Big Blow Of 1880 Claimed The Alpena

By James Donahue

Some people said Captain Nelson W. Napier should have known better than take the Goodrich Line steamer Alpena out of Grand Haven, Michigan, on that fateful trip to Chicago on the night of Oct. 15, 1880.

It was a beautiful Indian Summer evening, but the barometer was falling fast, and there were forecasts of a major gale brewing even before Napier’s ship weighed anchor that evening. All along the coast that evening the storm signals were out. As an experienced Great Lakes navigator, Napier should have known the dangers. He probably thought he had enough time to get across Lake Michigan and under the lee of the Illinois coast before the storm hit.

The Alpena was a 22-year-old wooden-hulled steamship, but she was a sturdy vessel, 197-feet in length, and driven by a single cylinder, vertical beam engine that drove a pair of 24-foot radius side wheels. The boat had been completely overhauled at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, during the winter of 1876, and Napier apparently was confident that the boat could weather any storm the lake could dish out.

But historians say this particular storm was probably one of the worst in the History of Lake Michigan. It caused extensive damage all along the coast, and when it was over, the Alpena and some 80 souls that left Grand Haven on her decks that night, were gone.

The steamer was also carrying a cargo of about 10 carloads of apples on its main deck. The Alpena was last seen about 30 miles off Chicago, but passing ships said she was listing to leeward, pitching one wheel out of the water. Another master said he saw the steamer on her side in the trough of the seas, but because of the fury of the storm could not offer any assistance.

It was thus theorized that the cargo shifted causing the steamer to become unmanageable and thus fall prey to the fury of the gale.

After the storm wreckage was found strewn all along the Michigan coast from Holland to Saugatuck. The Holland City News wrote that the ship’s hull was found floating near the harbor. "The whole coast for 20 miles is strewn with the debris." It said a piano came ashore near Holland. Thousands of apples were seen bobbing in the surf at Saugatuck.


Great And Lost Ships Of The World