The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Muskegon Daily Chronicle (Muskeon, MI), January 9, 1907, page 1

Full Text
John Witherell the Oldest Marine Man Connected With Muskegon
Death This Morning Came After Brief Illness---Was As Well As Usual Up to Last Thursday.

Captain John Witherell, the oldest tug captain on Muskegon lake and one of the most prominent marine men of this city's palmiest lumber days, died at 7:15 this morning at North Muskegon. Hemorrhage of the brain was the cause of his death. He was 72 years of age.

In his brief illness he dramatically wandered back to early scenes, talking in the Indian tongue and with uplifted arm giving orders for driving piles or some other labor of years ago.


Up to last Thursday Captain Witherell was apparently as well as usual. That morning her visited with friends on the streets of Muskegon. Then he trudged across the bridge to the north side of the lake, where he and his wife had been spending the holidays with their son, George Adelbert Witherell.

The next morning he was carried downstairs helpless in his son's arms. From that time his case was hopeless.

The funeral will be held at 10 o'clock Friday morning at the Central Methodist Episcopal church in Muskegon.


Besides his wife, there survive him three children, Mrs. Frank Towse of Grand Rapids, G. A. Witherell of North Muskegon and Mrs. Willaim Kalmbach of Grand Rapids.

Mrs. Fanny Shepherd of this city is a sister. There are also a brother, Joel C. Witherell, of Conklin, and another sister, Mrs. Anne Kennicott of Shelbyville, Allegan County, who is of present visiting in Grand Rapids. The brothers and sisters of the family all lived to old age, the only other member being a sister, Mrs. Jane Hodge, who died in Muskegon two years ago.


The career of Captain Witherell was very nearly as old as that of the history of the city of Muskegon. His father settled here in 1847, when there were only six white families and between 300 and 400 half-breed families. Originally the family came from the state of New York.

Captain Witherell was born at Sparta, Livingston Co., N.Y., November 16, 1834. At that place his father was a building contractor. Five years later they moved to St. Charles, Kane County, Ill., where the father erected a large hotel, store buildings and mills.

Captain Witherell's father came to Muskegon in Advance of his family which did not arrive until April 17, 1847. The former made two trips to Chicago by walking on the beach along the shore of Lake Michigan.


The father was the builder of the first three mills in Muskegon, Stoner's and those on Green creek and Ruddiman's creek. For himself he built a dam and water mill on a creek emptying into the head of what is now known as Mona Lake.

About the mill and the dam Captain Witherell played as a boy. Then the family prosperity was clouded. A freshet broke through the dam and drove the mill seven feet off from it's foundation.

The damage was repaired at great loss and the family moved into the village at Christmas time 1857. Mrs. Witherell in the meantime took charge of the Lasley mill boarding house. In the fall they planned to return to Illinois, but the father died on October 9. The mother lived until 1895.

Because of their misfortune Captain Witherell's schooling was early followed by employment on the lake.


Under the late Captain Mees he worked on a tug and did so well that when Captain Mees was obliged to be absent he asked the boy to act as captain. At that time Captain Witherell was about 17 years old.

That was the beginning of his long activity as a tug captain. The boats of which he was in charge were many.

The first he ran officially was the Croton on Grand River. Among others he was captain of the Alice Getty, the H. Warner, the A. C. Waters, (which he took for Captain Waters to Michigan City), the Hackley and the McGord*** for Hackley & Hume for ten years. The Pony for the Muskegon Booming and the O. N. Field for the Crosby Transportation Company.

His work of towing logs was inconsiderable as compared with that of towing vessels. In those days Muskegon Harbor was not nearly so safely protected as it is now, and it was not easy to bring a boat into harbor, especially at night.


As many as seven vessels were towed by him at one time up the lake.

So extended and arduas were the hours of lake traffic that once he and his men worked so long without sleep that they literally fell over. They were returning from taking a vessel out to the big lake when Captain Witherell noticed something wrong. Upon stepping down to the engine he found that the engineer and fireman had both fallen asleep. He himself could hardly wait to bring the boat up to the first dock so that he could follow their example.

Ferryboat travel was another important part of marine life in those days. Captain Witherell ran ferryboats both between this city and Bay mill and this city and North Muskegon.


When the tug traffic and the ferry boat business waned and he himself grew less vigorous, he took charge of one of the little steamers of the Lake Harbor hotel, which ply up the lake where he had spent his boyhood. For a number of seasons he ran boats for Proprietor Swett, no discontinuing his boat career until almost two years ago.

Since then he had resided with his children in Muskegon and Grand Rapids.

Mrs. Witherell who survives him, was formerly Miss Cynthia Shepherd, a sister-in-law of Mrs. Fanny Shepherd. Their marriage took place in 1852.

Media Type:
Item Type:
Column 1 to p. 7, c.2
Date of Original:
January 9, 1907
Local identifier:
Language of Item:
Linda (Witherell) Talbott
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Muskegon Daily Chronicle (Muskeon, MI), January 9, 1907, page 1