Some called Captain Benjamin Napier a rogue, who sailed amidst Lake Erie’s islands and waged a furious but futile war with the Kelleys for ownership of Cunningham’s Island (Kelleys Island). Others described him as a good-natured giant of a man with a heart to match. Whatever he was, no one could deny that Benjamin Napier was a superb sailor, who raised a family of larger-than-life seafaring sons on Lake Erie.
Among them was Nelson Napier, who left Ohio to settle near St. Joseph, Michigan, in the heart of the “Great Fruit Belt.” He soon captained a Great Lakes steamer and developed his own orchards. Later, Napier convinced his employer, the Goodrich Shipping Line, to establish a regular route from St. Joseph to Chicago, where the fruit trade was booming. A gentle giant like his father, Napier was loved and revered as one of the finest sailors on Lake Michigan. First on the “Comet,” then the “Corona,” and finally on the refurbished side-wheeler “Alpena,” Captain Napier plied the waters of Lake Michigan. Three nights each week, he carried a cargo of fruit and passengers across the lake.
On an Indian summer afternoon in October 1880, Napier sailed out of Grand Haven with his usual cargo of fruit, a 25-man crew, and twice that many passengers. Halfway through his run, he encountered a squall. A veteran sailor, Napier had weathered many of them. But suddenly the 65-degree temperature plummeted to below freezing. The night skies filled with snow and sleet. Hurricane force winds battered the “Alpena.” .
Napier’s terrified passengers were thrown about violently in their cabins that were rapidly filling with freezing water. Knowing he could not make safe harbor, Captain Napier turned about, trying to keep the “Alpena” afloat. The crew of the “Hattie Wells,” running parallel to the “Alpena,” looked on helplessly. Captain Dearkoff later said, “Me and my crew stood on deck and watched him try to turn his ship around in that storm. She was halfway around and that wind just took right hold of her and turned her over. …We watched her disappear under the waves.” Some speculated that the recently repaired rudder chain had broken again. Others felt as Captain Napier had once expressed; side-wheelers were not suited for open lakes, where large waves rocked the vessel, often leaving one wheel out of the water.
The storm raged for three days. When it was all over, two bodies, apples, a piano, and bits of the “Alpena” were strewn across a 70-mile stretch of beach north of Holland, Michigan. Although Napier’s ship was never found, a piece of cabin molding washed ashore. Stuffed between the cracks was a note that read, “This is terrible. The steamer is breaking up fast. I am aboard from Grand Haven to Chicago.” A year later, a bottle floated onto the beach at Point Betsie. Inside was a note bearing the last words from passenger George Moore.
He described the terror on board the “Alpena” that night: “She has broke her port wheel; is at mercy of seas; is half full of water; God help us. Capt. Napier washed overboard. The finder of this note will please communicate with my wife and let her know of my death.” But it would not be the last of the “Alpena.” In 1909, twenty-nine years after the storm, the “Alpena’s” name board floated ashore!