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.
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:
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.
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
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:
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: