During the hey-day of Great Lakes shipping, when ships crossed these huge lakes loaded down with cargo, a fall storm could be – and often was – deadly. You might be familiar with one particular fall shipwreck, the 1977 sinking of the freighter, The Edmund Fitzgerald, or Big Fitz during a brutal November gale on Lake Superior. But today, we’re talking about another November storm, one that took place sixty-four years earlier. That storm became known as the Great White Hurricane of 1913. This storm was so severe that it killed 250 people and caused millions of dollars in lost ships, cargo, and property damage. This was a winter storm that exemplifies the storms of the Great Lakes region: hurricane force winds, coupled with blinding blizzard conditions, heavy snowfalls and bitter cold.
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Transcript of Great Lakes Storms
Written and researched by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD
Produced and recorded by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Averill Earls, PhD
Sarah: If you grew up on the Great Lakes – like I did – or even if you grew up far away from the Great Lakes but happen to be a Gordon Lightfoot fan, then you know – November on the lakes can be brutal. As the weather turns cold, the winds coming from the west, whipping across the lake, can kick up ferocious storms that translate into significant late-autumn lake-effect snowfalls.
Averill: It’s one thing when you’re on shore, here in Buffalo or elsewhere on the lakes, living through a tough storm. As Buffalonians say, just buy a six-pack and stay in and watch the game! But during the hey-day of Great Lakes shipping, when ships crossed these huge lakes loaded down with cargo, a fall storm could be – and often was – deadly.
Sarah: You might be familiar with one particular fall shipwreck, the 1977 sinking of the freighter, The Edmund Fitzgerald, or Big Fitz during a brutal November gale on Lake Superior. But today, we’re talking about another November storm, one that took place sixty-four years earlier. That storm became known as the Great White Hurricane of 1913. This storm was so severe that it killed 250 people and caused millions of dollars in lost ships, cargo, and property damage. This was a winter storm that exemplifies the storms of the Great Lakes region: hurricane force winds, coupled with blinding blizzard conditions, heavy snowfalls and bitter cold. (And actually, we have a November storm predicted for next week, so …. this is reality for us here!)
And I’m Averill
And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.
Sarah: The Great Lakes have always been a conduit of trade, well before Europeans ever walked on the North American continent. Native Americans navigated the lakes with birch bark canoes, which were lightweight enough to carry between bays and rivers. They didn’t attempt to take those canoes across the lakes – they knew it was too dangerous – but instead kept to the shorelines. When the French arrived in what is now Canada and the Northern United States, they quickly became interested in exploring these massive lakes. Samuel de Champlain was the first person to describe the Great Lakes, but it was Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, who first lost a trade vessel to a Great Lakes fall storm.
Averill: La Salle built the first large vessel dedicated to Great Lakes trade, which he dubbed Le Griffon. Historians aren’t really sure whether this was the first ship built to travel the Great Lakes, but it was certainly the first large, European style ship to travel the lakes. There might have been some others before the Griffon, but there’s so little evidence that no one can agree. The thing that is most interesting to us about the Griffon is that it was built in Buffalo, at the mouth of what was then called Cayuga Creek, essentially in the area that is now downtown Buffalo – if you’re familiar with the area, it seems that this was actually right near what is now Canalside. (I think this refers to what is now called the Buffalo River? Beause Cayuga Creek is a tributary of the Buffalo River.) This is why we have so many things in Buffalo that are called LaSalle!
Sarah: The Griffon was launched in 1679, and sailed across Lake Erie, up and around Detroit, through Lake St. Clair, along the St. Clair River between Michigan and Ontario, and only a couple of weeks after its launch, the crew became the first Europeans to navigate Lake Huron. They stayed on Mackinac Island – that the very tip of the Michigan mitten – for a couple of weeks, and then La Salle sent his crew back toward Buffalo with the ship loaded down with furs while he stayed behind to explore the area by canoe. An early September whipped up, and the Griffon sank somewhere in en route. Just as a side note, several shipwreck hunters have claimed to have found the Griffon, usually in Lake Huron or Lake Michigan, but they’ve all been proven wrong, sadly.
