The White Hurricane: Lost Ships of the Great Lakes
A pair of November 1913 storms would converge to become the deadliest storm in Great Lakes history
The Great Lakes are known for their November storms but no one was prepared for what happened in 1913. Beginning November 7th a low pressure cold front began to move in over Lake Superior with winds shifting to the north and gaining strength quickly as the low passed over the upper peninsula of Michigan. On it's own this was a formidable storm, grounding and damaging numerous vessels across Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. One November 8th this storm would weaken and stall over Lake Huron. While this first storm made its way along the northern lakes a second storm was developing in a low pressure system that would move up the eastern seaboard from Florida. From the morning on the 8th the first storm would start moving south towards the approaching second storm.
Development of the storm over the 7th to the 9th of November
Within 24 hours the storms would merge and intensify with the pressure dropping and the new storm becoming a true meteorological bomb on the morning of November 9th. It would continue to intensify into that evening when storm would move over the Great Lakes. At it's peak, from the evening of the 9th to the morning of the 10th, the storm would stall over southeastern Ontario, battering the northern Great Lakes with the most violent part of the storm.
The storm location 8am November 10th
On the afternoon of the 9th the Upper Lakes would see sustained winds of up to 35mph with gusts up to 50mph. As the storm increased in intensity the winds would also continue to build until the peak of the storm shortly after midnight on November 10th when sustained winds of up to 50mph and gusts up to 70mph would be felt across most of the Upper Lakes. Lake Huron saw the worst of the storm with gusts up to 80mph battering any ships unfortunate enough to find themselves outside of safe harbor. These intense winds combined with the freezing temperatures and driving snow to give the storm the "White Hurricane" moniker.
Wind speeds over the Great Lakes on November 9th at 10pm
On Lake Huron the waves would build quickly with heights increasing from 8-12 feet at 1pm to up to 22 feet by 6pm of the 9th. The next 6 hours would be one of the deadliest periods of time on the Great Lakes. Waves keep growing to up to 28 feet by 8pm, then up to 32 feet by 10pm, and finally the waves would peak on Lake Huron right around midnight up to 36 feet tall. These models are corroborated by those who survived the storm out on Lake Huron would claim to have seen waves of up to 35 feet and wind gusts over 90mph.
Maximum wave heights on the Great Lakes at midnight November 10th
That 6 hour period of time saw 9 large ships disappear below the waves with 8 of those being on Lake Huron. Over 200 lives were lost in that short period of time. Although the peak of the storm had passed, the storm still battered the lakes. It wouldn't significantly weaken until after midnight on November 11th. All told the storms battered the Upper Lakes from November 7th until November 11th, sinking at least 12 ships (including some of the newest and largest on the lakes), grounding at least 30 other ships, and claiming over 250 lives at sea. The storm is still the deadliest natural disasters to ever hit the Great Lakes region.
Major wrecks and groundings from the 1913 White Hurricane
Over the next couple days as the Great Lakes region began to dig out from the storm and repair damage the scope of the disaster on the Great Lakes would slowly develop as ships failed to come to port.
High winds toppled utility poles in Cleveland, OH
The Leafield was a 269 foot steel freighter lost on Lake Superior near Thunder Bay. She was initially grounded on Angus Island but the waves eventually pulled her off the island and out into the lake where she would succumb to the storm. She was seen going down by the captain of the Hamonic who reported he watched the ship crest a huge wave then suddenly dip forward and dive towards the bottom of the lake. The ship disappeared below the waves in seconds. She went down with all 18 crew members on board.
The Henry B. Smith was a 525 foot freigher built in 1906. The Smith came to port in Marquette, MI on Lake Superior on November 6th for a load of iron ore, but loading delays meant she wasn't ready to leave port until November 9th at the height of the storm. Those port watched the Smith heading into the storm with sailors frantically closing the hatches on her deck and witnessed her turn due north instead of due east towards the Soo Locks. She would not be seen again. The captain was a well respected seasoned sailor not known to take risks, as to why he was in such a hurry that day is generally assumed to pressure from the ship owners to make the trip on time.
Henry B Smith
The Plymouth was a 213 foot former steamer converted to a three mast schooner barge. As she was being towed the tow and barge pair were having trouble making headway in the storm. So the Plymouth anchored in the lee of St Martin island at the mouth of Green Bay. When the tug returned to retrieve the Plymouth and her crew she was no where to be found.
