The Captains Napier and Lake Michigan Storms
Great Lakes ship records show that Washington N. Napier was part owner and master of a schooner called the Hubbard of Ashtabula in January 1839. In fact, the Black Rock Marine List for the Black Rock Gazette of October 18, 1825 lists that the schooner DeWitt Clinton, with Captain Napier, had cleared for Ashtabula. The Clinton was carrying a cargo of merchandise and salt to W.W. Reed and Austin & Hawley in Ashtabula.
His biography in Portrait ad Biographical Record of Berrien and Cass Counties, 1893, states that Nelson W. Napier was born in 1822 near the Lake Erie port of Ashtabula, Ohio. When he was still a young boy his family moved to St. Joseph, Michigan, located on Lake Michigan. Although he did not spent much time in his home port during his sailing days, Nelson Napier lived in St. Joseph for the rest of his life. He sailed the lakes at an early age, and became captain of the schooner Florida at age 21.
Captain Napier and the Schooner Florida
A storm that began on election day of 1842 and lasted for several days provided one of the first Lake Michigan tests for Captain Napier. The schooner Florida had made her way from Buffalo and was headed for Chicago carrying a load of salt, barreled flour, pork, and apples along with other goods. The winds that continued to blow fiercely through the hard winter of 1842 were so strong that on November 17 they demolished the Florida near St. Joseph, Michigan, despite the best efforts of Captain Napier, his mate Harris, and three sailors. Finally, the winds carried the wreck of the Florida and the men to the beach at South Haven.
On that stormy November morning in 1842, the shipwrecked sailors from the Florida made their way to the home of “Harv” Potter, and awakened him from a sound sleep. According to the St. Joseph Herald, Harv, “the worst liar and best shot for miles around,” lived five miles away from his nearest neighbor, the Widow Wood, so he cared for the weary mariners. When they had recovered, the rescued mariners made their way to St. Joseph.
All winter the wrecked Florida rested on the beach and soon the word of her presence spread throughout the region. Curious people came from miles around to see the wreck and salvage pieces of furniture and barrels of apples from the hold. The settlers carefully preserved the seeds from the apples to plant new orchards that survive to the present. The settlers relished the first apples they had tasted for years and many of their children saw apples for the first time because of the wreck of the Florida. Indians explored the wreck of the Florida with the whites and legend says that the young Indians cracked the apples and ate the seeds for a long time afterward.
The St. Joseph Herald reported that for years after the wreck of the Florida, Harv Potter enjoyed a mahogany door on his log house and pieces of elegant furniture rested alongside crude puncheon tables.
After his stint on the Florida, Captain Napier sailed the brig Esther H. Scott between 1843 and 1845 out of St. Joseph, one of Naughten’s brigs and then a Buffalo steamer called the Baltic. On March 17, 1844, Captain Napier led an effort to rescue the crew of the schooner Jefferson. Bound to St. Joseph from Chicago carrying a cargo of stone for St. Joseph harbor, the Jefferson sank up to her decks when a storm enveloped her as she approached St. Joseph harbor. Her crew clung to her ice coated rigging for eight hours until a group of lifesavers in a rowboat with Captain Nelson Napier in charge, arrived to rescue them. The Jefferson was a total loss at $2,500 cargo included, according to the St. Joseph Commercial Bulletin of March 18, 1844.
After these adventures, Captain Napier signed on with the Western Transportation Company and sailed the Fair Trade for a number of years, and in 1854 and 1855, served as captain of the Forest Queen. In 1856 he was captain of the Free State and in 1858 he was captain of the Montezuma and the Favorite, both built by the old Chicago jewelry firm of Edwards and Brothers. After that he joined the Goodrich Transportation Company and worked for them until he went down with the Alpena in 1880.
1855- The Experiment
J.E. Stevens built the schooner Experiment in St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1854 and chose William Jennings to be her master. Captain Nelson Napier’s wife Henrietta and their two sons, Edward, age 12, and Hardin, age 10 months were passengers on the schooner Experiment in June 1855 when it was returning from Chicago to St. Joseph. A fierce wind sprang up during the trip and both passengers and crew breathed a sigh of relief as the sails were hauled in near the entrance of the St. Joseph Harbor. Suddenly, the Experiment whose home port was Grand Haven, capsized.
J.E. Stevens, builder and owner of the Experiment wrote a letter detailing the tragedy to Captain S.G. Langley which the Buffalo, New York newspaper The Democracy printed on Thursday, June 7, 1855. Mr. Stevens said that the schooner Experiment had just about completed her return voyage from Chicago when it capsized about 6 o’clock about six miles north of the St. Joseph Pier. Stevens delegated a few men to go to the wreck with him at nine o’clock the next morning.