P2: So we have a long history of shipwrecks on the Lakes, and many of them are due to fall storms. Of course, this likely also had to do with the design of this ship. As time went on and people learned more about how to successfully navigate the lakes, ship design adapted to the weather and conditions of the region. However, while ships evolved, their design was centered around their ability to carry as much cargo as possible. This was really important because the Lakes were a critically important shipping and trade route, especially between many of the cities we now know as the Rust Belt – Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago.
Sarah: Raw materials mined or manufactured in the Midwest, as well as grain from the Bread Basket and meat from Chicago traveled by ship across the lakes, were unloaded in Buffalo, where they were then transported to New York City and elsewhere. The lakes were the hub of business and trade between the early 19th and mid 20th century. Making sure that ships were big enough to carry plenty of goods was always the priority, and so ship design prioritized cargo over safety. Long, flat ships were prone to letting water in through the hatches when large waves crested the deck. As historian Michael Schumaker points out, quarters for sailors were very minimal, the large, heavy, slow ships did fine in calm summer weather but sitting ducks in turbulent winter weather, and communications devices – which were available by the 1910s – were rarely on board.
Averill: In addition to the design of the ships, people were also distrustful of weather prediction. The Weather Bureau (now called the National Weather Service) was officially created as part of the US Army in 1870, and began issuing weather predictions in the late 19th century. But people continued to rely on their own folk-ways of predicting the weather, especially mariners, who felt like they understood the lakes better than any scientist ever could. Many mariners didn’t trust the Weather Bureau because it seemed as though their predictions often fell through. This wasn’t because the WB wasn’t good at tracking the weather, but because Great Lakes weather can be incredibly unpredictable. No one knows this better than Buffalonians! In 2006, we had the October Surprise, which seemed to appear out of nowhere, leaving people without power for days at a time – and then of course we had SNOWVEMBER!
Sarah: Anyway, experienced sailors, as well as those who lived in the port cities and worked with the shipping trade, tended to believe their own experience and “gut” instinct over the predictions of the weather service. So when the Weather Bureau began issuing warnings in early November about a low-pressure system, formed in the northern Pacific and moving east along the US-Canada border, few mariners gave it much thought. It seemed completely typical for the time of year. It was creating heavy snow and wind, but winter was coming. Nothing unusual. Even when the chief weather observer in Cleveland called shipping companies to personally warn them about the coming storm, they shrugged it off.
One other thing might help us understand why it so many captains shrugged off weather warnings: the Great Lakes have a short shipping season. For instance, Lake Erie, the shallowest lake, freezes completely or almost completely just about every year – although less often lately because of the relatively warm winters we’ve had. Typically, upwards of 90% of the lakes freeze over every year. This means that between November and April every year, no shipping can take place, making those last few runs in early-mid November even more crucial, and tempting even in impending bad weather.
Averill: On November 6, the storm began to show its face. Winds from the North were getting stronger, producing bigger and bigger waves. Nonetheless, most captains saw it as par for the course and set out anyway. After all, the shipping season isn’t all that long on the Lakes – many of them freeze over, either partially or completely, so squeezing in as many trips as possible in the late fall was important. As the winds gained strength, the WB officially issued a gale warning, but even that didn’t influence most captains because there was no real indication of how dangerous the winds might be. Captains and crews had sailed through gale warnings before, and nothing indicated that this storm was going to be any different.
Sarah: What makes a Great Lakes storm so dangerous? After all, these are lakes – how bad could they be? Well, if you’re not familiar with the Great Lakes, I want you do go directly to your computer or phone and pull up a map of the Great Lakes. These lakes are huge. Lake Superior is the second largest lake in the world, second only to the Caspian Sea. Huron and Michigan are the fourth and fifth; Erie is the 11th, and Ontario is the 13th. The wind pushes so hard that the water can actually shift and pile to one end of the lake or the other. Even on the smaller, shallower lakes – Erie and Ontario – the shallowness creates smaller, choppy waves that don’t allow the ship the time to get a rhythm with the waves. On the other hand, the storms were generally short and survivable … most captains believed braving the weather was worth the risk.
