Great Lakes Storm of 1913

Michael Schumacher, author of “November’s Fury,” on the white hurricane that pounded the Great Lakes in November 1913.

Lcwaldo 1913
The L.C. Waldo, grounded and iced over, following the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.

“If ever there were a ‘perfect storm’ on the Great Lakes, it would be the one that pounded the lakes from November 7 through November 10, 1913, leaving a wake of destruction unlike anything ever seen on fresh water at any point in recorded history.” So begins Michael Schumacher’s book, “November’s Fury”(University of Minnesota Press), a blow-by-blow account of the so-called white hurricane that sank a dozen ships and grounded thirty-one others, and even regurgitated a vessel (the tugboat Searchlight), which had been lost in 1906.

In the following Failure Interview, Schumacher—author of “Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald”—recounts the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, which claimed the lives of more than 250 sailors and buried the city of Cleveland in a record-setting blizzard. The storm followed on the heels of the Great Flood of 1913, which ravaged Ohio earlier that year.

What about the weather made the storm of November 1913 so fierce?
Like other historic storms, the Storm of 1913 and its tragic loss of lives and vessels was a result of a number of factors combining to create a “perfect storm,” if you’ll pardon my use of Sebastian Junger’s expression. First, there was a very strong “clipper” system moving along the United States/Canadian border. This system, trailed by a cold front, dumped a lot of snow on the upper Plains states before dipping down into Minnesota and moving over the upper Great Lakes. A number of vessels were lost or grounded on Lakes Superior and Michigan, and there was significant property damage along the Lake Michigan shoreline. While this was happening, a second system moved up the eastern seaboard before taking an abrupt turn toward the Ohio Valley. This system eventually combined forces with the clipper and created a monstrous storm on the lower lakes, most notably Lake Huron, where the deadliest destruction occurred. [Eight freighters sank on Lake Huron in just a few hours, an unprecedented loss of life and property.]

Sailors, of course, were well versed on the hazards of working on the Great Lakes in November, but they were unprepared for what they encountered during this particular storm. They were aware of the storm warnings, but the conditions, especially the constantly changing wind directions, were unlike anything they—or the Weather Bureau—had seen before. Maritime history is packed with stories of “heavy weather captains” willing to take their vessels out in all kinds of conditions, but they never left port if they felt their vessels might be in peril. In this case, they simply had no idea what they were in for. This was, in every way, a freshwater hurricane, and while the Weather Bureau did recognize that such a thing could occur, it rarely used that label. Captains usually subscribed to the notion that storms blew out in a day or so, and this happened, to some extent, on the upper lakes. Unfortunately, a number of freighters had left their ports on Lake Huron under favorable conditions, only to be trapped in a hellish storm when the system from the southeast combined with the other storm.

What about the Great Lakes makes them so dangerous for ships during a major storm, particularly in November?
November storms are especially rough because, as a general rule, the lakes’ waters are still relatively warm at a time when cold fronts move in and create violent air disturbances over the lakes. Temperatures and wind direction/velocity can be extremely volatile and storms form very quickly.

Each of the lakes has features that make it unique in storms. Lake Erie, for instance, as the shallowest of the Great Lakes, might be the most violent in storms; fortunately, as the smallest of the lakes, it also offers more places for vessels to seek shelter, in less time, than found on, say, an enormous lake like Superior. Lakes Michigan and Huron run largely north-to-south, allowing the build-up of massive waves when winds are out of the north and seas travel down the lengths of those two lakes.

Twelve boats sank during the hurricane. Which sinking was most remarkable or tragic and why?
I’m not sure any wreck with loss of life was more tragic than the others, but there was at least one case—the Henry B. Smith, on Lake Superior—where the tragedy might have been avoided. The boat’s captain was supposedly reluctant to leave port in the storm but was told to sail or seek employment elsewhere—or so the story goes. He waited until there was a brief lull in the storm, set sail, and was overwhelmed when the storm kicked up again a short time later. The Smith was discovered just this year, a century after sinking.

Perhaps the most remarkable story was that of the [504-foot] Charles S. Price, which sank in lower Lake Huron at the height of the storm. The boat was discovered upside down, with only a small portion of its hull jutting out of the water. No one knew which vessel it was, and in the days following her discovery, she became known as the “Mystery Ship.” Since a number of freighters had gone missing during the storm, there was a real sense of urgency about determining the identity of the upside down boat. It was literally a race against the clock: the boat was bound to sink when the air pockets keeping it afloat filled with water, and since rough waters kept divers from even attempting to look for its name on the submerged portion, there was a great deal of tension over exploring the vessel. There was national press coverage and a reward was offered to the person identifying the wreck. In the end, the unknown vessel was identified as the Price.

Did any ship successfully navigate the storm on Lake Huron?
Several boats survived the storm on Lake Huron, but only one, the Durston, actually rode through the storm, up the length of Lake Huron, and reached its destination as planned. As I point out in the book, this was the result of great seamanship on the part of the boat’s captain and chief engineer, plus a great deal of luck. 

My favorite story about a boat surviving out on the lake is probably that of the J.H. Sheadle, whose captain deemed it safer to stay out in the storm than attempt to sail into port under the conditions. The [530-foot] Sheadle had to make several very dangerous turns on the lake in order to remain out in the storm, but [the maneuvers] worked.

If the same storm hit the Great Lakes November 2013, would we see the same loss of life and ships as we did 100 years ago?
It’s highly doubtful for a number of reasons. First (and most important) is the availability of better weather forecasting services. In 1913, we had no radar, we knew nothing about jet streams and upper air patterns, and the reporting system was woefully slow. Much of the loss of life and vessel could have been avoided if today’s weather predicting and reporting practices had been around. Captains today would not take their boats out if they knew a storm of this nature was even remotely possible.

Second, vessels today are much better designed, with more and better safety features. In the event that a freighter was caught out in a severe storm and the worst occurred, her crew would be in much better position to survive. It’s also noteworthy that vessels built today use much better building materials than used one hundred years ago. Ships built prior to 1948 used steel that might have been flexible, as you have today, but the metal was more brittle in cold water than more modern materials.

Communications equipment is better today, as well. In 1913, ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore communications equipment existed, but very few boats used it. Companies found it too expensive, and sailors, afraid of being spied upon by company officials, didn’t want it. [But] it’s doubtful that much could have been done to help those caught out in the storm or those fighting monstrous waves and howling winds in lifeboats, but at least, with today’s communications equipment, someone would have known about the plights of these boats, and there might have been fewer lives lost.

Related content:
Saving Ships from Extreme Waves