Fierce Alpena Blow, The
DESCRIPTION: "In eighteen hundred eighty, in October, the sixteenth day, The Alpena met her doom." The great ship is lost while crossing Lake Michigan in an unexpected storm. The lifeboats cannot be lowered because of the weather; all are lost
EARLIEST DATE: 1932 (collected from Manus J. Bonner by Walton)
KEYWORDS: ship wreck disaster
Oct 16, 1880 - Sinking of the Alpena and other ships in a Lake Michigan storm
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Walton/Grimm/Murdock, pp. 211-213, "The Fierce Alpena Blow" (1 text, 1 tune)
NOTES: Ratigan on pp. 68-69 gives a list of the 13 worst Great Lakes shipping disasters. The loss of the Alpena is #11 on his list. (As a data point, only three of the thirteen seem to be commemorated in traditional song: #2 the Lady Elgin, #8 the Asia, and the Alpena. And none of these songs have a strong hold on tradition.) Ratigan lists the losses as "60 to 101 lives."
Although Ritchie, p. 3, also states that 101 lives were lost, that estimate may be high; if there was a passenger list, it was lost in the wreck. Shelak , p. 124, says that there were between 80 and 101 passengers. Walton/Grimm/Murdock list about 120 lost in the "Alpena Blow," but only "about half" (i.e. about sixty) from the Alpena herself. Berman, p. 233, says that when the Alpena sank, "all lives (60) [were] lost." Thompson, p. 23, says that 22 crew and 35 passengers were aboard. Ratigan, p. 70, apparently thinks the other casualties were people who signed up as passengers at the last minute.
Presumably they were attracted by the fine weather on October 15, 1880. Thompson,p. 23, reports that the weather that day was "gorgeous."
Certainly the Captain, Nelson Napier (mentioned in the song), seems to have been affected by it: The wind was changing (Ratigan, p. 70), and the barometer falling (Shelak, p. 124), but his course was straight across Lake Michigan, 108 miles from Grand Haven (and/or Muskegon, according to Ritchie, p. 3) to Chicago. Napier decided to risk it.
The Alpena itself was 13 years old, so it had faced much bad weather, although it had been rebuilt after just one year in service (being lengthened by five feet; Shelak, p. 127).
Around midnight, the great storm began. The Alpena must have gone down either on October 16 or 17, because the first wreckage was found on October 18 (Thompson, p. 23). The first bodies were found a few days later.
It appears the ship must have sunk at night (either the 15/16 or the 16/17), because "most of the bodies were wearing nightclothes" (Thompson, p. 24). The ship probably broke apart (Ritchie says it must have been "virtually shredded"), because there was a lot of debris, mostly small pieces. The immediate cause of the wreck may have been the shifting of the boat's cargo (Shelak, p. 126).
A note was eventually found saying that "the steamer is breaking up fast" (Ratigan, p. 71; Thompson, p. 23). It does not name the Alpena, but says the ship was going from Grand Haven to Chicago. The signature was so water-soaked as to be minimally legible; it began "George Conn...." It is the only record (if such it can be called) of the wreck, though debris was eventually found along 70 miles of beach (Ratigan, p. 71).
The Alpena was not the only casualty of the storm, though it was apparently the worst loss. . Thompson, p. 24, says that no fewer than ninety vessels were damaged. Shelak, p. 37, says that the storm also sank the Perry Hannah, Josephine Lawrence, Ebenezer, Reciprocity, and Two Friends, but on p. 126 says that ninety boats were wrecked (presumably this is a misunderstanding of the statement that ninety were damaged. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Berman: Bruce D. Berman, Encyclopedia of American Shipwrecks, Mariner's Press, 1972
- Ratigan: William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals, revised edition, Eerdmans, 1977
- Ritchie: David Ritchie, Shipwrecks: An Encyclopedia of the World's Worst Disasters at Sea, 1996 (I use the 1999 Checkmark paperback edition)
- Shelak: Benjamin J. Shelak, Shipwrecks of Lake Michigan, Trails Books, 2003
- Thompson: Mark L. Thompson, Graveyards of the Lakes, Wayne State University Press, 2000
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