Averill: You’d think they would know better, when disasters were not uncommon on the lakes. Just 8 years earlier, a storm system that most mariners had dismissed as nothing serious very quickly developed into a severe late November gale. Winds were stronger than 70 miles an hour, and the snow was blinding. One of the most famous wrecks of the Great Lakes – famous for the day, not so much today! – took place during this storm. A ship called the Mataafa set out when the storm didn’t seem like it was going to be very severe. The ship was relatively new and state-of-the-art, so its captain saw no issue with setting out even with a storm brewing. But by the time the ship was out for a few hours, the captain realized they couldn’t fight against the storm any longer and turned back to the safety of Duluth harbor. But after trying a few times, the ship was badly damaged, then snapped in two just a few hundred feet off shore. The people of Duluth stood, bundled up, on the shore, helpless to do anything to rescue the men. They couldn’t launch a boat to get them off the wreck, and there was no way they would survive taking a lifeboat to shore, so the crew was forced to spend the night on the deck of the ship to escape the flooding inside. The men trapped on the aft of the ship all died of hypothermia, one even froze to the ship. The men on the prow had more shelter, and huddled out of the wind and snow as best they could. Finally, in the morning, they were able to get a rescue boat to get fifteen surviving men to shore.
Sarah: It didn’t take long for captains to start regretting their decision in 1913, just as they had in 1905. The winds were quickly changing – first to the west, then northwest, the north – meaning that depending on your bearing, you might not see the storm until you were in it. On Lake Superior, the steamer the EH Utley struggled to keep the ship safe and in working order when the blizzard hit. Visibility was so bad that the Utley almost collided with another ship that appeared out of the whiteout snows seemingly out of nowhere. A man who was sailing on the ship the Huronic recalled the experience of riding out the storm this way: “Snow and sleet blinded us. The docks and engine room were solid ice. The ship was an iceberg. The wind blew 80 miles an hour and the snow striking the pitching vessel froze as it struck. The ship tossed and lurched and creaked and trembled. It was a terrible sea, a wicked sea, such as I never saw before. Inside the ship, men were thrown like toys and furniture was broken to bits.”
Averill: The storm was worst on the larger lakes. The EH Utley and the Huronic were both on Superior, the largest lake. Things on Lake Michigan and Lake Huron were quickly deteriorating as well. On November 9, the weather seemed favorable – a light breeze, the barometric pressure falling slightly, but nothing unusual. Ship captains saw no reason to avoid heading out. By the time the winds shifted and the storm arrived, they were caught too far away from shore to seek safety. Everyone was shocked by the arrival of the storm, which seemed to appear out of nowhere. One resident of the Canadian village of Port Clark, Ontario said that when he went to church that Sunday morning, Lake Huron was as calm as glass. When he came out, it was so rough no ship could leave port safely – nevertheless, ships went out.
Sarah: For example, the Henry B. Smith sailed out of port even as the storm started to surge on November 9, 1913. Another captain, Charles Fox, who had just brought his ship The Choctaw into port at Marquette, Michigan to escape the storm, and stood by baffled as Captain James Owen of the Smith sailed out into the storm. Almost as soon as the Smith pulled out, the storm worsened. People were standing on shore watching the ship go into distress. The crew streamed onto the deck even as the waves crashed onto the ship because the hatches on the deck – the doors to the cargo holds – began to flip open. Hatches weren’t typically held closed by clamps or handles or anything – under normal conditions, the weight of the wood held those doors closed, but in a gale, they flipped open and allowed water to rush into the cargo holds, which obviously would cause the ship to sink. Most crews used a sort of middle-of-the-road approach, clamping the hatches down only as much as seemed immediately necessary – usually not enough to keep water out – and often, finishing this as the ship headed out to sea. This meant that the Smith went out into Lake Michigan without its hatches fastened. Even in the severe weather, the crew had no choice but to run out onto the deck to finish fastening down the hatches.
Averill: Within minutes, powerful waves began to hit the deck, rushing into the cargo holds. Although he had intended to head out further the lake, he turned toward a point of land where he might be able to wait out the worst of the storm. Those left behind on shore could see, even through the blinding snow, the ship roll with a large wave and tip sideways as it fell into the trough of the wave. It didn’t go under, but instead kept going toward Keweenaw Point until it was out of sight. It was never seen again. Instead, a few days later, bits of the ship started to float and even bodies of the dead began to float in to shore. Even a year later, people found skeletal remains of crew members on the shorelines.
