Drowned in a Shipwreck

[Excerpt from my upcoming book, A Boy Who Loved The Sea.]

I come from a family line of seagoing men. My great-great-grandfather, Captain Nelson W. Napier captained a side-wheel steamer, the Alpena, on one of the Great Lakes–Lake Michigan. It was on that ship he lost his life.

Alpena
My great-great-grandfather Nelson W. Napier was the captain of this vessel.

On October 15, 1880, at 9:30 PM, the Alpena left Grand Haven, Michigan bound for Chicago. Although a fresh water lake, Lake Michigan is immense–It is 307 miles long and 118 miles wide. Sailing on Lake Michigan would be as if one is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Just like in the ocean, storms on the lake are fierce and waves can hit great heights.

The weather that night in 1880 was beautiful, but the barometer was indicating a storm was approaching. The Alpena was spotted on her southwest journey by the crew of another steamer at about 1:00 AM and all seemed well.

boat
Alpena on ice in Lake Michgan c. 1870’s

At about 3:00 AM on Saturday, October 16, 1880, the worst gale in Lake Michigan recorded history swept across the lake. The Alpena was seen at 6:00 AM, 7:00 AM, and 8:00 AM by the captains of two other ships. They recorded in their log that the Alpena was laboring heavily in high seas.alpena2

I can picture my great-great-grandfather fighting valiantly in the storm to save the ship and the 80 passengers on board.

Several other vessel captains spotted the Alpena on her side with one of her paddle-wheels out of the water.The steamer finally gave in to the storm and capsized.  The Alpena was carrying ten car loads of apples on her main deck. One theory is that in the storm the cargo shifted to one side causing the Alpena to become unmanageable. On October 16, 1880, my great-great-grandfather, along with all passengers and crew were lost in the depths of Lake Michigan.The actual cause will never be known. There were no survivors.

The death of my great-great-grandfather is recorded in our old and cherished family Bible.

Napier-Bible-entry
Our family Bible. Note: two captains in my family.

History source: Michigan Shipwreck Research Association 2001-2016

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