After he examined the wreck, Mr. Stevens sent for an axe and then obtained a canoe. They paddled to the Experiment, and chopped a hole through her bottom into the cabin. Inside the cabin they found Mrs. Napier and her oldest son Edward and Thomas Prose all alive. Mrs. Napier was nearly gone, but her son Edward was in good condition. Mrs. Napier recovered, but her son Hardin drowned very soon after the Experiment capsized and the bodies of Hardin Napier, Captain Jennings, Levi Livingston, and Phincas Bratton had not yet been located. Captain Langley sailed for Buffalo on Monday evening, but telegraphed to Milwaukee so as to meet Captain Napier there, according to the Detroit Democrat.
A Democracy story date lined July 17, 1855, reported that the bodies of Captain Jennings and Hardin Napier were found the week before. Captain Jennings was found about 14 miles above St. Joseph and Hardin Napier about three miles above St. Joseph. Levi Livingston and Phincas Bratton were still not found.
On September 12, 1902, the Experiment once again ran aground in St. Joseph. Carrying fire wood in a storm on Lake Michigan, she went out of control in St. Joseph Harbor after she swerved to miss an unmarked construction crib. She wrecked and the Lifesaving Service rescued her crew. She was declared a total loss and three days later she was stripped and abandoned in place.
On September 18, 1902, the Port Huron Daily Times reported that the Experiment had been stripped of everything of value and abandoned. While reporting the second demise of the Experiment, the St. Joseph Saturday Herald quoted Mrs. Henrietta Napier, now 82 years old, as well remembering the day in June 1855 when her youngest son drowned as the Experiment capsized.
Dwight Boyer tells a slightly different version of the Experiment story in his book Ghost Ships of the Great Lakes. In his version of the story Boyer writes that Nelson Napier and a sister and a baby brother instead of an older Edward were the children that were trapped with their mother in the hold of the Experiment and even more tellingly, he states that Nelson was only four years old at the time. This suggests that there were two Nelson Napiers, probably father and son.
In fact, the census records show that the older Nelson Napier was born about 1817 in Ashtabula, Ohio, just as the Berrien County history states. He and his wife Henrietta were married in 1840 and the census records also show that Nelson and Henrietta had a sons Nelson, Arthur, Jack, and daughters Elizabeth and Adeline. Nelson W. Napier was born in 1864. One of the underlying themes of Boyer’s story about the Alpena is that Nelson Napier didn’t listen to his mother’s advice and became a sailor on Lake Michigan despite his stormy introduction to her and St. Joseph, Michigan. Nelson W. Napier, the son of Nelson W. Napier, was born in 1864 which would have made him too young to be captain of the Alpena when it went down in 1880.
The 1880 Census reveals that 63 year old N.W. Napier, master steamboat lived with his 59 year old wife Henrietta and their sons Nelson W.., age 16, and Frank, age 14, in St. Joseph, Michigan. The 63 year old Captain Napier is the one that went down with the Alpena.
1870-1874- The Corona
In April 1870, the St. Joseph Herald reported the arrival of a new side wheel steamer called the Corona from Chicago. Captain Nelson Napier showed the Herald reporter all over the Corona and the reporter described what he saw to his readers. The Corona’s hull was built of seasoned white oak, planked inside and out and strengthened by transverse arches running fore and aft. Three solid, water-tight bulkheads divided the hold into four compartments, and there were sufficient pumps to keep the hull clear of water. The paddle wheels were thirty feet in diameter and the boiler entirely reconstructed with new fire box, new lining and new tubes. Iron sheets protected all parts of the Corona exposed to heat and a layer of felt and sheet iron next to the wood protected the boiler and chimney. The lamp room was one continuous iron plate which also made it fire proof.
Steam provided heat for the Corona, and the state rooms were built so that the cabin lights were inside the rooms and light and air entered every room from above as well as from the window at the side. Entered from the main deck, the ladies’ cabin contained family and bridal state rooms. The floors of the ladies’ cabin were covered with Brussels carpet and the curtains were heavy red damask. The chairs and sofas of the ladies’ cabin were plush velvet.. Each state room could hold three people and many of the rooms had double berths. The cabins could accommodate upwards of 180 passengers.
The Corona met the legal requirements for hose and fire engineers, and had iron rods and tiller chains, and three good compasses. The ship featured one good life preserver under every berth for every passenger and carried more than the requirements of fire buckets and axes. She possessed two anchors and chains of 75 fathoms each, every link of one inch iron. She had one life boat and two yawls, one of which should have been a life boat, which was the only weak point on the whole boat. The captain, mate and sailing officers had quarters aft of the wheelhouse, and the deckhands in the forecastle, and the cabin crew in the second cabin aft. The kitchen, pantry, baggage room and saloon were all self contained and featured the very latest of first class improvements.