Sarah: Just as Captain Owen decided to take his ship out even though the storm loomed, so did many other captains. Many of them recalled after the storm that they felt lulled into a false confidence by their experience with other Great Lakes storms, which they had survived. They just did not realize that this storm was going to be much, much worse than anything they had ever seen. Another such captain was S. A. Lyons of the steamer, JH Sheadle. Lyons decided to leave port in Fort William, Ontario on Nov. 6 because even though the barometer was low, it was steady and the wind seemed reasonable. But as soon as he got out into the lake, it became clear that the wind was worse than he expected. Lyons anchored the ship near an island where they could be out of the worst of the waves. They continued this way – stopping and starting – as they assessed the weather until early in the morning on November 9. This is when things quickly became brutal. By mid morning, they fought the winds and waves just to keep the ship from being rolled and the waves from crashing down onto the decks and taking on water. A few hours later, their visibility was obliterated by a blizzard. Despite the waves pounding the ship, they still tried to sit down for dinner in the late afternoon, but as soon as they sat at the table, a massive wave crashed over them, flooding into the cabins of the ship and breaking windows. The torrent of water swept through the kitchen, destroying all of their food stores except, and I quote, “one ham and a few potatoes.” (LOL) After this point, more and more water entered the interior areas of the ship, at times getting as high as four to six feet.
Averill: The captain sent men to go throughout the boat and start securing it to prevent any more water from coming in – the men grabbed boards and went out to board up the broken windows, but the wind and waves were so intense that the men clung to whatever they could to avoid getting washed overboard. One of the men lost his grip and was almost lost, and was only saved by his foot getting caught and keeping him aboard. A moment later, another monster wave knocked his foot loose, but again he was serendipitously saved when he caught on a tow line that the wave had let loose on the deck. The men did eventually fight their way back to the kitchen, they found the cook and his wife standing knee-deep in freezing cold water, surrounded by all the flotsam and jetsam of the crewmembers’ belongings. The poor wife – why was she on this ship!? – was escorted to the engine room, which everyone guessed would be the safest place, and she spent much of the rest of the storm wrapped in a blanket, locked in.
Sarah: Everyone was extremely stressed, because the situation required constant work and vigilance. The ship’s engineers, who generally took turns at the engines, had no choice but to work nonstop together to keep the ship carefully navigating the waves. When the First Mate was sent to the aft of the ship to make an inspection, he was trapped when massive waves began cresting the midsection of the deck, making it impossible for him to get back to the prow. He tried several times, each time failing. Finally, soaked and nearly insensible, he took shelter in the engine room. The captain made the perilous decision to turn the ship to stop them from venturing further out into the lake, but instead to head toward the safety of a shore. The turn itself was incredibly dangerous – the waves tossed and turned the ship so badly it threw Captain Lyons up in the air more than once – but moving toward the shore was also dangerous. There was zero visibility, and because of the waves, Lyons could not accurately gauge their depth. He was terrified they would hit a sandbar or otherwise beach the ship. They could slow the engines, but the strength of the waves still kept them moving toward the shore. Eventually, the winds slowed enough that they were able to drop anchor, and when the sun started to rise, the captain and crew were stunned to see another ship near them, flipped upside down, surrounded by wreckage. In another direction, they saw the remains of a lighthouse that had been decimated. They were incredibly lucky to have escaped more or less unharmed.
In a sort of funny ending to Captain Lyons’ statement on the experience, he notes that late in the day on Monday the 10th, they were finally able to sit down for another meal, and what did they eat? Ham and potatoes.
Averill: In the end, Captain Lyons’s memories of the storm are calm and restrained. It’s clear that the storm was incredibly trying, and that the entire crew came very closely to death or deadly injury more than once, he explains it with the calm confidence of a seasoned Great Lakes mariner. In his letter, written after the storm to the company that owned the ship, he stated that “I can truthfully say to you that at no time during this storm did I have any fear whatever for the safety of the Steamer, and if any of my crew thought different, they did not show it.”
