The Maritime Napiers of Ashtabula and the Great Lakes

Historic Ashtabula Harbor

One day Ashtabula merchant Henry L. Morrison told Ashtabula historian Ed E. Large a story about Benjamin Naper, more commonly known as Benjamin Napier. The story, which appeared in the Ashtabula Star Beacon of March 20, 1939, reported that Benjamin Napier had been arrested for a “trivial misdemeanor,” and since Ashtabula didn’t have a jail, the constable took him to the jail in Jefferson over the unpaved wagon road. The constable and his prisoner arrived safely in Jefferson and the sheriff locked Benjamin up in the country jail. Benjamin, who possessed an optimistic personality, bid the constable a cheerful goodbye and told him he would meet him in Ashtabula the next day. Since dusk had already settled over Jefferson, the constable decided to stay the night and return to Ashtabula the next day.

During the night, Benjamin Napier used his great strength to lift one corner of the roof of the jail enough to squeeze out while the sheriff slept. He took an “as the crow flies” route home, arriving at the tavern on Main Street in Ashtabula in the early morning. Benjamin settled in and patiently waited for the constable to appear, all the while refreshing the inner man. When the constable finally made an appearance at the tavern, he stopped in shocked, speechless surprise and dread when he saw who waited for him.

For his part, Benjamin greeted the constable like an old friend, telling him, “Constable, you did your duty and I have kept my promise. Come in and let’s have something to drink.”[1]

Like the Morrison family, the Napier family came to the United States from Scotland where Benjamin was born in 1790. The Ohio part of the Napier family story begins in the home of Benjamin Arliss Napier and his wife Erepta Landon Napier east of Ashtabula Harbor

Benjamin Napier arrived in Ashtabula about 1809, but the record isn’t quite clear if Erepta accompanied him or he met and married her after he arrived in Ashtabula. Different family trees have Benjamin and Erepta marrying on December 17, in 1813, 1815, or 1816. Although the dates are varied, most of the family trees list them as being married in Buffalo, New York.

Benjamin and Erepta Napier eventually had eight children. Nelson W. Napier was born in Ashtabula in  1816; Amelia Ann Napier Borden was born in Ashtabula in 1819; Adeline Matilda Napier Clemons was born in Ashtabula in 1824; Joseph A. Napier was born in Ashtabula in 1826; Orris Parish Napier was born on Kelley’s Island in 1830; Andrew Jackson Napier was born in Port Clinton in 1831;  Olive Louise Napier was born in Illinois on April 5, 1838; and Nancy Ann Napier Mitchell was born in Port Clinton, Ohio in 1840.

Fighting the British with Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

Commodore Perry standing, and Captain Benjamin Napier with the distinctive gray beard to his right, rowing a skiff away from Commodore Perry’s damaged flagship Lawrence.

By the time the United States entered the War of 1812 with Great Britain, Benjamin Napier had become a ship’s captain.  True to his nautical profession, he served in Captain John Reed’s Company which served under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie. A biography of Senator John Mitchell, from the Thirtieth Ohio District,  published in 1900 by the Ohio Legislature links Captain Benjamin Napier with Commodore Perry through his daughter Nancy Ann, wife of Senator Mitchell who told the story of her father’s part in the Battle of Lake Erie.

In the celebrated painting by William Henry Powell located in the Ohio State House, Benjamin Napier can be seen rowing from Commodore Perry’s flagship Lawrence to the Niagara waiting in the distance. He is the man with the gray side whiskers and beard sitting directly in front of Commodore Perry.[2]

Home from the War and Building Ships

For roughly the next three decades, the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s,  Benjamin and his family lived in Ashtabula. Benjamin continued his seafaring ways after he fought the British with Commodore Perry. During 1813-1814, he and his fellow investors P. Shepherd and Isaac Cook built a ship about 200 feet from the east side of the mouth of the Ashtabula River. Christened Tempest and only ten tons burthen, her creators built her from the bottom up, planked her, and then rolled her over into the Ashtabula River for decking.

Tempest lived up to her name even before her crew launched her. As the crew finished building her, a severe storm blew up, slamming a tree across her hull which crushed her deck and broke down one side to the waterline. Even after she got into the water, the Tempest encountered tempests. On the Tempest’s  maiden voyage to Buffalo, New York, a ferocious wind blew away her foremast.