The crew of the Corona included N.W. Napier, captain; Robert Jones, first officer; Henry Stines, second officer; W.H. Benny, first engineer; J. Collins, second engineer; J.R. Clark, clerk; J. Gee, steward, and J. Webster, wheelsman. The Corona carried 23 men, officers and crew. The fare to Chicago was $2 or $3 the round trip.
The St. Joseph Herald reporter said that “Captain Goodrich has taken all the pains in the world to make the Corona the best boat afloat for comfort and safety of its passengers and crew.”
The St. Joseph Herald printed a letter dated July 22, 1874 and written by January Toms. January Toms tells the story of the wrecked Florida as well as the story of another encounter he had with Captain Nelson Napier. In July 1874, January reported that he had sailed to Chicago on the Corona, which he described as a staunch and beautiful steamer. Captain Napier was the master of the Corona, and January wondered if it were really possible that “this grim old commander of the Goodrich line, and the oldest captain on the lakes, was the same man who went ashore on the Florida so many years ago.”
January Toms wrote that a current look at Captain Napier would reveal a close shaven, weather beaten kindly face, long straight black hair, and a strong muscular body. He said that everyone who knew Captain Napier loved him and passengers on his ships felt as safe as if they were sleeping in their own bedrooms. According to January, “The Corona has run here so long and been so well run that people for miles around feel that they own as much of her as do the Goodriches.’”
October 15, 1880-The Alpena
The side wheeler wood and package freight called the Alpena was built in 1867 by Arnold & Gallagher in Marine City, Michigan and thoroughly rebuilt in 1875 and 1876. On the evening of October 15, 1880, the Alpena left Muskegon and Grand Haven bound for Chicago, with a “fair” passenger list One newspaper said that the Alpena had a passenger list of about 35 people and a crew of twenty two and Captain Nelson Napier.. She was carrying a cargo of about ten car loads of apples on the main deck.
Officially, the Alpena was last seen about thirty miles off Chicago and passing ship personnel reported that she listed leeward and pitched one wheel out of the water. Another master said that he saw the steamer on her side in the trough of the seas, but couldn’t assist her because of the fury of the storm. Sailors speculated that the cargo shifted caused the Alpena to become unmanageable and fall prey to the wind.
After several days of uncertainty and suspense as to her fate of the Alpena, wreckage drifted ashore near Holland and searchers found wreckage strewn along the Lake Michigan shore for seventy miles. The Holland City News wrote that the Alpena’s hull was found floating near the harbor. “The whole coast for 20 miles is strewn with debris.” The News said that a piano floated ashore near Holland and thousands of apples were seen bobbing in the surf at Saugatuck.
The New York Times of October 20, 1880, reported the story of the disappearance of the Alpena in a story with a Holland, Michigan, dateline. An Associated Press Correspondent reported that he had been along the beach at Holland for a distance of five miles and found large amounts of apples and other freight from the Alpena and part of the upper deck and hatches and a door panel with the name Alpena on it. Also, two life preservers, an oar, and a chair with the words “Steamer Alpena” stenciled on it washed ashore.
During the night a piano came ashore and the Goodrich agent from Grand Haven identified it as the one that had been on the Alpena. The agent also identified the body of a lady that washed ashore as that of Mrs. Bradley who had been staying at Grand Haven with her two daughters during the summer. She was on her way home to New Mexico.
Captain Butler of the Goodrich Line arrived at the wreck and assigned watchmen to patrol the shore for the wreck and bodies. The wind calmed down, but the lake was still running heavy. Small pieces of the cabin, upper deck, furniture, and berths washed ashore.
The Daily British Whig published in Kingston, Ontario of October 20, 21, 1880, printed some facts and rumors about the disappearance of the Alpena. In a story with a Chicago dateline the Whig reported that the offices of the Goodrich line were filled with mournful faces because company officials held out little hope that anyone from the Alpena had survived. Some people believed that the Alpena had struck a rock somewhere off the eastern shore of Lake Michigan and went to pieces a considerable distance from the beach.
People complained that the Goodrich Line did not have a list of passengers on the Alpena so the number of people aboard could be accurately calculated. The Whig reported that the Alpena carried a crew of 30 and some people stated that when the Alpena left Muskegon she had 70 passengers and took on another five at Grand Haven, mostly women. The Goodrich line estimated that the passenger list topped out at 20-25 people.
Officials estimated that the Alpena foundered about thirty miles from shore which made is impossible for anyone to survive.
In an October 21, 1880, story, the Whig reported that Mr. Ryder of Syracuse reported to have been lost on the Alpena was alive in Chicago as was Mrs. Peyton who had also been reported lost. A Mrs. Vendecar was reported lost and actually was lost. The story also said that Professor Scott of Hope College in Holland, Michigan, had a leaf from a diary found attached to a molding of the cabin of the steamer Alpena by a small nail. It was badly chafed and water soaked, but it could be read with the help of a glass. The note said: “Oh, this is terrible! The steamer is breaking up fast. I am aboard from Grand Haven to Chicago. Geo. Connor.” The last two letters of the name were very faint and could have been Connell.
