Joseph P. Farnan

The Farnan's sister ship the Olwill

42.20.919 86.34.339

While surveying for the lost DC-4 airliner lost off the shores of South Haven, Michigan Ralph Wilbanks and the rest of the team from Clive Cussler’s National Underwater Marine Agency, along with MSRA, discovered two shipwrecks lying close together. While one remains a mystery — even thought to be a portion of another wreck — the larger of the two have been confirmed to be the remains of the Joseph P. Farnan.

The Farnan was only two years old when she sank. Built at Cleveland, Ohio, in 1887, she was a wooden-hulled, bulk freighter with a single expansion steam engine and a single boiler. The steamer was built by H. D. Root, for L. P. and J. A. Smith of Cleveland and later was joined by a sister ship, Margaret Olwill built by Root, but 20 feet longer.

The Farnan was 152 feet in length with a beam of 33 feet. She was rated at a modest 410 tons and cost her owners $45,000. She was outfitted with the compound steam engine from the Winnifred.

Sometimes seen as the Farnam, Farnum, or Farman, this vessel had a shaky beginning. While being towed by the 65 foot tug Patrick Henry, the tug sank near the Vermilion, Ohio lighthouse. One of the four tug crew members died in the wreck. The Patrick Henry‘s engine was recovered and used to power the Olwill.

The Farnan left St. Joseph, Michigan northbound for Escanaba at around 8:00 am Saturday morning, July 20 1889. She was owned and captained by 41 year old Loren G. Vosburgh who, on this voyage, was accompanied by his wife Belle, and 10 crewmen. The wind was blowing fresh out of the northwest, and with the sea running, progress to the north was slow. About 2 pm, 17 miles northwest of St. Joseph, a fire broke out in the engine room. The crew attempted to put the fire out, but the donkey pump was disabled by the flames, and soon it became evident that the ship was lost.

J. P. Farnan drawing by Robert Doornobs

J. P. Farnan drawing by Robert Doornobs

The flames destroyed the lifeboat, forcing the crew to grab whatever materials they could find — the local newspapers said hatch covers and large wooden fenders — and start building a raft. When the raft was complete, the crew abandoned ship.

On shore, a watchman from the South Haven life saving station was occasionally tracking the progress of the Farnan. The vessel was watched for nearly three hours from shore, before the blaze was spotted.

As soon as trouble was detected, the steamer Glenn was requisitioned by the Life Saving Service to tow their lifeboat to the rescue. Arriving at the scene as the sun was setting, the rescuers spotted the survivors on the raft just as daylight was fading.

Although some of the Farnan’s crew were burned while fighting the fire, all made it safely to shore. The names of the rescued crewmembers are: Loren G. Vosburgh, Captain; Mrs. Belle Vosburgh, Jas. Bowen, first mate; Daniel Leisenring, second mate; Charles T. Martin, chief engineer; Frank Chambers, wheelsman; James Pratt, wheelsman; John Fay, fireman; James McMahon, fireman; John McNichol, steward; Andrew McNichol, deckhand.

The Gless

The steamer Glenn, requisitioned by the U.S. Life-Saving Service to help with the rescue

The Detroit Free Press, in its July 22, 1889 edition stated, “Great praise is due to Capt. McKenzie and crew, of the life saving service, and Capt. Boyne, of the propeller Glenn” for rescuing the crew.

When last seen, the Farnan was engulfed from stem to stern by a roaring inferno, drifting away from her crew at an astonishing rate of speed. She undoubtedly sank soon after that. The vessel carried no insurance. Despite losing the Farnan, Captain Vosburgh continued to sail the Great Lakes for many more years.

The wreckage of the Farnan lies in about 170 feet of water. The engine and boiler are evident although most of the ship’s superstructure was burned away before the ship sank.

J. P. Farnan drawing by Robert Doornbos

J. P. Farnan drawing by Robert Doornbos



Detroit Free Press

Herald-Palladian Newspaper, St. Joseph, MI

David Swayze Shipwreck Files

Labadie Collection of the Alpena County Library (MI)

Historic Collection of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University (OH)