Preston and Napier Entrepreneurs and Sailors Shape St. Joseph, Michigan
Captain Fowler J. Preston, Jr. and his brothers Wallace and Norris all were born with seafaring in their veins. Norris perished on Lake Michigan before he could join the Civil War, but at the outbreak of the Civil War, Fowler and Wallace transferred their seafaring passion from Lake Michigan to the Atlantic Ocean, helping the Union Navy to victory. After the Civil War, they both returned to their hometown of St. Joseph, Michigan, and continued their individual lives and voyages into Michigan history.
The story of the Preston brothers begins with their father Fowler Preston senior. Born in Massachusetts in 1800, Fowler Preston senior brought his Puritan work ethic and faith with him when he traveled down the Erie Canal and made his way to St. Joseph, Michigan in 1829. He acquired several acres of land and built a home on the corner lot at 720 State Street. Quickly Fowler Sr. established his building and contracting trades and just as quickly earned the respect and affection of his neighbors. In 1831, he became a captain in the militia of Michigan Territory and Marshall of the village of St. Joseph, and in 1836 he took office as Berrien County’s first sheriff, serving until 1838.
Fowler Preston enjoyed another life changing event in1836, when he married Ann Jenette (Annjenette) Loomis, twelve years his junior and also a Massachusetts native. The Prestons had three boys. Norris lived from 1837-1856; Wallace from 1842-1924; and Fowler, Jr. from 1844-1896.
Fowler Preston Sr. served as Supervisor from 1840-1842 and Marshal of the village of St. Joseph for several terms. Fowler Preston Sr. died on November 18, 1843, a few months before his youngest son, Fowler Preston, Jr. was born. After Fowler, Sr. died, his family continued to live in modest comfort on the income from the property that he and Ann Jenette had acquired through frugal living and Ann’s careful management of resources.
The 1870 censuses indicates that Ann Jenette Preston took in borders to better make ends meet and for several years the St. Joseph Herald recorded her real estate and other commercial transactions as well as a visit to New England. The St. Joseph Herald of March 29, 1879, noted that Mrs. Ann L. Preston visited relatives in New England the past winter. She is expected to be home in about a month.
Ann Preston was home by November 15, 1879, because the Herald reported that she purchased the building called Barlow’s Hall, which eventually became known as Preston’s Hall. She died on February 20, 1892, on her 80th birthday, respected and mourned as a generous and kind citizen and a beloved mother.
After receiving their early education in St. Joseph, all three of the Preston sons signed on Great Lakes ships at the beginning of their careers. Their oldest son, Norris Preston served as a steward on the steamer Toledo and in October 1856 when it was just two years old and Norris 20, the Toledo arrived in Port Washington, Wisconsin. On Wednesday, October 22, 1856, the Toledo anchored a short distance out in Lake Michigan because of deteriorating weather. By Friday, October 24, the wind had strengthened to gale force and the Toledo’s anchor began to drag causing it to drift and hit the boulder reef outside of the harbor. The ship quickly went to pieces.
A story in the October 27, 1856 Milwaukee Sentinel said that the propeller Toledo, of the American Transportation line and Captain Densham commanding her, sank in front of Port Washington on Friday, October 24, 1856. All but three deckhands of the Toledo’s approximately 50 passengers and crew drowned and its large cargo of merchandise which had been slated for Port Washington and county merchants spilled into Lake Michigan.
A Mr. Pomeroy of Detroit happened to be in Port Washington at the time of the wreck of the Toledo and provided an eyewitness account to the Milwaukee Sentinel. He said that on Friday noon, the Toledo hovered close to one of the piers, dragging her anchors and moving northward. At about 4 p.m., it seemed to him that the crew was attempting to haul up the anchors and move north to a safer berth, but they put the anchors down again as soon as the Toledo had moved beyond the north pier. By then, the Toledo flew her flag at half mast, but the waves rolled so high that no rescue vessel could reach her. The wind and waves crested at dark and people built fires along the shore with the fire light illuminating the sight of the Toledo hull rolling and listing heavily. At about 7:30, boxes and barrels of merchandise began to straggle ashore and half an hour later the yawl boat crashed on the beach with a man clinging to one of its seats.