The Oswego Palladium of January 5, 1881, reported the results of the coroner’s jury that convened at Grand Haven to investigate the causes of the loss of the steamer Alpena with many lives in one of the autumn hurricanes on Lake Michigan. The Jury found in the evidence that the people who were known to have been passengers on the steamer Alpena on October 15, 1880, came to their death when the Alpena foundered on her route from Grand Haven, Michigan, to Chicago, Illinois.
The Coroner’s Jury also found that the steamer Alpena was in bad condition and unseaworthy for passenger boat. It found that her life preservers were in bad condition and unfit to use and the evidence indicated that the passengers had used many of them and the fastenings had broken off, showing that the fastenings were rotten.
The Coroner’s Jury found that from the appearance of one of the life boats from the Alpena, that it was rotten and unseaworthy. It said that inexperienced sailors except the captain and the mates manned the Alpena.
The Jury listened to the evidence of John Luckens, formerly second engineer on the Alpena, and found that the holding down bolts of the engine bed plate were either broken or pulling through the bottom of the steamer. According to Luckens, he was ordered to turn up the “holding down” bolts on every trip. When he asked the chief engineer of the Alpena to report this to the chief engineer of the Goodrich Transportation Company, the chief engineer ordered him to mind his own business and do as he was told.
The Jury concluded by saying, “We further find from the evidence that the Goodrich Transportation Company is censurable and should be held responsible for any and all damages.”
Captain Nelson Napier the Son
At least two of Captain N.W. Napier’s sons became lake captains. The New York Times of February 1893 reported the story of another Nelson Napier’s encounter with Lake Michigan.
Perilous Journey of Two Sailors Over the Ice
Chicago, February 25. Somewhere in the lake while off Michigan City about eighteen miles out in the lake the steam barge George T. Burroughs which started from Milwaukee for Chicago Wednesday lies fast in the ice with her coal all gone and her sea cocks frozen up so that no water can be pumped into the boilers.
On board the steamer are Nelson Napier, captain; George Porter, engineer; John Thompson, deckhand; Louis Greer, cook; Edward Porter, deckhand, and Owen Larsen, deckhand.
On Friday two of the crew walked ashore on the ice to Michigan City and took a train to Chicago. They battled with the ice for eight hours before reaching shore and were almost exhausted. The men carried pike poles and were tied together with a rope. This is all that saved their lives for when one would miss his footing in the piles of loose ice, his companions would pull him out.
Two tugs were sent to the relief of the crew of the Burroughs.
Captain Edward Napier
The Michigan City News from Michigan City, Indiana, reported on November 16, 1898, that the schooner Lena Neilson on the beach ten miles north of New Buffalo. The St. Joseph life saving crew took the crew of four men off of the wrecked Neilson.
The Neilson’s owner, Captain E. Neilson, was carrying lumber from Manistee consigned to Peter Brothers of Benton Harbor. The Neilson stranded on the bar just south of the mouth of St. Joseph Harbor while trying to enter the port in a furious northwest gale.
Captain Edward Napier sailing the tug McClellan, was bringing a scow from Grand Haven to St. Joseph went to assist the tug Andy which was trying to get a towline to the Neilson.
The rescuers found that the crew of the Neilson had succeeded in lowering the main anchor which kept her from drifting upon the shore. The tugs made three attempts to pass her a towline but failed, as the sea was too shallow to allow the tugs to get within 200 feet of the disabled craft. The life saving crew, under command of Captain W. L. Stevens, made two attempts to pass the line. The crew would have succeeded in the third attempt had it not been for the breaking of two oars when within a few feet of the Neilson. Without sufficient oars, the crew was driven two miles south with the surfboat half filled with water.
Within thirty feet of shore a high breaker broke over the Neilson and swept Captain Stevens who had been steering the surfboat from an upright position, into Lake Michigan. His crew rescued him. The stranded Neilson lay at anchor until about 11 o'clock, when the main anchor chain parted. Blown by a fierce gale, the Neilson drifted off the bar, and the people lining the St. Joseph shore for two miles lost sight of her.
Mayor John Starr, of St. Joseph, sent a relief wagon with blankets, clothes, and medicine along the south shore for the crew, thinking the craft would go upon the shore a few miles south. Just before dark the Neilson went ashore fifteen miles south of St. Joseph. The crew took to the rigging and remained there until rescued by the St. Joseph life savers, who reached the scene by train about 8 o'clock.
Captain Kent, of the local life saving station, was on the lookout for the schooner until they learned last evening that the boat was on the beach and the St. Joseph life saving crew had rescued them.