The Argus (formerly the Lewis Woodruff) was a 436 foot steel bulk freighter launched in 1905. She headed into Lake Huron loaded with coal she was halfway across the lake when she succumbed to the waves taking all 24 crew down with her.
The James Carruthers was a 550 foot steel bulk freighter built earlier in 1913. She refueled in DeTour, MI on November 9th before heading across Lake Huron. A few hours later she would encounter the height of the storm going down with all hands. Debris and several bodies washed up near Point Clark, Ontario on Monday the 10th. Most of the bodies had lifejackets and heavy coats indicating they at least had time to prepare for disaster.
The Hydrus was 436 foot steel bulk freight built in 1903 and a sister vessel to the Argus. She came through the Soo locks following the James Carruthers. See went down some 30 miles from the safety of Lake St Clair. 22 of her crew went down with the ship and the 5 who managed to make it to a life boat would be found frozen to death on the Canadian shoreline.
The John A. McGean was 432 foot a steel bulk freighter built in 1908. The McGean was headed to Lake Superior with a load of coal and on the morning of the 9th entered Lake Huron with the Isaac M Scott following a few minutes behind. She hugged the western shoreline of the lake until clearing the Michigan's thumb and headed straight out into the lake. She went down with all hands (24) and was found upside down on the Lake Bottom.
John A McGean
Following the McGean up Lake Huron was the Isaac M Scott, a 504 foot steel bulk freighter bound for Milwaukee. She was last seen November 9th near Tawas, MI just before the brunt of the storm. She too would go down with all hands (28) and like the McGean she lays upside on the lake floor.
Isaac M Scott
The Charles S. Price was another 504 foot steel bulk freighter built in 1910. Like the Scott and the McGean she was last seen near Michigan's thumb heading into the worst part of Lake Huron shortly before the peak of the storm. The day after the storm the Price was seen floating upside down on the lake. Without being able to see any identifying marking above the water people initially suspected it was the Regina. Then when some of the bodies from the Price washed ashore one of them was found with a life jacket from the Regina fueling speculation that they had collided in the storm. Though after locating both wrecks collision has largely been ruled out as neither show any signs of damage from a collision. How that sailor from the Price ended up with a life jacket from the Regina will likely always remain a mystery.
Charles S Price floating upside down
The Regina that the Price was initially confused for was a 269 foot steel package freighter that primarily served the Canadian ports. The Regina attempted to anchor in the storm based on the fact that her anchor is let out. Damage to the wreck also indicates the ship ran aground, whether she anchored after sustaining damage or dragged anchor until she hit a shoal is unknown. She went down with all hands as so many of the ships did in this storm.
The Wexford was another steel package freighter and measured in at 250 feet long. The Wexford went down with all hands though her crew hand time to prepare for disaster as some of the bodies from the crew would wash ashore wearing life jackets and coats. She is largely intact and upright on the bottom of the lake, but her pilot house and smokestack are noticeably missing. Likely wiped off the ship by the storm and waves.
Light Vessel 82 anchored 5 miles outside of the Buffalo, NY harbor. She was a floating lighthouse with a crew of 5. She was the smallest vessel to go down in the storm at 95 feet and only one to go down in Lake Erie. She went down with all 5 of her crew. She would be located in 1914 and raised in 1915 and put back into service until she was decommissioned in the 1930s.
Light Vessel 82
The Louisiana was a 267 foot bulk freighter riding in ballast from Milwaukee, WI to Escanaba, MI. On November 8th when she tried to take shelter and anchor in the lee of Washington Island at the entrance of Green Bay. The wind and waves proved too much for her anchors and she would run aground. The crew initially elected to remain on board until the storm passed, unfortunately a fire broke out in the cargo hold the morning of the 9th and the crew were forced to take to the life boats. While a rescue boat from Plum Island had been unable to reach the crew due to the conditions they managed to make it to shore, one of the few stories of survival from those shipwrecked by this storm.
All told the storm claimed some US$5 million in lost and damaged ships and lost cargo. That's $5 million in 1913 dollars which is about $130 million today. While the financial toll was significant it can't be compared to the human toll. The storm still stands as the deadliest storm in Great Lakes sailing history with over 250 lives lost, many of them leaving behind wives and young children. The Great Lakes can be as dangerous as any other stretch of water and has claimed the lives of many of even the most seasoned sailors and captains.
This story also posted to Opposite-lock