Michigan’s Titanic: The S.S. Alpena


S.S. Alpena, photo from Wikimedia Commons

Over on Absolute Michigan we have a feature from the Archives of Michigan about two Michigan couples who were aboard the Titanic. I thought it would be interesting to see what the worst Michigan maritime disaster was. You might think it would be the immortalized Edmund Fitzgerald but with “only” 29, it’s down on the list. Or perhaps the tragic Carl D. Bradley in which 33 men perished, most from her home port of Rogers City.

It’s actually the sidewheel steamer S.S. Alpena. Michigan Shipwrecks says that this 197 foot Goodrich side wheel steamer was built in Marine City, Michigan in 1866. She was lost with about 80 crew & passengers in the “Big Blow” of 1880.

The Alpena left Grand Haven, Michigan bound for Chicago on Friday evening, October 15, 1880 at 9:30 PM. The weather was beautiful — Indian Summer like. But the barometer was indicating a storm was coming and storm signals were out. She was met on her southwest journey by the steamer Muskegon at about 1:00 AM and everything seemed normal.

At about 3:00 AM 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 at 8:00 AM by the schooner Irish and by Captain George Boomsluiter of the barge City of Grand Haven about 35 miles off Kenosha, Wisconsin, laboring heavily in the high seas.

She was seen later by several other vessel captains –one of whom reported her lying on her side with one of her paddlewheels out of the water. Ten car loads of apples were stowed on her main deck and some speculate this cargo became unmanageable in the storm, shifted, and led to the capsizing.

…The weekly Holland City News reported on October 23: “The wreck is complete. She is broken into small fragments. The stern part of her hull lies near the harbor. The whole coast for 20 miles is strewn with the debris, freight, etc.” The largest piece to land near Holland was the piano, “it being barely able to float, our sailors concluded that she did not come very far. And the arrival of other heavy pieces of the wreck would seem to corroborate this.”

The wreck has never been found and you can read on for more. FYI, the Great Lakes Shipwreck database pegs the loss of life close to 100 and adds that the first indication that she was lost was when masses of wreckage began washing ashore along the coast near Manistee. It took several days for the magnitude of the disaster to be realized. Her paddlebox nameboard washed ashore at “Alpena Beach” in 1909, after a storm.

The largest loss of life in open water on the Great Lakes was 300 aboard the Lady Elgin that was rammed by the schooner Augusta in September of 1860 off Highwood, IL . An interesting note is that this shipwreck led to the requirement for sailing vessels to carry running lights. The Smithsonian relates that the worst shipwreck on the Great Lakes:

In terms of loss of life, hands down, that’s called the SS Eastland, which went down in the Chicago River on July 24, 1915. For whatever reason, the ship turned over onto its port side right there in the river. Passengers either wanted to see something in the river and they went to port side, or the engineer improperly ballasted the ship, or it wasn’t a stable ship to begin, but she flipped over right into the Chicago River, not terribly deep water maybe 20-30 feet, and killed 844 passengers and crew. It still remains the worst loss of life on any single shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

More shipwrecks on Michigan in Pictures.

8 thoughts on “Michigan’s Titanic: The S.S. Alpena

  1. I enjoyed the article. I am somewhat confused with one paragraph saying the greatest loss of life on the Great Lakes was from the Lady Elgin with nearly 100 and the following paragraph saying the greatest loss of life, hands down was from SS Eastland with 844.


      1. Right. While the Smithsonian calls that the Great Lakes, I don’t think anyone who’s ever been on them and the Chicago River would. ;)


  2. Reblogged this on The Three R's Blog and commented:
    Much attention was paid to the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titantic this past week (yesterday was the actual date – go to the History Channel’s website for information), but this “Michigan in Pictures” blog I follow had an interesting article yesterday on the worst Michigan shipping disaster, which took place back in October of 1880 during the “big blow”. You will find plenty of other interesting links in the article as well. These losses of ships and souls are object history lessons in the fallibility and frailty of man, and in the sovereignty of our God Who is Lord of the wind and seas.


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