Akeley Under Construction

Artist's Concept

Storm Destroys The Akeley


By James Donahue


The steamship H. C. Akeley was only three years old when a furious November gale literally tore it into pieces, killing the captain and five other crew members on Lake Michigan in 1883.


Had it not been for the courage of the crew of the schooner Driver, that stood by the stricken steamer to take aboard 12 other crew members who escaped on the ship’s only surviving life boat, the casualty count would have been much worse.


Based at Grand Haven, the 230-foot vessel was under the command of Capt. Edward Strech, a 45-year veteran skipper of not only the Great Lakes but also the high seas, when it left Chicago on Nov. 11 with a cargo of corn bound for the long haul to Buffalo, New York.


As the story was told by the survivors, the Akeley encountered the storm not long after leaving Chicago. As the ship battled its way north, just off Milwaukee, it came upon the tug Protection that was in trouble. The tug had been towing the schooner Arab when the storm sank the schooner and left the Protection’s machinery disabled.


Captain Strech took the Arab under tow and continued north into the storm. But after a while, the strain on the ship caused the rudder to fail. Sometime during the melee a steam pipe also parted in the engine room. Thus both the Akeley and Protection were two broken ships adrift and at the mercy of the gale.


The line linking the two boats was cut and the vessels soon got separated. The Protection drifted east across the lake and eventually grounded near Saugatuck, Michigan.


Captain Strech dropped anchor and the crew did all it could to ride out the storm and repair the ship. That night, while working on the boiler, the chief engineer said he heard two sounds like shotgun blasts. The guy chains supporting the smoke stack had snapped. The steamer’s funnel toppled over the side.


That night the storm intensified, ripping one of the ship’s two lifeboats from the davits. Thus the crew battled all that day, November 12, and into the night without the storm showing any sign of easing. By that night the situation seemed hopeless. Even with two bilge pumps working on the deck, the steamer was taking on water.


Sometime early on the thirteenth, the schooner Driver, bound from Chicago to Grand Haven, came upon the stricken Akeley. The skipper stood by in hopes of rescuing the crew.


Twelve of the crew members on the Akeley launched the ship’s only lifeboat and pulled for the Driver. Captain Strech and five other men remained on the Akeley. The plan was for the Driver to approach the sinking steamer on its lee side and take them aboard.


Even before the lifeboat reached the waiting schooner, however, a large wave struck the Akeley causing the mizzenmast to break away. Within seconds, the crew said the steamer sank stern first, taking the six crew members with it.


Only one photo has ever been found of the Akeley. It was taken during the ship’s construction in Grand Haven in 1880.


The ship was named for Healy C. Akeley, a prominent Grand Haven businessman and one of its owners.


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