After the man had recovered his breath enough to speak, he said that he was a deck hand and had gotten into yawl boat with twenty other people, but it had immediately capsized. He managed to cling to the boat as the shore bound waves tossed it over and over like a piece of driftwood. Shortly after his rescue, two other men arrived on shore, and they said that they were deck hands and they didn’t know the names of the passengers at all and just a few of the crew members. They said that the captain tried to get up his anchors and beach the Toledo as a last resort, but the crew could not raise or cut the anchor chains before the Toledo’s seams opened. The water rushed in so rapidly both above and below that the Toledo quickly settled to the bottom of Lake Michigan. By the next morning the waves had left hardly a trace of the Toledo and they had dashed most of the goods that came ashore to pieces. The Toledo had been one of the largest propellers of her day, and her cargo was worth between $65,000-$70,000.
Norris Preston did not survive the sinking of the Toledo.
Captain Fowler J. Preston
Born April 30, 1844, Fowler Preston, Jr., the third son of Fowler Preston, Sr. and Ann Jenette Preston, was just twelve years old when his brother Norris went down with the Toledo and just a year later in 1857 when he was thirteen, he shipped on the Jupiter, a small trading vessel with St. Joseph as its home port. The Detroit Tribune reported on October 9, 1860, that the schooner Jupiter bound from Saginaw for Chicago with lumber went ashore on St. Helena Reef. The captain threw between 75,000 and 80,000 feet of lumber overboard to free his ship, and people between Moran Bay and Point Labar along the Lake Michigan shore near St. Ignace, picked up at least 40,000 feet of the lumber on the beaches.
According to his biography in History of the Great Lakes, Fowler had most likely already left the Jupiter before it went ashore in 1860, because it says that he served as a cabin boy on the Freemason, a schooner plying the fishing trade along the St. Joseph shore, for two seasons. After Fowler sailed on the Freemason for two seasons, he climbed another rung of the maritime ladder by buying an interest in the schooner Black Hawk and sailing her for a time.
In 1859, Fowler Preston went to Cleveland and purchased the schooner Cousin Mary, sailing her between St. Joseph and Chicago as her captain. Captain Preston spent less than two years sailing the Cousin Mary, because Civil War clouds covered the horizon and he answered the call of Union President Abraham Lincoln for soldiers to defend the Union. The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser of June 2, 1873, detailed what ultimately happened to the Cousin Mary. The Advertiser story said that on May 29, 1873, a ferocious Lake Michigan storm struck Chicago and the schooner St. Peter rammed and sunk the Cousin Mary at the pier in Chicago.
Captain Fowler Preston in the Civil War
Despite his ties to the Cousin Mary, Fowler J. Preston decided to serve his country by enlisting in the United States Navy. The 1891-1892 Veteran’s Schedules and the U.S. Naval Enlistment Rendezvous 1855-1891 show that eighteen-year-old Fowler joined the United States Navy in August 1891 at Buffalo, New York. The Navy assigned him to the USS Stars and Stripes, a 407-ton screw steam gunboat which it purchased in July 1861, converted into a warship, and commissioned by September 1861.
His biography in History of the Great Lakes Volume II states that Captain Preston served on the USS Stars and Stripes and two of his shipmates were Captain James Paxton and John Goodall, also from St. Joseph. The Stars and Stripes beginning tour of duty took her along North Carolina’s Outer Banks and on December 15, 1861, she captured the schooner Charity off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The History of the Great Lakes version of the story says that the Stars and Stripes captured a schooner loaded with arms which attempted to run the blockade and deliver her cargo to the Rebels. In the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, p.481, the manifest of the schooner Charity, signed by master Arthur Fenner White, lists the cargo of the Charity as merchandise including salt, sugar, rope, nails, and potatoes.
Lieutenant Commander Reed Werden of the USS Stars and Stripes sent a report of the capture of the Charity to G.J. Van Brunt, Captain Commanding of the Flagship Minnesota. In his report dated December 17, 1861, Lt. Werden said that according to her papers, Charity cleared from Providence, Rhode Island for Alexandria, Virginia on November 13, 1861, but instead of sailing to Alexandria she went to Baltimore. From Baltimore she sailed under a license forbidding her to proceed to any port south of Maryland, under penalty of confiscation. Lt. Werden wrote, “For these reasons, the nature of the cargo, the deliberate violation of the license, and the evident intention of trading with the enemy, I have seized her and sent her to New York in charge of a prize crew for adjudication.’
