CLEVELAND - It happened 100 years before the news media ever thought of coining the term "superstorm" to describe a weather event. But, this truly was a superstorm. It's known as the White Hurricane, or the Freshwater Fury and it was destined to go down in history as the worst winter storm to ever affect the Great Lakes and northern Ohio.
From Nov. 7-11, 1913, heavy snow, hurricane force winds, and waves over 35-feet high pounded the Great Lakes and its nearby shores. A total of 250 people died in the storm. The vast majority were crew members on board the 12 ships that sank on four of the five Great Lakes.
By Nov. 8, 1913, the storm had not yet reached its full intensity. The cold front had crossed Lake Superior and Lake Michigan and was knocking on Ohio's door. Still, northern Ohio was experiencing mild temperatures ahead of the front along with wind and some rain. Highs for this day in 1913 reached into the upper 50s here. The other low pressure system was still in the southern Appalachians and had yet to merge with the Great Lakes Alberta Clipper. But the bottom was about to fall out of this tranquil weather pattern.
Across Michigan and Minnesota and the nearby lakes, the storm was now being labeled "severe." According to weather bureau reports, northwesterly winds had reached gale strength on northern Lake Michigan and western Lake Superior, with winds of up to 60 miles per hour near Duluth, Minn.
There were no satellites or radars in use back then. Few knew what was coming. Weather reports were spotty and had to be relayed by radio. Still, Gale Warning flags went up in over 100 ports along the Great Lakes warning ships of the wind danger. But many captains ignored these primitive warnings.
Why? The storm played a little trick.
Winds temporarily died down. This is known as a "Sucker Hole." Many ships' captains noticed the lull and decided to head out to sea again. Ship traffic increased from Lake Erie up past Detroit into Lake Huron. Unfortunately for many, this would be their last journey. Many of the lost ships had northern Ohio ties. The Argus, John A. McGean, Charles S. Price, Hydrus, Henry B. Smith and Isaac M. Scott were all built in Lorain by the American Shipbuilding company.
At the storm's peak, on Nov. 9, winds were clocked on Lakes Huron, Michigan, Erie and Superior between 60 and 90 mph. Lake Erie experienced near-hurricane force winds for a whopping 16-straight hours. Even the larger ore carriers were no match for the wind and the waves. Especially those vessels that ended up in southern Lake Huron during the storm's peak. Here, waves reached about 35-feet tall. Eight ships sank on Lake Huron during the storm. One ship went down in Lake Erie and in Lake Michigan. Two boats sank in Lake Superior. What's more, 30 other ships were tossed aground in the storm.
According to the National Weather Service, The Henry B. Smith was a steel freighter built in 1906 by the American Ship Building Company of Lorain, Ohio. The ship was 525-feet in length and 6,631 tons. The Smith arrived at Marquette on Nov. 6 to take on iron ore but cold weather caused the ore to freeze inside the hopper cars, which resulted in a loading delay. On Nov. 9, the Smith backed away from the dock and witnesses on shore watched the deckhands frantically trying to close the Smith's hatches. After about 20 minutes, the full force of the gale hit the Smith as huge waves crashed over its deck. Instead of turning to starboard on the usual course for Sault Ste. Marie, the Smith headed north into Lake Superior and into oblivion. Captain James L. Owen and 25 of his crew never returned home. The shipwreck was finally located in May 2013 in 535 feet of water off Marquette, Michigan.
The tales of sailors lost come from those watching from the shore the following week. In the book by Robert J. Hemming titled, "Ships Gone Missing," the author graphically describes what many saw in the thick fog the day after the storm passed:
"Singly and by twos and threes they drifted in, as if coming to be present at some ghastly muster, shrouded in life jackets bearing the names of ships gone missing. The Argus, McGean, Hydrus, Scott, and Price had all sent representatives to shore to announce to everyone that they foundered, that their crews were all dead. Stiff, bloated and battered, their heads capped in ice, they floated in, rolled and pitched by the combers crashing on the beach.
They came draped over life preservers, they came wrapped in each others arms, they came frozen together in clusters. All week long they came, to be collected by area farmers who sometimes had to dig half-buried bodies out of the sand that was trying to cover them."
Local police were called in to prevent local residents from looting the bodies. In all, only 56 of the more than 200 victims' bodies were
recovered from the lakes after the storm.
Other tales of lost sailors are chronicled by William Deedler, a weather historian and meteorologist at the National Weather Service Office in Pontiac, Michigan, who shares this fascinating story of mistaken identity:
"Another tale surrounded a unidentified sailor with the initials J.T. on his arm. After reading about it in the paper, Mrs Edward Ward, telegrammed her father, Thomas Thompson of Hamilton, Ontario, telling him his son (her brother) John, must be the unidentified man. John Thompson had been on the (missing ship) The Carruthers, like the unidentified man and also had a tattoo with the initials J.T. on his arm. Therefore, Thomas rushed to the funeral home to identify the body. The body was badly battered but the facial features, similar to John's, were still largely recognizable. Other similarities were compelling, the feet had crossed toes, just like John's, the tattoo was on the left arm, like John's and a scar on the nose and leg matched John's perfectly. Not to mention, the body's teeth had the same teeth missing as John's! There was, however, a puzzling fact that didn't match...the hair color. The corpse's hair was light brown, while John's was almost black! The undertaker dismissed this fact, figuring the body, being immersed in cold water for a long time could have caused the hair to be lighter. In light of all the remarkable similarities, they went ahead with the funeral. You guessed it, it wasn't John. Right in the middle of John's memorial service, in walks John! You could have knocked over the mourners with a feather as they stood there, stunned as the resemblance was uncanny! Evidently, John had jumped ship to be on a ship called the Maple and waited out the storm in Toronto, where he read about his "death." Thinking it would be a real good joke, he said nothing to his family and friends and thus, walked in on his own funeral!"
The unidentified sailor, thought to be John Thompson, was never identified. He was buried with four other
Other ships lost:
The HYDRUS: the 436-foot long, 4,737-ton steel bulk freighter R.E. Schuck was built by the the American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio in 1903. Schuck was later renamed Hydrus. On November 9, 1913 while carrying a load of iron ore through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie immediately behind the James Carruthers, Hydrus encountered the start of the great storm. Heading southbound towards the St. Clair River and not far into Lake Huron, the ship foundered and sank with Captain John H. Lowe and a crew of 27 on board. The ship has not yet been found.
The JOHN A McGEAN: This ship sailed out of Lake Erie with a load of coal bound for Lake Superior. At 2:10 Sunday morning the ship cleared Port Huron and headed into Lake Huron with fresh northwest winds on its bow. A few minutes behind the McGean was the steamer Isaac M. Scott, also headed north. The two vessels hugged the western lakeshore to take advantage of the protective effect of the landmass, but after reaching the Thumb were forced to head straight north into Lake Huron. The steel freighter was only five years old, having been built by the A.M. Shipbuilders Company of Lorain, Ohio, in 1908. It was 432 feet in length and 5,100 tons. Ten miles off Port Hope, the McGean suddenly went to pieces and quickly sank with Captain Chauncey R. Ney and 23 of his crew. The shipwreck was discovered in 1985 in 175 feet of water, upside down on the lake bottom like the Isaac M. Scott and several other storm victims.
CHARLES S. PRICE: The 504-foot, 6,322-ton steel bulk freighter Charles S. Price was built in 1910 by the American Shipbuilding Company of Lorain, Ohio. It was hauling coal northbound into Lake Huron when it disappeared somewhere off the Thumb with Captain William A. Black and 27 of his crew. The day following the storm a huge steel freighter was discovered floating belly up, completely coated with ice and without any identifying marks in view. Originally, people assumed the vessel was the Regina, and when Price bodies washed ashore, including one wearing a Regina lifebelt, word spread of a possible collision between the two ships. A hard hat diver inspecting the hulk on November 15th, however, identified it as the Charles S. Price. The shipwreck is located 11 miles southeast of Lexington in 72 feet of water and is still inverted on the lake floor.
THE ISAAC M. SCOTT: The 504-foot steel bulk freighter Isaac M. Scott, named after the president of the La Belle Iron Works, was built in 1909 by American Shipbuilding of Lorain, Ohio for the Virginia Steam Ship Company of Cleveland. Commanded by Capt. A. McArthur, the Scott was up bound from Cleveland to Milwaukee carrying coal valued at $22,000. The ship was last seen during the morning of Nov. 9 off Tawas, Michigan south of Thunder Bay just a few hours before the brunt of the storm. The Scott disappeared with 28 lives. One of its lifeboats was found 23 miles north of the
Chantrey Island lighthouse, off Southampton, Ontario but no other trace of the vessel was located. The giant steel shipwreck today sits intact though inverted on the lake bottom northeast of Thunder Bay Island.
THE LIGHT VESSEL 82: This ship was the only one to sink on Lake Erie. The 95 foot long steel lightship was built in Muskegon, MI, and delivered to Buffalo for lighthouse service during the summer of 1912 at a cost of nearly $50,000. LV 82 was to temporarily mark the approaches to Buffalo Harbor, which was one of the busiest ports in the world during this era. While most of the shipping in Buffalo heeded the storm warning issued by the fledgling Weather Bureau, LV 82 was anchored well offshore between Buffalo Harbor and Point Abino when it went missing during the height of the storm, on Monday, Nov 10. Captain Hugh Williams and his crew of five were lost with the ship. The following May, after the ice had broke up and flowed down the Niagara River, LV 82 was found. The search ship Surveyor came across the wreckage in 62 feet of water, two miles off station. The ship was raised and salvaged with the hull being re-floated and towed to Detroit where the ship was re-built and fitted as a relief lightship. Lightships outside Buffalo harbor were later replaced by the building of Canada's Point Abino Lighthouse in 1918.
(H/t to Kirk Lombardy of the Cleveland National Weather Service and the many folks at NOAA for compiling so much of the information on the White Hurricane of 1913)