived passengers got settled in their compact staterooms. Among them were L. W. Loomis, a hardware merchant from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, serving as the purser, and Lindley R. Beecher, a 20-year-old cashier from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. All told, there were now 24 people on the Wrenn, eagerly anticipating the trip of a lifetime.
The ferry from South Haven arrived in Chicago in the wee hours of Monday, July 16. Dr. Ransom checked into the eight-story limestone Sherman House hotel at the corner of Clark and Randolph Streets at 5:45 a.m. The doctor spent part of the afternoon shopping for supplies, but did not make any purchases. Then he went to Bankers National Bank, cashed a $500 draft drawn on the Citizens State Bank of South Haven, and returned to his hotel.
Just before 6:30 p.m., Dr. Ransom stepped onto the elevator and remarked to the operator that he planned to spend the night in Evanston. He left his satchel in the coat room, walked out the door of the hotel – and vanished.
Spoiler Alert: If you click on “Lovable Louse” below, you will be cheated on the ending.
Feature image: The schooner George L. Wrenn ready for her trip around the world in July 1894. (South Haven Historical Society)