After being repaired and loaded with a cargo of salt at Buffalo, the United States Government requisitioned her to carry supplies between Buffalo and Fort Erie, which forced Captain Napier to unload his cargo and post a watchmen to guard it while he hauled the government supplies. When he returned after a ten day absence, he discovered that his “vigilant guard” had allowed almost all of the cargo to disappear. The Captain ordered the Tempest reloaded and he set said for Ashtabula, Ohio. Another fierce gale pummeled the Tempest below Erie, Pennsylvania, and she sprang a leak.  Her crew sawed a barrel in half and all hands bailed water. They managed to keep her afloat long enough for Captain Napier to run her aground on the peninsula Presque Isle, saving a portion of her cargo, but the Tempest was a total loss.[3]

On November 3, 1820, the Detroit Gazette reported the wreck of Captain Benjamin Napier’s schooner, Elizabeth, on October 10 near Conneaut. The crew of the Napier consisted of Captain Napier and one sailor and they had one passenger Miss Rhoda Sloan, formerly of Canandaigua, New York. The wreck and several trunks were found on Wednesday and Thursday after the wreck, but the Gazette reported that the bodies of the people onboard have not yet been found. 

Captain Benjamin Napier’s run of schooner bad luck continued that November. Less than a month later, he was master of the schooner Zephyr, which ran from Ashtabula to Sandusky carrying goods and salt. On November 17, 1820, the Zephyr ran ashore near the Pennsylvania Ohio line, with loss of the crew and passengers, a total from 10 to 12 people.[4] 

Benjamin Napier and his family moved to Kelley’s Island in the early 1830s, some accounts says as early as 1833.  There are drastically different accounts of Benjamin’s activities on Kelley’s Island. A 1925 Cleveland Plain Dealer Article by S.J. Kelley titled “The outlaw of Kelley’s Island” depicts Benjamin as a ruthless squatter and pirate. The island’s first settler, a man known simply as trader Cunningham arrived there in 1808 and established a trading post in his cabin to trade with the Native Americans. The Connecticut Land Company’s purchase of the Western Reserve included Cunningham’s Island and General Simon Perkins of Warren owned Cunningham’s Island. Eventually, Trader Cunningham had a dispute with his Native American customers and fled the island. Between 1808 and 1833 before  Benjamin Napier and his family arrived, a series of outlaws terrorized the few honest settlers who bought property there and attempted to establish homes.

In the Plain Dealer article, S.J. Kelley wrote that Benjamin Napier was a gigantic ruffian of more than six feet all and powerfully built and was “the greatest outlaw in the history of the island. According to Kelley, Benjamin Napier arrived in April 1833, and commanded a “rakish” schooner complete with a crew of six armed men. Landing at the south wharf, he announced that he owned Cunningham’s Island and ordered everyone to leave or he would throw them off the island.

No one on the Island disputed his size, strength, and crew of six armed men, so no one resisted Benjamin’s command and he immediately took over a settlers cabin for his outlaw crew.  He herded their cattle from the free island commons to pastures near the cabin that he had appropriated.  From his vantage point in the trees, he shot the settler’s pigs who had been allowed to roam freely in the woods. Whenever Benjamin needed provisions, he would take what he needed from the settlers.

Since these early settlers had no real title to the land and they did not know what kind of legal rights that Benjamin Napier had to the island, they couldn’t drive him away. Finally, word of Benjamin’s take over reached Cleveland and Warren. The agents of the owners of Cunningham’s Island held a conference at Norwalk in June of 1833. John W. Allen of Cleveland attended the conference as agent, and he returned to Cleveland and persuaded Datus and Irad Kelley to buy almost half of Cunningham’s Island. The purchase included the cabin that Benjamin occupied, along with all rights to improvements from the original owner, a Mr. Ellis, who had built the cabin. The Kelley brothers legally evicted Benjamin Napier, who had taken up arms and resisted.