Lt. Commander Reed Werden named Fowler Preston and a number of his shipmates as a prize crew to take the Charity to New York City for adjudication, but a powerful Atlantic storm cast her on an uninhabited island where she wrecked. Seaman Preston and his shipmates endured trials and tribulations on the island and many times he climbed the broken spars of the Charity to search the horizon for rescuers. Finally the prize crew was rescued and taken to New York City. Seaman Preston’s service aboard the USS Stars and Stripes ended in New York City, but the USS Stars and Stripes continued to serve the Union in the Civil War. After the war ended, she was sold and her name eventually changed to the Metropolis.
The Navy next assigned Seaman Preston to the mail ship Columbia that plied between New York City and Havana, Cuba, ( a neutral port) as part of a troop contingent to defend her if Rebel privateers in Southern waters attacked her. Captain Edward Napier, also of St. Joseph, was one of Fowler Preston’s shipmates. Seaman Preston served on the Columbia until his enlistment expired and he returned to St. Joseph in November 1862.
Captain Fowler Preston Returns to St. Joseph and the Great Lakes
Captain Preston returned to St. Joseph and became interested in the schooner Fish Hawk, which carried wood and other cargos between St. Joseph, Chicago, and Milwaukee. T. Cunningham built the Fish Hawk in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in 1858 and perhaps fittingly, the Fish Hawk sank in a Lake Michigan storm north of Sheboygan in November 1865.
In 1872, Captain Preston acquired the propeller Skylark and cut her down and fitted her out as a barge. He operated the Skylark in the lumber trade from Manistee to Michigan City for about five years. The Detroit Free Press reported in its April 24, 1875, edition that the schooners Harrison, Doane, and Imperial and the propeller Skylark underwent repairs at the North Side Dock of the Chicago Dry Dock Company in Chicago.
After about five years, Captain Preston sold a half interest in the Skylark to Robert Ricaby and eventually sold his remaining interest to Captain H.W. Williams. The new partners fitted the Skylark out with an upper cabin and the Detroit Tribune of April 15, 1876, noted the Skylark was being renovated with a new ceiling, deck, deck frames, stanchions, and other repairs at Holland, Michigan. The Skylark carried passenger and freight traffic between Manistee and Chicago. The U.S. Merchant Vessel List of 1883 shows that the Skylark’s home port was now Grand Haven, Michigan, and her name had been changed from Skylark to Berrien. Beeson’s Sailors Handbook and Inland Marine Guide, 1891 also shows that Fowler J. Preston owned the propeller Belle Chase, built in 1876 in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
Along with his maritime career, Captain Fowler Preston also maintained commercial interests in St. Joseph. On January 12, 1878, the St. Joseph Herald noted that Captain Fowler Preston purchased a bakery and restaurant in the Preston Block from J.W. Wilson.
The Herald continued to follow Captain Fowler’s progress with the bakery and restaurant reporting its opening in February 1878 and informing St. Joseph citizens that they could buy warm and cold lunches at the restaurant and bakery. Within a year, Captain Preston had given up his bakery and restaurant because despite his business dealings, seafaring was his first love.
In October 1880, Captain Preston purchased a barge hull at Saginaw, towed it to St. Joseph, and fitted it out with machinery. Christening his new vessel A.H. Morrison after one of St. Joseph’s prominent citizens, he operated the Morrison in the lumber trade between Grand Haven and Chicago, selling her to Welland Brothers after two seasons.
The Meaford (Ontario) Monitor of Friday, August 23, 1895, revealed the fate of the A.H. Morrison. Built at Bay City, Michigan in 1879, the vessel began its career as the U.S. lighter Hannah B. In 1881, Captain Preston named her A.H. Morrison and then after he sold her to Welland Brothers she was rebuilt at Port Arthur in Ontario in 1884. In 1886, she was renamed Butcher Boy, rebuilt again in 1893, and finally sank in Georgian Bay in 1902.