Perhaps the most harrowing tale among the many ships affected by the storm was the LC Waldo Like many of his fellow captains, Captain John Duddleson left harbor on Friday, the 7th, even though it quickly experienced rough seas. Quickly, though, the ship was said to have been hit by the Great Lakes’ infamous “three sisters,” a grouping of three successive waves that are said to be unique to the Lakes. The waves group together are a 1-2-3 punch that easily overwhelm a ship. (This is what may have happened to the 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald). The Waldo was hit by a tremendous wave that destroyed the navigation systems and the pilot house. Without help navigating, or shelter, the crew tried to continue to safety, but the ship soon crashed into a huge rock. Waves continued to crush it until the ship snapped in two. Thankfully, the crew had already been huddled together in the prow of the ship; but unfortunately, all the supplies – food, blankets, or heat sources were in the aft section. It seemed clear that they could not survive. But the chief engineer, Albert Lembke, jumped into action.
Sarah: Lembke rigged up a fireplace out of a bathtub and other wreckage to keep the passengers from freezing to death – but even with this heat source, the waves continued to wash over the ship, encasing the walls around the stranded mariners in ice. Amazingly, the shipwreck was spotted by the crew of another ship, the George Stephenson. As soon as the Stephenson made it into harbor, a crew member rowed to shore through the blizzard, and then walked for miles through the snow to find a way to help the people stranded on the Waldo. The only way to help those people was to take a small, motorized boat through incredibly dangerous condition – so dangerous, they weren’t even able to make it. The would-be rescuers were forced to turn around, and by the time they made shore, they were literally frozen to their seats and unable to stand. They had to be chipped out of their seats with pick axes. They tried again to rescue the crew of the Waldo, this time with a larger motorized boat they had rigged up out of desperation. At the same time, another rescue crew from another harbor had learned of the Waldo’s plight. Miraculously, everyone on board the Waldo was saved.
But of course, the damage was not limited to those on ships out on the lake. After an unusually warm fall, the people of Cleveland, on the western shore of Lake Erie, were expecting a profitable shipping season that might last longer than normal. Instead, the Great White Hurricane roared into town on November 9, 1913, starting with a heavy, lake effect snow.
Sarah: As the day wore on, it quickly turned from a simple heavy snow (maybe we should describe what lake effect is like?) to blizzard-like conditions, with the wind whipping all that snow around and creating zero visibility. On the shore, ships were smashed into piers and docks, destroying fleets of boats in the harbors. The city ground to a halt as the weather made travel impossible. Railroad and streetcar lines were too covered with snow for cars to run. The wind knocked power lines down, and the city was gripped with panic about taking care not to touch wires – which, with the heavy, drifting snow, could lurk unseen. Telephone and telegraph lines were out. Windows had been broken with the hurricane-force winds. Public health officials started to get nervous about a potential typhoid outbreak when the city’s water started appearing brown, likely because the storm’s raging waves churned up Lake Erie’s silty bottom. City residents were asked to boil their water before using it. The disaster was compounded when a fire started to rage on one city block, and firefighters struggled to control it through the heavy snow and wind. There was an explosion in Cleveland’s Standard Oil plant, injuring a worker, but it was nearly impossible for an ambulance to get through the blocked streets. Clevelanders had to pitch in to help clear the streets and get the man to the hospital.
Averill: People also freaked out because their milk deliveries stopped. Milk stopped arriving on people’s doorsteps, and local stores sold out quickly. City officials and milk producers had to issue statements begging city residents to refrain from buying milk unless they had babies or children. To try to avoid an uprising of angry milk customers, the Belle-Vernon-Mayes Dairy, unable to transport milk by car, trolley, or train, started sending milk out on horse-drawn sleighs. Another milk company, Cloverdale Farms Dairy, nearly lost two delivery drivers when they decided the only way to navigate the city was on the cleared railroad tracks. However, by this time, the trains had started to run again – and a train started baring down on them. They narrowly escaped certain death, and were happily able to deliver their load of fresh milk to a hospital in desperate need.
