The Horrifying Great Lakes “White Hurricane” of 1913

great-lakes-storm-of-1913

I’m sure most of you have heard of the 1975 Great Lakes storm that brought down the ship, S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, that “fateful journey”, but how many have heard of the Great Storm of 1913?

100 years ago this November, the deadliest and most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the Great Lakes killed more than 230 people, destroyed 19 ships and stranded 19 others. The financial loss in vessels alone was nearly $5 million 1913 dollars- $116,145,000 in today’s dollars.  The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, referred to as the “Big Blow”, the “Freshwater Fury”, or the “White Hurricane”, it was a blizzard with hurricane-force winds that devastated the Great Lakes Basin from November 7 through November 10, 1913.

The storm was most powerful on November 9, battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron. Deceptive lulls in the storm and the slow pace of weather reports contributed to the storm’s destructiveness.

huronstormmarker

This is a marker in Michigan on Lake Huron.  I visited a similar marker in Goderich, Ontario, when I visited there for a family gathering in 2006:

1913stormmarkergoderich

The storm, an extra-tropical cyclone, originated as the convergence of two major storm fronts, fueled by the lakes’ relatively warm waters—a seasonal process called a “November gale”, or “November witch”. It produced 90 mph (145 km/h) wind gusts, waves over 35 feet (11 m) high, and whiteout snow squalls. Analysis of the storm and its impact on humans, engineering structures, and the landscape led to better forecasting and faster responses to storm warnings, stronger construction (especially of marine vessels), and improved preparedness.

november-storm-by-rich-wyllis

The immense volume of water in the five Great Lakes holds heat. This allows the lakes to remain relatively warm for much later into the year and postpones the Arctic spread in the region.

November gales have been a bane of the Great Lakes, with at least 25 killer storms striking the region since 1847.  During the Big Blow of 1905, 27 wooden vessels were lost. During a November gale in 1975, the giant ore bulk carrier SS Edmund Fitzgerald sank suddenly with all hands, without a distress signal.

Historically, storms of such magnitude and with such high wind velocities have not lasted more than four or five hours. The Great Lakes storm, however, raged for more than 16 hours, with an average speed of 60 mph (100 km/h), and frequent bursts of more than 70 mph (110 km/h). It crippled traffic on the lakes and throughout the Great Lakes basin region.

Comparable to a hurricane, unusually cold temperatures turned this violent convergence into snow, causing whiteout conditions as more than two feet of lake-effect snow pounded a huge area of the U.S. and Canada.

For days, streets were impassable, streetcars were stranded, stores were closed, and telegraph and power lines were downed by the brutal winds. The storm caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of infrastructure damage (millions in today’s currency) and left drifts up to six feet deep in some areas.  Read More Here

Great_Lakes_Storm_of_1913_Cleveland

Cleveland

Compared to the experience on land, an unpleasant one indeed, those who were at the mercy of nature on the Lakes – if they didn’t die – fought for their lives.

The first person accounts which follow first appeared in the March 1914 issue of THE MARINE REVIEW. Most of the article, excerpted by the MARINE HISTORIAN in 1988, was written by the Captain of the J.H. SHEADLE, S. A. Lyons.  For more, Read Here

We got regular soundings at Pointe Aux Barques that we had been getting on previous trips, and by the soundings and the time we could tell when we were abreast of the Pointe. It was snowing a blinding blizzard and we could not see anything. According to the soundings we got by the deep seas sounding lead we were abreast of Harbor Beach at 4:50 p.m., and three miles outside the regular course we take during the summer. At this time the wind was due north and at Harbor Beach we changed our course to due south running dead before the sea and wind.

The bell rang for supper at 5:45 p.m., which was prepared and the tables set, when a gigantic sea mounted our stern, flooding the fantail, sending torrents of water through the passageways on each side of the cabin, concaving the cabin, breaking the windows in the after cabin, washing our provisions out of the refrigerator and practically destroying them all, leaving us with one ham and a few potatoes. We had no tea or coffee. Our flour was turned into dough. The supper was swept off the tables and all the dishes smashed.

Volumes of water came down on the engine through the upper skylights, and at all times there were from 4 to 6 feet of water in the cabin. Considerable damage was done to the interior of the cabin and fixtures. The after steel bulkhead of the cabin was buckled. All the skylights and windows were broken in. A small working boat on the top of the after cabin and mate’s chadburn were washed away.