In the next few years Captain Preston built a tug that he named Jennie King at New Richmond, Michigan, operated her a season in St. Joseph as a ferry and towing steamer, and then sold her. On August 20,1883, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he married Miss May Talmage also of New Richmond.
The Maud Preston
In 1886, Captain Fowler Preston built the lumber carrier, Maud Preston at the St. Joseph yards of his brother, Wallace A. Preston. He named his new vessel Maud Preston after his only niece Maud, the daughter of his only brother Wallace. The Maud Preston carried lumber between Ludington, Manistee, and St. Joseph, Michigan and eventually Captain Preston decided to increase her speed by installing a larger wheel. The St. Joseph Herald of May 28, 1887 reported that while installing the new wheel at Allmendinger’s yards in St. Joseph, Captain Preston and two of his men were injured by the wheel falling onto them. Captain Preston’s hand was badly jammed, making the amputation of his right thumb necessary. He was confined to his room at the home of his brother Wallace. His two helpers were less severely injured.
The St. Joseph Herald of September 10, 1887 reported another of Captain Preston’s adventures with the Maud Preston. A Mr. Liberty Brown of St. Joseph had been temporarily filling the position of clerk on the Maud Preston. Lying over in Chicago, Liberty Brown went to the telegraph office to send a message to Glenn Pier in Allegan County, Michigan and disappeared with $300 of the Maud Preston’s money. His friends and family, the Chicago police, and Captain Fowler Preston all searched in vain for Liberty Brown.
After he had owned the Maud Preston for approximately five years, Captain Preston sold her to Captain Bradley of Muskegon and she may have been sold again because The Merchant Vessel List, U.S. 1891, lists the Maud Preston’s homeport as Grand Haven, Michigan.
The Last Vessels of Captain Fowler Preston’s Career
In 1892, Captain Preston bought the steamer Seymour and contracted with the Graves Lumber Company of Benton Harbor to carry lumber to various ports along the lakes. After he had owned the Seymour for about two years, he sold her to the Sheboygan Wisconsin Chair Company. Next, he bought the steamer Imperial which he sold to Manitowoc holders at the end of 1895, after one season
Although he owned an interest in the tug Sanford, Captain Preston determined to build another ship. The Buffalo Enquirer of May 23, 1895, in a story datelined Ludington, May 23, noted that hull of the new excursion steamer Visitor left the city in tow of the tug Sanford bound for St. Joseph. Captain F.J. Preston owned the steamer and he planned to install her machinery and have her ready for service by the opening of excursion season.
Captain Preston completed the steamer Visitor at Heath’s Shipyards in Benton Harbor, slating her for the Chicago lake front excursion business. He considered the Visitor the best boat he ever owned and ironically, it was his last. According to his biography in The History of the Great Lakes, Captain Fowler Preston died in Chicago on February 4, 1896 while the Marine Record said that he died February 6, 1896 in Benton Harbor of kidney trouble.
No matter what the date and place of his death, Captain Preston Fowler left a lasting Great Lakes legacy.
Wallace Preston’s Parallel Life
Wallace Preston, the second son of Fowler Preston Sr. and Ann Jenette Preston was born in St. Joseph, Michigan, on October 22, 1842. Since Fowler Preston Sr. died when Wallace was just a year old, Wallace received only a limited education. Like his two brothers, Wallace showed an early love and interest in sailing the Great Lakes. When he was thirteen, he signed on to the Kingfisher, a small fishing schooner that traded around St. Joseph.
Experiences with the Experiment
The Experiment, a freight schooner trading between St. Joseph, Chicago, and Milwaukee, was another of the vessels that Wallace Preston sailed before the Civil War. On June 1, 1855, on the way back from Chicago the Experiment capsized about six miles northward of the St. Joseph pier. A story in the Buffalo newspaper, The Democracy, dated Thursday, June 7, 1855, quoted a letter from Captain S.G. Langley who discovered the wreck and took a few of his crew to it to investigate. After he viewed the wreck for a time, he sent for an axe, got a canoe and some crew members to help, and chopped a hole through the bottom of the Experiment into the cabin. The rescuers found Mrs. Nelson Napier, her oldest son Edward and Thomas Prose, all alive. Mrs. Henrietta Napier had nearly drowned, but the rescuers reached her in time and she recovered, although she lost her youngest child who drowned soon after the Experiment capsized. Captain Langley wrote that the bodies of the child, Captain Jennings, Levi Livingston, and Phincas Bratton have not yet been found.”
