Nearly forgotten disaster sank 12 ships, killed 250
By Francis Donnelly / The Detroit News
What was the biggest disaster in the history of the Great Lakes?
Would it help if we told you it battered four of the five lakes, killing 250 people, sinking 12 ships and causing $120 million in damage?
Still don’t know? Don’t feel bad because neither do many others.
Despite all its calamity, the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 remains shrouded in history.
That may change this weekend as lakeside communities in the United States and Canada host events to mark the storm’s 100th anniversary.
In Metro Detroit, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle will host author Michael Schumacher discussing the storm while the Port Huron Museum will have a weekly series of programs that feature writers, researchers and weather experts.
“It was the most ferocious storm ever recorded on the Great Lakes at that time or since,” said Jimmie Hobaugh, a retired Coast Guard captain and maritime museum director in Sault Ste. Marie.
The storm, also called the White Hurricane because of the blizzard conditions, helped lead to improvements in ship construction, communication and weather forecasts.
Despite the technology that protects sailors today, they need to remain ever vigilant, author Valerie van Heest said.
One of the lessons of the Storm of 1913 is that while sailing the Great Lakes things can go very bad, very quickly, said van Heest, a Holland diver who has written six books about Great Lakes shipping.
“A storm like this reminds us we can’t let down our guard,” she said. “Mother Nature is still powerful, as much today as in 1913.”
The first warning of the 1913 storm was a small notice in The Detroit News. On Nov. 6, 1913, the newspaper’s weather forecast announced moderate to brisk winds for the lakes.
The National Weather Service, then known as the Weather Bureau, had spotted a storm from Canada on the western side of Lake Superior.
Meanwhile, a second storm approached from the south.
The two tempests merged over Lake Huron on Nov. 7. The mix of cold and warm air produced a cyclone that was intensified by the relatively warm waters of the Great Lakes, meteorologists said.
80 mph winds, 36-foot waves
It was a November gale in 1975 that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald freighter in Lake Superior, killing all 29 crew members.
But the 1913 storm was the November gale to end all November gales.
“It was one of the deadliest maritime weather disasters in North American history,” said Richard Wagenmaker, meteorologist-in-charge at the weather service station in White Lake Township.
Milder versions of the storm occur every autumn. But the 1913 storm was a blizzard whose hurricane-force winds reached 80 mph. It produced 36-foot waves, blinding squalls, howling wind.
The dangerous conditions were exacerbated by the accumulation of ice that prevented ships from steering.
Hobaugh, who has sailed through storms on oceans and the Great Lakes, said the lakes are more dangerous.
The waves are larger on the ocean but they’re farther apart, allowing sailors to prepare for the next one, he said. During a storm on the Great Lakes, the waves swamp a boat in rapid succession.
“The chop is terrifying,” said Hobaugh, whose Coast Guard cutter fought through the gale to search for the Fitzgerald. “You’re looking at a totally different world.”
During lulls in the 1913 storm, several captains thought it was over and set sail, adding to the deadly carnage, according to news coverage of the tragedy.
Back then, there was no radar, no weather satellites, no computer models.
Sailors learned of approaching gales from the flags and lanterns of volunteers manning hundreds of lakefront stations, who, in turn, received information from the Weather Bureau via telegraph.
“We have so many more aids to navigation,” van Heest said. “The accidents are fewer and farther in between.”
Cargo losses raised prices
The storm finally relented Nov. 10. For weeks afterward, the frozen bodies of sailors washed ashore along the Great Lakes.
Besides the dozen ships destroyed by the storm, another 31 ran aground.
So much of their cargo — coal, grain and iron ore — was lost that it drove the commodities’ prices sharply higher, historians said.
The only Great Lake to escape the storm’s wrath was Ontario.
Away from the water, barns were flattened, trees uprooted and roads clogged with snowdrifts up to 2 feet.
And then the storm drifted slowly into oblivion.
Sources: Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection, photo of Argus is from Bowling Green State University, photo of Light Vessel 82 is from Lower Lakes Marine Historical Society.