It was blowing about 70 miles an hour at this time, with high seas, one wave following another very closely. Owing to the sudden force of the wind the seas had not lengthened out as they usually do when the wind increases in the ordinary way. In about four hours the wind had come up from 25 to 70 miles an hour, but I do not think exceeded 70 miles an hour.

Immediately after the first sea swept over our stern, I ordered the boatswain to take sufficient men and shutters to close all windows in the after cabin. The forced their way aft, braving the wind, sleet and seas, one hand grasping the life rail and the other the shutters. Reaching the after cabin in safety, they began securing the shutters, when another tremendous sea swept over the vessel, carrying away the shutters. The men were forced to cling to whatever was nearest them to keep from being washed overboard; immediately a third sea, equally as severe, boarded the vessel, flooding the fantail and hurricane deck. The men attempted to reach the crews dining room, but could not make it, and only saved themselves by gripping the nearest object they could reach, indeed one of the wheelsmen was only saved from going over by accidentally falling as he endeavored to grope his way to the rail, his foot catching in one of the bulkwark braces, preventing him from being swept off. Another monster sea boarded the boat, tearing the man loose from the brace and landing him in the tow line, which had been washed from its after rack and was fouled on the deck.

The men finally made the shelter of the dining room and galley. One of the oilers stood watch at the dining room door, closing it when the boat shipped a sea and opening it when the decks were clear to let the water out of the cabins.

The steward and his wife were standing knee-deep in the icy water. The steward’s wife was assisted into the engine room, the steward remaining in the dining room, securing furniture and the silverware. The firemen and seamen were comfortable in their rooms as they were not touched.

Some of the outfit of the private dining room was washed into the mess room; the steward’s trunk was washed out of his room and stood on end in the galley. Steward’s wife had to remain all night in the engine room wrapped in a blanket. Water through the engine room skylight drenched the two engineers who were throttling the engines. I do not think it ever happened before when these two men had to stand by these two positions constantly. From 2:30 p.m., until 5:00 p.m., the engines raced, requiring the greatest care and judgment. At times the ship was so heavily burdened with seas coming over her decks that her revolutions were decreased from 75 to 35 turns per minute. The engineers made their positions more comfortable by rigging up a piece of canvas over the engines.

Commemorations are taking place through the Great Lakes region, especially in Michigan, Ohio, and southwest Ontario.

A book on the subject is enjoying renewed interest due to the 100th anniversary of the event, one which you might find interesting:

http://www.amazon.com/White-Hurricane-November-Americas-Deadliest/dp/0071435417

I was struck by this video, produced by Michael McGovern, who lives near Lexington, MI, on the shore of Lake Huron:

For more information, please see the sources that I used:

http://wqad.com/2013/11/07/terrys-take-the-white-hurricane-of-1913/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Lakes_Storm_of_1913

http://www.wmhs.org/html/storm.html

Other resources:

http://www.crh.noaa.gov/dtx/stm_1913.php

http://stjosephmuseum.ca/uncategorized/the-great-lakes-white-hurricane-of-1913/

http://www.theweathernetwork.com/insider-insights/articles/-worst-storm-in-great-lakes-history-100-years-ago-this-weekend/15815/

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41 Responses to The Horrifying Great Lakes “White Hurricane” of 1913

  1. auscitizenmom says:

    Wow. Thanks for this post. Reading what happened on that vessel had my heart pounding. I had never heard of this storm.

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  2. texan59 says:

    Growing up in the Midwest, I’m surprised I never heard of this. Thanks.

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  3. canadacan says:

    Fascinating a stellar piece of work Stella. My paternal grandfather and my father were both professional engineers and we’re very into this sort of thing. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this piece of history I’m going to be sharing it with other folks.
    The great lakes are so huge they are like fresh water oceans.
    The Edmund Fitzgerald ,of course ,was made famous in a folk song by a male Canadian folk singer whose name alludes me at the moment.

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  4. retire2005 says:

    Sorry, kids, but we Texans consider that hurricane a “small blow.” While it was a great disaster, nothing compares to the Hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston Island, Texas. Most people don’t even know about it.

    The loss of life is estimated around 8,000, with some claiming it was as high as 12,000. The entire island was leveled, the bridge between the island and the mainland was blown away preventing evacuation for the survivors. Bodies washed up on shore for months. Help from the mainland was hampered due to no bridge being available. Rubble was everywhere and the stench from dead bodies was unbearable.

    There are photos on the internet that show the devastation of the island after the hurricane passed. It will remind you of Dresden, Germany after days of bombing.