A long litigation period followed this where every title produced showed that Benjamin had no claim to or shadow of equity to any of the island. According to the article, Benjamin did not leave and continued to commit lawless acts until he was arrested as a criminal. At last convicted and with a prison term hanging over his head, he left the island and never returned. In time, people began to call Cunningham’s Island Kelley’s Island after the two Kelley brothers who had supposedly rescued it from the clutches of Benjamin Napier.[5]

Some people called Captain Benjamin Napier a rouge who fought a futile war with the Kelleys for ownership of Cunningham’s Island. Others described him as a good-natured giant with a heart of gold. Whatever his reputation, Captain Benjamin Napier had proven himself an expert sailor who had raised a family of expert Great Lakes sailing sons.

In 1840, Captain Napier and his family lived in Portage, Ohio. He moved to Chicago in 1850 and died there in September of 1852. He is buried in St. Joseph City Cemetery, St. Joseph, Michigan.


Benjamin’s Son, Captain Nelson Napier

A gentle giant like his father, Nelson Napier left Ashtabula,  Ohio to settle near St. Joseph, Michigan, the heart of the “Great Fruit Belt” where the Lake Michigan climate helped farmers produce ample crops of apples, peaches, pears, plums, and other fruit. He soon became a captain of several Great Lakes steamers and created his own orchards. Eventually, Captain Napier persuaded his employer, the Goodrich Shipping Line, to establish a regular route between St. Joseph to Chicago, to take advantage of the booming fruit trade. 

 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.

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 . Captain Napier made the Grand Haven to Chicago run three nights a week, carrying passengers and cargos of fruit.  One newspaper said that on this trip, 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. Another account said that he had a crew of 25 and 50 passengers. About halfway across Lake Michigan, Captain Napier and the Alpena encountered a squall. As  a veteran sailor, Captain Napier had faced rough weather, but this squall proved to be challenging. The 65-degree temperature dropped to below freezing, snow and sleet filled the night skies, and hurricane force winds battered the Alpena.
The wind and waves threw the Alpena’s terrified passengers violently around in their cabins and freezing water lapped at the edges of the cabin furnishings. Captain Napier knew he couldn’t make safe harbor, so he decided to turn around to keep the Alpena floating.

The crew of the Hattie Wells, which ran parallel to the Alpena looked on helplessly and Captain Dearkoff of the Hattie Wells described the last moments of the Alpena. He later testified that he and his crew stood on deck and watched Captain Napier try to turn his ship around in the 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 sailors speculated that her recently repaired rudder chain and broken once again. Others said that Captain Napier had been correct when he had once said that side wheelers were not suited for open lakes where large waves rocked the ship, often leaving one wheel out of the water.

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.

The storm lasted for three days and when it had spent its fury, bodies, fruit, a piano, and pieces of the Alpena were scattered across  70 miles of beach north of Holland, Michigan. A piece of cabin molding from the Alpena washed ashore and searchers found a note stuffed between the cracks. The note read,:  “This is terrible. The steamer is breaking up fast. I am aboard from Grand Haven to Chicago.”

In 1881, a bottle washed up on the beach at Point Betsie. A note instead contained the last words of passenger George Moore.  He described the terror aboard the Alpena the night of her sinking:  “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.
 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 Jury reported that from the appearance of one of the life boats from the Alpena, 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.”

But the Alpena, and not the Coroner’s Jury, had the last word.  In 1909, 29 years after the storm that sank her, the Alpena’s name board floated ashore!

 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.

Captain Joseph Napier

Joseph A. Napier, one of thirteen children, was born in Ashtabula, Ashtabula County, Ohio, to Great Lakes Captain Benjamin A. Napier, who served in the War of 1812, and Erepta Landon Napier, whose father Edward Landon fought in the Revolutionary War. Joseph followed the sea-faring ways of his father, two uncles, and two brothers, and in 1852, at age 26, became the Harbor Master at Chicago, Illinois.

For his noble and gallant efforts to rescue the crew of the Schooner “Merchant,” while it was in distress off the Port of Chicago on April 27, 1854, the citizens of Chicago presented Joseph Napier with an inscribed gold watch.

He and his crew, which at times included his brother Capt. Andrew “Jack” Napier, performed many daring rescues on Lake Michigan, including the rescue of the crew of the Brig “Tuscarora” in 1855.

Joseph married Anna Augusta Scoville in 1849 and the couple had 4 children: Ada O. Napier (Platt) (1852-1935); Clarence D. Napier (1855-1938); Sarah A. Napier (1858-1866); and an unknown child, before Anna’s untimely death in 1859. As far as is known, Capt. Napier did not marry again.

