Ask those who have been around Holland for a while and you may find a few who still remember why the stretch of lakeshore at the west end of Lakewood Boulevard is called Alpena Beach. It’s got nothing to do with the city in Alpena County or the old Getz Farm zoo there that used to draw thousands of visitors in the 1930s with its exotic animal display. No, Alpena Beach is named for a shipwreck; a lost vessel that Great Lakes wreck sleuths consider to be among the most sought-after discoveries the lake has yet to reveal.
Oct. 15, 1880, was a beautiful day when the Alpena left Muskegon, said Craig Rich, author of “For Those in Peril: The Shipwrecks of Ottawa County.”
The Goodrich Transportation Co.’s single-stack side-wheel steamer stopped in Grand Haven for passengers and freight before heading southwest across the lake, top-heavy with an estimated 80 people and 10 carloads of West Michigan apples loaded on its main deck.
Capt. Nelson W. Napier of St. Joseph steered the ship toward Chicago, away from the lakeshore that had become known as the city’s playground.
All was well by 1 a.m. according to captains who saw the Alpena in transit, Rich said. But the barometer pressure was dropping and the “worst gale in recorded history” soon swept across the lake, turning an idyllic weekend trip into a disaster in a matter of hours.
The Alpena was spotted by other captains at 6, 7 and 8 a.m., “laboring mightily” in the high seas about 35 miles off Kenosha, Wis. A large oil on canvas imagining of this hangs in the Holland Museum.
She was spotted again later, lying on her side with one large, distinctive paddlewheel facing the sky. Some say she swamped and sank. Some say she drifted the rest of Saturday and perhaps until Sunday morning.
“I don’t know if her wheel was still turning, but I like to think of it that way,” Rich said.
Over the next couple days, pieces of the upper decking and debris from the wooden-built steamer began to wash upon on the beaches between Holland and Saugatuck. Bodies also began to wash up.
Newspapers reported thousands of apples were found bobbing in the surf. The largest debris to beach in the area was the ship’s grand piano, the fat brown leg of which survives in the museum. “Weird melodies” emitted from the instrument strings, according to the museum exhibit.
Because the only manifest was onboard, there is no exact accounting for the lives lost. Reports estimate approximately 80. Newspaper records show crew estimates around 26, Rich said.
The editor of the Grand Haven Herald, W.S. Benham, and his wife, perished in the sinking. Other passengers hailed from Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, Chicago and as far away as New Mexico and Philadelphia. An inquest found Goodrich in contempt following the sinking.
As for the beach, it wasn’t the only thing to be named after the disaster. The storm itself became known as the “Alpena Storm.” And Lakewood Boulevard was once called “Alpena Beach Road.”
The beach may not have formally received its informal name until 29 years later, when the ship’s side-wheeled nameboard washed ashore north of Tunnel Park in 1909.
Rich, a member of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Associates, is optimistic the wreck will someday be found and identified by the engine type and paddle wheels.
The problem, he said, is that “we don’t know where to even start looking.” The ship is thought to be mid-lake somewhere between Holland and Racine, Wis. — a potentially huge search grid.
“ That’s why it’s such a mystery.”