    Remember, this was in the days before federal help. Volunteer labor only. People on the island, those that survived, did not expect the federal government to come in and help them. It was a local problem and they dealt with it.

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    • stella says:

      Is it the 100th anniversary of Galveston hurricane, which was certainly a disaster? That, and the fact that it took place in the Midwest, are the points of this article.

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      • stella says:

        It amazes me that 16 hurricanes have hit Galveston Island since 1891, and yet people still live there, tempting fate.

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        • retire2005 says:

          “It amazes me that 16 hurricanes have hit Galveston Island since 1891, and yet people still live there, tempting fate.”

          And you are surprised at that? How many tornados have devastated the Tornado Alley of Midwest states Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri? Yet people still live there. Are they not also tempting fate?

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          • stella says:

            I live in Michigan. You’ll have to ask people who live in those other states. Since you brought up Galveston, that is what I addressed.

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            • Spar Harmon says:

              I have an old high school classmate, Fountain city, TN CHS,’58, who lives on that island now- Galveston, I mean- and only got back into her home in the past 2 years after the Hurricane that hit Galveston after Katrina, more famously, did in NO, LA….
              I was born in a hurricane, 1941 at Fort Benning, GA. Spent the war on Clearwater Beach Island, FLA. where I developed a great love of Stormy Beaches. All my life I have sought to live where I can get deliciously to beach storms up close. Stranded inland since 2008, I was thrilled to have my living room wall hammered, one night, Spring 2010, by horizontal hail averaging baseball size as a tornado passed by during a gale-force thunderstorm. As soon as I quit hearing the sound of hail pellets I went out and the side of every car facing toward the wind was ball-peened and the cars were filled with giant hail and banked up with hail and the windward side of every building.
              Thank you thank you , Stella. Friend Spar loves a good Storm story….

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            • retire2005 says:

              “I live in Michigan.”

              I’m sorry. Can you not find your way out?

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      • retire2005 says:

        Is it the 100th anniversary of Galveston hurricane, which was certainly a disaster?”

        Oh, so it’s a party.

        “That, and the fact that it took place in the Midwest,”

        Well, that solves it. It was in the “Midwest” so it must be totally important, right?

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        • sundance says:

          I think the point was that your original comment was rude from the perspective of interjecting into a conversation with “oh yeah, that ain’t nothing” which happens in real life and in conversation – and is always considered impolite.

          When it happens in general conversation the conversing participants usually look toward the interjection with a roll eyes response reflecting the apparent rude interruption. Although customarily, some people just don’t get the inappropriateness of their injection.

          It’s along the same lines as a person who is used to saying everything in “their place” is bigger, smarter and just, well, better”. It is received in the same manner.

          If you go back and look at how you framed your comment you’ll note it was thusly presented as described. Just rude – that’s all…. and you confirm such a sensibility with the follow-up snark and sarcasm.

          It is, however, quite possible for you to share the Galveston story without the need to diminish the conversation already taking place with rude interrogatories. But that’s not the way you chose to do it. Unfortunately.

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          • auscitizenmom says:

            I agree with you, Sundance.

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          • canadacan says:

            Good we are here to have a fun exchange of stories ,not to belittle others.

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          • retire2005 says:

            “I think the point was that your original comment was rude from the perspective of interjecting into a conversation with “oh yeah, that ain’t nothing” which happens in real life and in conversation – and is always considered impolite.”

            And I think your opinion is rude since my comments were not addressed to you.

            “If you go back and look at how you framed your comment you’ll note it was thusly presented as described. Just rude – that’s all…. and you confirm such a sensibility with the follow-up snark and sarcasm. ”

            So now you are the official Literary Police, being judge of what is a proper framing of a comment?

            The Great Storm, as the Galveston hurricane is often known as, is a great story into the resilience and determination of Americans. There is none better.

            “It is, however, quite possible for you to share the Galveston story without the need to diminish the conversation already taking place with rude interrogatories. But that’s not the way you chose to do it. Unfortunately.”

            Obviously, it is also not possible for you to comment without being guilty of the very thing you are now accusing me of; being rude. You seem to subscribe to the philosophy that two wrongs make a right.

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            • stella says:

              You’ve been given an opportunity to redeem yourself, and are unable to do so. You can say goodbye now. You are no longer welcome to comment here.

              Since this is Sundance’s blog – think of it as his living room – he was trying to let you know that you had stepped beyond the line of good manners. That isn’t rude.