CAPT. Napier and his two surviving children first moved to Benton, Michigan, and then on to Saint Joseph, Berrien County, Michigan, in 1857, and he purchased 320 acres of farmland. He is listed in the JAN – DEC 1864 tax records as owning farmland, one horse, and one carriage.

In 1874, he moved permanently to St. Joseph Village and was appointed Keeper of the Saint Joseph Lifesaving Station, responsible for rescues on Lake Michigan. Keepers at that time were required to live at the Lifesaving Stations, to recruit and train volunteer crews, and to row boats out to assist ships in trouble.

According to the U. S. Coast Guard, Capt. Napier’s “most notable rescue occurred Oct. 10, 1877, when the schooner “D.G. Williams” broke apart approaching the port in a storm.” The schooner’s crew of six clung to the rigging as Napier and three of his crewmen rowed into the violent lake. Their boat capsized on the first effort. The crew righted and boarded the boat and reached the “Williams,” rescuing two sailors. Heavy waves swamped the rescue boat on their next attempt, but the volunteers bailed the water, battled rough seas, and saved two more men. On their third attempt, the crew was thrown from the boat. Napier suffered a serious leg injury. One of the rescuers threw a line to Napier, who helped right the boat and rowed it alongside the “Williams.” The last two sailors were rescued. The U.S. Life-Saving Service, forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard, awarded Captain Joseph Napier its first Life-Saving Gold Medal. It was only the 3rd such medal awarded by the U.S. Congress, and was solid gold with a leather case.

CAPT. Napier suffered a spinal injury in that heroic rescue in 1877, but continued to live alone at his old homestead on Napier Avenue (named in his honor) until his death on June 11, 1924. Of the nine medals he received for his bravery in saving 60 lives from the perilous sea, he had only the inscribed watch and the gold Life-saving Medal still in his possession at the time of his death.

In 2014, Bollinger Shipyards announced that the U.S. Coast Guard was naming 10 ships after Coast Guard Heroes. The “Joseph Napier” was commissioned on January 29, 2016, and assigned to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the fast cutter will perform search and rescue, drug interdiction, and coastal security.

[Note: Additional information about CAPT. Napier’s life (such as year of marriage, number of children, location of his home) was kindly provided by Find a Grave member Outespace through the addition of 2 newspaper articles about Joseph’s death. Many thanks!]

Capt. Jack was the son of Capt. Benjamin A. Napier and Erepta Landon, and was born about 1831 in Ohio.

At a young age, he became commander of the propeller “Neptune” of the Western Transportation Co.’s line, plying between Buffalo and Chicago. He also aided his brother Capt. Joseph Napier, Station Keeper at Saint Joseph, Michigan, with his life-saving rescues on Lake Michigan.

Capt. Jack’s life ended abruptly during a July 4th celebration when the cannon which he was lighting exploded.

Newspaper clipping: “Ottawa Democrat July 15, 1859

We learn from the St. Joseph, Mi Traveler, of a sad Fourth of July accident, which resulted in the death of Capt. Jack Napier, formerly a resident of Port Clinton; and the mother, brother, and several sisters of the deceased, are at the present time residents of our town, to whom this sudden calamity proves a severe affliction. Cap. Napier was the son of Mrs. Erepta Napier, now living at this place, and ….

The Traveler says:

On Mon, the 4th, at 6 pm, Capt. Jack Napier, who had just returned from a pleasure trip down the Lake shore in the Montezuma, charged with rifle powder a six pounder [canon] which was on the bluff fronting the Perkins House, where it had been fired many times during the day, and … the canon burst with a terrific report into a dozen pieces, one of which hit the unfortunate man…

Capt. Jack Napier was the son of the late Capt. Benjamin Napier, for many years a resident of Sandusky, O, and one of the pioneer seamen of our inland waters, and was a brother of Capt. Nelson Napier of the propeller Montezuma, and also of Capt. Joseph Napier, now a resident of our town. Capt. Jack … was commander of the propeller Neptune of the Western Transportation Co.’s Line plying between Buffalo and Chicago. He was 29 yrs old. Funeral on July 7. The deceased being a member of the Masonic Fraternity, will be buried with Masonic honors.”

