Saga Of The H. C. Akeley
By James Donahue
The survivors of the bulk carrier H. C. Akeley had a dramatic story to tell after their ship was lost in a violent
November gale on Lake Michigan in 1883. Six members of the crew died when the vessel foundered off Holland, Michigan, on November
The Akeley, a 240-foot-long wooden hulled steamer, Captain Edward Stretch at the helm, left Chicago, bound for Buffalo
with a full cargo of corn and soon steamed right into the storm that was going to send the two-year-old ship to a watery grave.
The storm was so fierce that all ships caught on the lake that day were also in trouble. When the Akeley was off Milwaukee
she came upon the tug Protection which was disabled, its crew in trouble. The Protection had been towing the schooner-barge
Arab which sank in the storm. The Akeley took the Protection in tow. While battling the gale with the tug in tow, however,
the strain disabled the Akeley’s rudder and soon both vessels were adrift, caught in the trough of the seas, the crews
fighting the elements.
The Akeley cut the Protection loose and the tug got lucky. It remained afloat until it grounded near Saugatuck, Michigan.
In the meantime the crew of the Akeley was struggling to get the steamer back under control. But as the storm grew
in intensity things began to happen. The battering seas first tore away a feed pipe from the port boiler causing the ship
to lose seam. While the engineer and his crew worked on repairing the boiler they said they heard what sounded like two gunshots
overhead. It was the sound of two of the chains supporting the ship’s funnel snapping under the strain of the gale.
Next the funnel toppled.
The drifting rudderless and powerless ship was now at the mercy of the seas. The anchors were dropped but they failed
to keep the disabled wreck from being swept by the buffeting seas. The steamer was sinking. Divers say they found two bilge
pumps on the main deck, suggesting that the crew was making a last desperate effort to keep the Akeley afloat.
The schooner Driver, bound from Chicago to Grand Haven, came on the scene and stood by to rescue the crew. Twelve of
the sailors managed to use the remaining lifeboat to get safely to the Driver. Captain Straight and five other men waited
on the foundering Akeley. The plan was for the Driver to approach the lee side of the steamer and take them off. Before they
could be rescued, however, the Akeley was struck by a wave that hit with such force it toppled the mizzenmast and sank the
steamer. All six men perished with the ship.
The Driver also was having
a fight for its survival. The schooner was reportedly disabled, but still under sail and survived the gale.