A little over a month later on July 17, 1855, The Democracy, Buffalo printed a follow up story reporting that the bodies of Captain Jennings and the child of Captain Napier, drowned when the schooner Experiment capsized in Lake Michigan near St. Joseph were found last week – the body of Captain Jennings about 14 miles above St. Joseph, and the child about three miles. Two bodies are still unrecovered.
The St. Joseph Herald of September 20, 1902, recorded an eerily similar Experiment experience 47 years later when it reported that six of the Experiment’s crew had escaped drowning when the vessel went ashore on the beach about three quarters of a mile north of the life saving station in St. Joseph. The life saving crew launched their surf boat and with great difficulty rescued the drenched and frozen crew and took them to warm beds for a good night’s rest.
The story continued by saying that the Experiment was an old timer and was supposed to be the same boat, then owned by James E. Stevens, that wrecked off of St. Joseph harbor on June 1, 1855, in a fierce storm. Mrs. N.W. Napier, a long time St. Joseph resident, and her two sons, Edward 12, and Harding, 10 months old, were passengers on the Experiment. As the crew was hauling in the sails, the boat capsized near the entrance to St. Joseph harbor. Mrs. Napier tried to save Harding, but he drowned.
The story concluded by saying that Mrs. Napier was currently 82 years old, and quite well for her age. “She says she well remembers that eventful night.”
Historical records are unclear as to whether or not Wallace Preston was a sailor aboard the Experiment when it capsized the first time, but they do clearly indicate that Edward Napier had survived the sinking of the Experiment and served on the Columbia with Fowler Preston.
Other vessels that Wallace Preston served on included the Robert B. King, a lumber schooner on Lake Michigan; the Belle Stevens; the Minnehaha, a grain vessel running from Chicago to Oswego; the Thomas B. Kingsford and the Persia, both grain vessels in the Chicago and Oswego trade; and the Melvina. He also served on the schooners Sir William Wallace and the William Tell, carrying lumber between Chicago and Muskegon.
Wallace Preston in the Civil War
During the first three years of the Civil War, Wallace Preston watched his brother Fowler enlist and serve in the Navy while he sailed the Great Lakes. Then according to the Weekly Return of Enlistments at Naval Rendezvous, in February 1864, he went to New York to enlist in the Navy himself. The Navy assigned him to the U.S. Steamer Proteus, a wooden screw steamer armed with powerful ordnance that the Navy commissioned on March 10, 1864, as part of the East Gulf Squadron. With Commander Robert W. Shufeldt in charge, Wallace Preston and the Proteus sailed south for Florida on April 11, 1861, charged with enforcing the Union blockade off Key West. The Proteus arrived at Key West on April 22, 1861, using that port as a base for her blockade patrol duty. By May 14, 1861 Proteus was enroute to Cuba where she scanned the sea for blockade runners bound for Wilmington, North Carolina, Norfolk, Virginia and New Orleans.
During the rest of her wartime service, the Proteus patrolled the ocean at Key West and Pensacola, Florida, Galveston, Texas and New Orleans. She captured many Confederate blockade runners including the R.S. Hood and Jupiter out of London, and the Ann Louisa and Ruby out of Havana. When the Civil War ended in April 1865, the Proteus sailed for New York City, arriving there on July 12, 1865 where she was sold to the firm of Hooper and Co. at public auction.
Wallace Preston Returns Home to St. Joseph
At the end of the Civil War, Wallace Preston was mustered out of the Navy and returned to St. Joseph in May 1865. He established a lumber business, and the Champion Sash, Door, and Blind Factory and Planing Mill which he conducted in connection with his lumber yard. The Champion Planing Mill was located near the iron bridge that crossed the St. Joseph River, a site that provided the mill with excellent shipping facilities. He employed about thirty people at his business.
St. Joseph Herald stories and advertisements in 1868 and 1869 trace the progress as Wallace and Fowler Preston built a three story brick building on Ship Street and connected it to a hall, later named Preston’s Hall, for the accommodation of the public. Eventually the Preston’s business holdings were expanded to Preston’s Brick Block.