NOTE; Another sibling is Henrietta “Etta” Napier Reed, who married William Reed, and lived for a time in New York. Their grave sites have not yet been located.

*** So many thanks go out to “Outespace” for all his help with this memorial information, and also to John Hodgson for information on the grave location.

Orris P. Napier was born in 1830 on Kelleys Island, Erie County, Ohio, or Port Clinton, Ohio, according to conflicting records. His parents were Benjamin Arliss and Erepta Landon Napier.

Orris, or” O.P.,” as he was sometimes known, followed his father and three older brothers into a sea-faring life on the Great Lakes. At age 16, he served in the US Navy on the USS North Carolina. In 1851, O.P. served on the USS Princeton, which had been launched in October of that year. Another ship O.P. served on was the USS J.C. Kuhn, which was a capacious bark acquired by the Union Navy during the American Civil War. She was used by the Union Navy as a stores ship in support of the Union Navy blockade of Confederate waterways.

Orris Napier was a Civil War veteran, who officially enlisted in Buffalo, New York at a Naval Enlistment Rendezvous on 25 JUL 1861, for a term of one year. He was 29 years old and listed his previous sea service as 15 years.

Orris also served in Co. I, 41st Regiment, Ohio Infantry from 24 FEB 1864 until 27 NOV 1865.

Orris married Ellen “Ella” Poskile on 18 APR 1867 in Ottawa County, Ohio, and they had the following children: Erepta Napier 1869, named after his mother; Benjamin Napier 1870, named after his father; George O Napier 1875, who died when he was 9; and Charles Arthur Napier 1880, who died in an accident in 1920.

O.P. and Ella lived in Ottawa County, Ohio, for their entire married life, in the cities of Port Clinton, Marblehead, and Lakeside. In March of 1907, Orris began drawing a pension as a US Navy invalid. He died on 17 JUN 1907, and is buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Port Clinton.

Captain Arthur N. Napier

Arthur N. Napier was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Capt. Nelson W. Napier and Henrietta Marie Scoville (1820-1908). By the 1860 Census, his family had moved to Saint Joseph, Michigan.

On 13 FEB 1865 in St. Joseph, Michigan, Arthur, age 18, enlisted for the Civil War in Company B, Michigan 7th Cavalry Regiment. He mustered out on 22 AUG 1865 at Detroit, MI. Source: “Record of Service of Michigan Volunteers 1861- 65”

Sea Captain; Arthur followed in the footsteps of his father Capt. Nelson W. Napier and his grandfather Capt. Benjamin A. Napier. SOURCE: “Detroit Post and Tribune (Detroit, MI),06 NOV 1883,” PUBLIC DOMAIN; “Chicago Times: The little steam yacht Maud Lilly of St. Joseph, Mich., Capt. Arthur Napier, arrived in port yesterday. She will proceed through the canal at once.”

Arthur first married Lillie Maria Brockway on June 5, 1872 in Cook County, Illinois. She was born about 1854 in New York to Harry and Maria G. Brockway.
Arthur married Helen Hester Nellie Hager on Sept. 19, 1887, in Cook County, Illinois.

He lived in Saint Joseph, Michigan until his death on March 23, 1923. He is buried in Saint Joseph City Cemetery, Berrien Co, Michigan.

[1] “Little Stories of Ashtabula,” by Ed E. Large. March 20, 1939. Moina Large, the wife of Ed Large wrote a history of Ashtabula County in which she includes a biography of Henry Lawton Morrison. In her article she says that Henry also wrote historical articles for the Ashtabula Beacon Record, which eventually became the Ashtabula Star Bacon. History of Ashtabula County, Ohio – by Moina W. Large – Vol. I – 1924 – Page 680

[2]  Legislative Manual of the State of Ohio, Ohio Legislature, 1900. Senator John Mitchell. Biographical Sketches of the Members of the Senate.  John Mitchell. p, 315. 

[3] Richard J. Wright. Adz, Caulk, and Rivets: A History of Ship Building along Ohio’s Northern Shore, 1963, p. 45

[4] Kingston Chronicle, November 17, 1820.

[5] S. J. Kelley, “The Outlaw of Kelley’s Island,” Cleveland Plain Dealer.  1926.