Sarah: Yeah, and the historian Michael Schumaker makes the point that this was in a time period before people could safely store perishables for more than a day or so, and people were accustomed to going to the market once per day or every other day. So people were very worried about running out of food, and there was no real way of knowing when the weather would turn. It was nearly a week later when temperatures started to rise and things slowly began to return to normal.
Averill: The storm peaked on Sunday, November 10, 1913, and by midweek, people throughout the Great Lakes region were starting to grapple with the aftermath. Though Cleveland had taken a terrible beating, other cities were reeling as well. Chicago had recently completed harbor and sea walls were crumbled by the force of the tremendous waves. Milwaukee’s harbor was completely destroyed. Windows were smashed in all the buildings facing the lake in Duluth, and sidewalks were torn up and scattered.
Out on the lake, the toll of the storm continued to surface – sometimes literally. One salvage tug boat, The Sarnia City, were out on Lake Huron when they saw something massive and black floating up out of the water like a sea monster. It was the keel of a freighter. It was a huge vessel, looming out of the water only the tiniest bit. (describe picture) The Captain of the Sarnia City said “I think it is one of the big fellows, I think she was headed back toward the river, running for shelter, when she must have been caught in a trough and bowled over.” It was sort of symbolic of this big storm: a massive, powerful ship, considered to be easily able to take on the might of the lake, rendered completely destroyed, it’s crew taken by the waves.
Sarah: Evidence of the storm’s destructive power continued to haunt the people of the Great Lakes region for weeks. Chunks of ships, boxes, canned goods, lifeboats, all sorts of detritus appeared on beaches in the region. Bodies washed on shore, wrapped in ineffective life vests, battered by the waves and rocks, wrapped in ineffective life vests and caked in ice. In the best situations, those on shore were able to identify them through the contents of their pockets or clothing, but sometimes, it was impossible. In one instance, a devastated family prepared to bury their son who had drowned in the wreck of the James Carruthers, when the ceremony was interrupted by a knock on the door and the sudden appearance of the young man himself, very much not dead. Turns out he had just happened to take a job on a different boat, sort of serendipitously missing the wreck of the Carruthers. The other young man, in the casket, had not been so lucky.
Of course, being a story of the sea, among the items washed up on the shore were messages tucked into bottles. On November 22, a bottle washed up in Pentwater, Michigan, that read: “Dear wife and children, We were left up here in Lake Michigan by McKinnon, captain of the James H. Martin tug, at anchor. He went away and never said goodbye, or anything to us. Lost one man yesterday. We have been out in storm forty hours. Goodbye, dear ones, I might see you in Heaven. Pray for me. Chris K. PS I felt so bad I had another man write for me. Goodbye forever. The man – Chris Keenan, a US marshal serving as a guard on the ship Plymouth, washed up in Manistee, Michigan.
Averill: Another message washed to shore in Buffalo, this time scrawled on a door. The city had been on edge as authorities searched for the only boat to go missing in Lake Erie near Buffalo, a lighthouse ship called Lighthouse 82. No sign of it could be found except this cabin door on which was scrawled the words, apparently written by the ship’s captain, “Goodbye Nellie, Ship is breaking up fast. Williams”
People immediately thought it was a hoax – he never called his wife Nellie and it wasn’t the captain’s handwriting. But later, the captain’s wife and other residents of Buffalo decided it was probably just written on Williams’s behalf by the first mate. So devastated by her husband’s disappearance, Williams’s wife Anna Marie, actually sailed out for several days, searching for signs of Lighthouse 82 around the Lake Erie shore. They found nothing. It was not until 1915 that Lighthouse 82 was discovered, when she was then pulled up, salvaged, and amazingly, refitted. She went on to serve as a lightship again for another several decades. None of the crew was ever found.
In the just over 100 years since the Great White Hurricane, some of the wrecks have slowly been located. A legend of shipwreck hunters on the Lakes is that the ships will only be found when they are ready to share their secrets with the living – whether that’s true or not, some have been located, even just very recently. For instance, the ill-fated Henry B. Smith, for example, was just discovered in 2013.
3 ships have still never been found
Stranded: Superior 8
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Shumaker, Michael. November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.