Wallace Preston’s skill, judgment, and character won him friends and respect. He later held several political offices before being elected mayor of St. Joseph from 1893-1894 on the Republican ticket.
In January 1874, Wallace Preston married Miss Mary E. King, daughter of William Pierce and Jane King, who were two of the first settlers in Benton Township. The wedding took place at the home of the bride in Benton Township. The newly married couple enjoyed a honeymoon trip East to visit Mr. Preston’s relatives in Whately, Holyoke and Northampton, Massachusetts. Mary King’s obituary in the Benton Harbor News Palladium of December 22, 1930, says that old residents recalled that when the newlyweds arrived in St. Joseph to take the train East, their friends and relatives collected a brass band to serenade them at the station.
The Prestons eventually had seven children: William A., Loomis K.; Maud E. who would later become Mrs. F.C. Palenske; Arthur C.; Nathan E.; John D. and Calvin H.
Like her husband Wallace, Mary contributed much to her home city of St. Joseph. She attended and was active in the First Congregational Church of St. Joseph for over fifty years, served in community organizations, and was a charter member and past regent of the Algonquin Chapter, D.A.R.
Wallace Preston died on July 1, 1924, and Mary Preston December 21, 1930 at age 81.
The pioneer Prestons and Napiers are buried in Lakeview City Cemetery and Mausoleum in St. Joseph, Michigan.
References and Additional Reading
Captain Preston’s Letter to His Mother
Wreck of the Metropolis. http://www.stoppingpoints.com/north-carolina/sights.cgi?marker=Wreck+Of+The+Metropolis&cnty=Currituck
USS Stars and Stripes
Modern Greece Civil War Blockade runner - http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/03/08/1913723/reburied-treasure.html
http://books.google.com/books?id=5AcdAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA1503&lpg=PA1503&dq=W.A.+Preston+lumber+yards+st.+joseph+michigan&source=bl&ots=r72mX8V-5o&sig=vxekQSAF3TOyE-Fgjub1-lGCEE4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=ctG9U8-ZHI3foATNiYDABg&ved=0CDUQ6AEwAw#v=onepage&q=W.A.%20Preston%20lumber%20yards%20st.%20joseph%20michigan&f=false Michigan State Gazetter and business directory 1897
Early History of Ozaukee County, Wisconsin
http://digicoll.library.wisc.edu/cgi-bin/WI/WI-idx?&entity=WI.OzEarlyHist.p0073&id=WI.OzEarlyHist&isize=text wreck of the Toledo
Twentieth Century History of Berrien County, Michigan. http://books.google.com/books?id=3G0Qo9lf4nsC&pg=PA173&lpg=PA173&dq=history+of+st.+joseph,+michigan+preston+family&source=bl&ots=o_9tx5xbT2&sig=n_dwjhhTQyShdzbPguWWvvqlp-c&hl=en&sa=X&ei=0XbAU9rmJoasyATRu4CYCA&ved=0CEQQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=history%20of%20st.%20joseph%2C%20michigan%20preston%20family&f=false
Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. ; Series I - Volume 6: Atlantic Blockading Squadron (July 16, 1861 - October 29, 1861); North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (October 29, 1861 - March 8, 1862)
History of the Great Lakes. Volume II, Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1899 . p. 215
Captain Fowler Preston
History of the Great Lakes, Volume II, Chicago: J.H. Beers & Co., 1899. P. 274.
Captain Wallace A. Preston.
Preston Family Papers, university of Michigan Bentley Library.
Portrait and biographical record of Berrien and Cass counties Michigan
Mary King Preston Obituary. December 21, 1930.
Lakeview City Cemetery and Mausoleum. St. Joseph, Michigan.
St. Joseph Saturday Herald (St. Joseph, MI), 20 Sep 1902- Mrs. Nelson Napier Remembers Another Capsizing of the Experiment.
Coolidge, Orville W. A Twentieth Century History of Berrien County Michigan. The Lewis Publishing Company, 1906.
Hilton, George. Lake Michigan Passenger Steamers. Stanford University Press, 2002.