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            • stella says:

              This is what I thought when I first read your comment,

              Sorry, kids, but we Texans consider that hurricane a “small blow.” While it was a great disaster, nothing compares to the Hurricane of 1900 that hit Galveston Island, Texas. Most people don’t even know about it.

              The loss of life is estimated around 8,000, with some claiming it was as high as 12,000. The entire island was leveled, the bridge between the island and the mainland was blown away preventing evacuation for the survivors. Bodies washed up on shore for months. Help from the mainland was hampered due to no bridge being available. Rubble was everywhere and the stench from dead bodies was unbearable.

              What I thought was, “Why would somebody make a statement like that? “Oh so what if those people died. We had waaay more who died.” I am baffled. I mean, why would you be proud that 8,000 or 12,000 people died? It reminds me of that old joke, “everything is bigger in Texas”.

              I did a post about a historical event. It is non-political in nature, meant to inform. Your comment was so at odds with the purpose of the post that I couldn’t understand why you said what you did. It’s like saying that the events on 9/11 aren’t important, because so many more were killed in the bombings of London during the Blitz, or the fire bombing of Dresden. As if those things were “better” because more people died. It was, and is, inappropriate.

              Like

        • stella says:

          There are places other than Texas. This is my post, and it is the 100th anniversary of the 1913 storm. I’m sorry it isn’t Galveston, but there you are.

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          • Spar Harmon says:

            Then, I apologize for my little Galveston story. I really enjoyed the post and the Gordon Lightfoot later on, and it is true I’m a little nuts about storms in general… So, sorry for the intrusion.

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            • stella says:

              Spar, it’s fine. My remark was in response to someone else who annoyed me. I’m perfectly happy discussing storms anywhere! I was about to tell you that we had a bad hail storm here last summer, with hail the size of golf balls. It left dents in the hood of my car, damaged my roof, and tore one of my screen. I generally love storms, but that one was over the top for me!

              Like

            • canadacan says:

              Its ok spar you are akindly person and you can do no wrong

              Like

    • WeeWeed says:

      One of my maternal great grandmothers was the only survivor out of her family (fresh off the boat from Norway) after that one – I don’t think they’d been there more than a few days.

      Like

  5. czarowniczy says:

    Already watching the talking head blame Typhoon Haiyan on climate change/global warming. No one’s mentioning that the Pacific has a larger warm zone for these storms to spin up in to gain strength. Also that no one gave a rat’s ass about the regular devastation of the Pacific islands and subcontinent Asia by typhoons until the 24/7 news-fiction bureaus needed filler and the environmental Greek choruses needed hot air to fuel their agendas. Anyone out there with anemometers measuring wind speeds of the typhoons that wasted Bangladesh and Vietnam pre-Giacentric ethos? Uhhh – NO.
    At some point when the greenies achieve the godlike NGO status that allows them to dictate personal behaviors storms like the 1913 white hurricane and Typhoon Haiyan will become doctrine and dogma in proving the perfidy of per-enlightened materialist America. Great reading on the way to the ovens.

    Like

    • czarowniczy says:

      Should read: “…personal behaviors while storms like the 1913…” Chainsaw bruised fingers and a sharp lack of attention to blame – not my fault, ask Jay Carney

      Like

  6. Menagerie says:

    I had never heard of this storm. Thanks for the post. I would love to get to visit the Great Lakes someday. As a teen I read the Leatherstocking tales. The Pathfinder told tales of the Great Lakes and was partly set on Lake Ontario. My fascination with the lakes began there.

    Like

  7. Gordon Lightfoot made the Edmund Fitzgerald a bona fide American legend, so much so that if I knew of the storm of 1913 before reading this, my feeble brain had packed it away in a deep dark corner. Thanks so much stella for making this “front page”, 100 years later.

    Like

  8. Sharon says:

    stella, that’s a great read and a significant bit of history re both weather and shipping disasters.

    Your mentions (and in the links) of issues of the pace of weather forecasting reminded me that similar issues were a huge factor in the deaths of so many people in the 1888 blizzard that swept from the Rocky Mountains clear across the great plains. They were dependent on first hand observations and the telegraph system to try to get the word ‘spread eastward’ and warn people what was coming, but by the time they had pieced it together, it was too late for hundreds who froze to death.

    The despair and desperation that folks involved in forecasting must have felt when they ‘saw it’ and ‘got it’ – but knew that they were too late in the development of the storms to save all the lives at risk. There were so many heroes on those ships and in those telegraph offices, etc., doing their best with the information they had.

    Really good stuff to learn about.

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