25 Jul 2010

The Great Lakes Storm of November 1913

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

Gordon Lightfoot, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Great Lakes Storm of November 1913

Ever since the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century the Great Lakes of North America have witnessed literally thousands of ship wrecks. Many of those wrecks sank as a result of the furious storms that develop over the mid-western regions of the continent and sweep across the Great Lakes. Most of the wrecks involved small vessels with little or no loss of life and have long been forgotten. Others are well known and have become legendary. Among the more famous wrecks is that of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which foundered on Lake Superior in a November 1975 gale. One of the most sought after wrecks, inspiring speculation ever since her loss, is the Griffon which La Salle had built. The Griffon disappeared in 1679 on Lake Huron—likely as a result of a late summer storm.

November is the worst month for storms on the Great Lakes. A four-day long storm in November 1869 sank almost a hundred ships and killed an unknown number of sailors. Most of the lost ships were schooners and barques but several were large steamers. In 1905 a late-November storm sank or damaged almost two dozen ships and killed almost three dozen sailors. On Remembrance Day (Armistice Day in the United States) 1940 a blizzard struck the mid-west and sunk five vessels on Lake Michigan and took the lives of almost 70 sailors. But the most destructive storm to ever hit the Great Lakes was in November 1913. It took the lives of 235 sailors and sank almost 40 vessels, including some of the largest freighters.

Its fury and intensity, along with the ensuing loss of life and property, has bestowed a legendary status on the great storm of November 1913. No other event before or since has caused so much devastation to shipping on the Great Lakes. The location of most of the wrecks caused by the storm have long been known, the majority having occurred on Lake Huron, but the discovery in the summer of 2000 of a lost wreck has reawaken interest in the event. The wreck of the S.S. Wexford was found lying upright in about 23 metres (75 feet) of water near St. Joseph, Ontario. It was discovered by an angler using a fish finder.

S.S. Wexford

During the Storm and over the following days, the bodies of 56 sailors washed up on the eastern shore of Lake Huron between Southampton and Grand Bend, Ontario. The dead crewmen frozen and battered after their wind-blown journeys across the lake, were found amongst the debris of their ships. Among the bodies were some of the crew of the Wexford. An old photograph shows a priest making the sign of the cross over the body of sailor clad in a life jacket as another body lies in the foreground. Five unidentified sailors were buried in a common grave in Goderich but most of the sailors who died in that storm are entombed in their ships.

Other storms have been as intense, or even more so, but most have come and gone in a matter of hours. The November 1913 storm lasted six days. It developed out of two storm fronts colliding over the western section of the Great Lakes basin. On November 6 a low pressure system pushed across from the south-west. The next day an Arctic air mass from the north-west moved into the Great Lakes area bringing with it lower than usual temperatures. Warm and moist air sitting over the lakes combined to produce high winds. By November 8, storm warnings were posted across the Great Lakes region. During the storm, gusts as high as 90 mph (145 kph) were recorded at some shore stations. As the weather disturbance advanced across the Great Lakes, the winds shifted from the south-west to the north-west. The change brought lower temperatures and blowing snow with blizzard conditions.

The winds picked up over the next few days. By Sunday November 9, winds were averaging about 60 mph (97 kph) with gusts up to 70 mph (113 kph) at several shore stations on Lake Huron and probably even higher offshore. The gale force winds threw up huge waves that took their terrible toll. On Lake Superior, the Henry B. Smith, a 525-foot (160 metres) long ore carrier attempted to outrun the storm but was eventually overwhelmed by the wind and waves, eventually foundering in Kenweenaw Bay with the loss of her entire 23-man crew. Also on Lake Superior, the Leafield an Algoma Central freighter and her 18-man crew disappeared without a trace in the relatively protected waters of Thunder Bay. The losses on Lake Superior, however, were small compared to what was to happen on Lake Huron.

At the onset of the storm a number of ships on Lake Superior were able to make it through the storm tossed water to the safety of Sault Ste. Marie. Chastened by their harrowing experience, most of the skippers chose to sit out the rest of the bad weather at dockside in the “Soo”. A few, unfortunately, decided that the worst was over and proceeded south on Lake Huron. For the most part, the ships sailing south with the wind aft survived, but it was a different story at the other end of the lake. At Sarnia and Port Huron, several ships set out pushing against the rising wind and waves, their captains having no idea of the horrendous conditions that had developed on Lake Superior. They soon had second thoughts. Late on November 8 and the early hours of the 9th, the up bound ships found themselves ploughing into 35-foot (10 metres) high waves.

By mid-day on Sunday November 9, the two weather systems had coalesced into a single massive disturbance centred over the U.S. south-east. Moisture from the Atlantic was sucked into the vortex from one side while cold Arctic air poured in from the other. The resulting snow and high winds caused havoc not just on the lakes but also on their surrounding shores. Snowfalls of over 2 feet (0.6 metres) fell on many communities. The wind piled up snowdrifts that in some places reached more than 7 feet (2 metres). Blocked roads, together with downed power and telegraph lines, cut off towns and villages from each other, creating a sense of isolation across the whole of the Great Lakes region. Not for several days after the storm would the full extent of the damage be known.

Meanwhile, out on Lake Huron, the ships struggling north from the mouth of the St. Clair River were overwhelmed one after the other. Blowing snow and spray created conditions of near zero visibility. The lake’s notoriously short and steep seas tossed and twisted the ships, rolling them onto their beam ends, causing their loads to shift and, finally, capsizing them.

By late Sunday, shipping losses included five large ships on Lake Superior, three on Lake Michigan and ten on Lake Huron. By Monday, the storm had blown itself out although gale-force winds continued to sweep over the lakes, especially on lakes Erie and Ontario. The storm took one final victim on Lake Erie, US Lightship Number 82—actually anchored in Canadian waters—guarding the approaches to Buffalo. Wind and waves overwhelmed it sometime on Monday, sending it and its crew to the bottom.

In the storm’s aftermath, a grisly scene greeted searchers on the eastern shores of Lake Huron. The frozen corpses of sailors of sailors had been thrown up here and there onto the beaches. Fifty-six bodies were recovered during week after the storm. Most were readily identified and claimed by relatives. Many of the bodies were clad in their life jackets with the names of the lost ships neatly stencilled on. As the winds shifted, other bodies were blown back into the lake and sank long before any could make to the American shore. The five unidentified corpses found near Goderich were buried in the town graveyard after a solemn funeral service and procession through the town on November 16.

During the proceeding days a bizarre drama was played out on Lake Huron. During and after the storm, several ships had reported an upturned hull floating on the lake north of Port Huron, the bow of the unidentified vessel awash. On November 15, the waters were calm enough for a diver to go down and identify the drifting ship. It was the Charles S. Price. She had likely rolled over so quickly that enough air had been trapped inside to keep her from sinking. Despite several attempts to keep her afloat, the Price finally sank.

S.S. Charles S. Price

As the storm clouds receded from over the Great Lakes, life slowly returned to normal. The winds fell and the waters calmed. The shipping season was now almost over. Weeks later, the Lake Carriers’ Association released a survey of its members, reporting that none had ever experienced a storm of such intensity. In the decades since, other storms have come and gone but none as devastating as the one that hit the lakes in November 1913.

(This story was originally published in Maritime magazine in 2001)