White Hurricane and November storms recalled
By most accounts the storm dubbed the White Hurricane of 1913 was the largest and deadliest of its kind in Great Lakes' recorded history. The storm began Nov. 7, sweeping across the lakes from west to east, leaving behind a wake of destruction unlike any before. By the time the storm subsided days later, it had claimed over 250 souls and the financial loss to the shipping industry was estimated to be $5 million -- roughly $119 million in today's dollars.
Records from The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration indicate that the storm took a path from the North Shore, tracking south east to Lake Huron. During its Nov. 9 peak, 35-foot waves and 90 MPH winds were recorded. Historical records indicate that forecasters first noticed the storm on Nov. 6 over western Lake Superior and were calling for moderate to brisk winds. By midnight, however, the Steamer Cornell had run aground just west of Whitefish Point after confronting an intense northerly gale. The gale lasted until Monday, Nov. 10.
Author Michael Schumacher's passion for life on the Great Lakes and this historic storm is revealed in his latest book, November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. Schumacher explained that poor record keeping and unreliable information made accurately piecing together the events a challenge.
"Captains were identified by initials, the absence of crew lists and mislabeled photographs were common, it was a lot of work to get it right," he told the Lake County News-Chronicle. November's Fury provides an account of the storm of 1913, and also describes the ships and choices faced by the vessels' personnel as the winds whipped the Big Lake into a furious and deadly nightmare.
Also difficult, said Schumacher, was deciding which stories to include in the book since the storm affected so many lives. Records indicate that Lake Huron bore the brunt of the storm -eight ships and 196 lives were lost. The storm claimed two ships and 43 souls on Lake Superior. Historians say that several factors contributed to the heavy losses incurred during that three day period.
"In 1913 there was incredible pressure put on the skippers of the vessels by the shipping companies to deliver the product on time. Also there seemed to be a lack of trust in the weather service forecasts," said Laura Jacobs, archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Superior's Dan Hill Library. "This was a recipe for disaster." She also identified that the length of the ships relative to the distance between waves strained the structure of the ships. Vessels were suspended fore and aft, leaving mid-ship sections unsupported, causing them to break in half, Jacobs said.
While the 1913 storm was arguably the most destructive, November has a long deadly history on the Great Lakes, according to Maritime History on the Great Lakes, a digital collection of articles and documents recalling the events on the five lakes. In 1835, a terrible storm claimed 17 ships. Occurring on Nov. 11, this storm's southwest winds approached Buffalo, N.Y., causing the canal to rise 20ft. Ships were tossed like toys onto city streets and crushed under bridges. Homes were swept away by the flood waters. The vessel, Free Trader, with 13 passengers plus the crew, was capsized twice, miraculously righting itself each time. The ship was eventually found near Dunkirk, N.Y. with its sole survivor clinging to its tiller. The loss of life was recorded "in the hundreds".
On Nov. 27, 1905 the Steamship Mataafa left the Duluth harbor around 5 p.m. heading to Cleveland loaded with iron ore. By 4 p.m. the next afternoon, the ship had only made its way to Two Harbors. Battling gale force winds, the ship's captain decided to return to Duluth for safety. According to Carol Christenson of NOAA, that Nov. 26-27 storm brought heavy snow with accumulations of up to 17 inches around the region. Strong winds created near blizzard conditions and powerful northeast winds, gusting over 50 MPH and stirring up 16-foot waves. The force of the storm washed away parts of Duluth's shoreline, causing about $500,000 in damage. The Mataafa was towing the barge Nasmyth, the tandem could not make it through the narrow canal, so the barge was cut loose. The Mataafa attempted to enter the canal but heavy seas dashed her against the north pier. The ship was pulled back toward the lake, but then struck the south pier. She grounded outside the north pier and broke in half. Only three of the 15 crew members escaped with their lives, the other nine died of exposure. Some had to be chopped out of solid ice. A total of 29 ships were lost or damaged and 39 men lost their lives in that storm.
In 1940 the Armistice Day blizzard of Nov. 11-12 claimed 5 vessels and 66 men aboard the ships. It was also responsible for the deaths of many hunters who were caught unprepared for the fast approaching weather system. Of course, the infamous sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald took place Nov. 10, 1975, that storm generated 58 MPH winds and 35-foot seas.
Against this backdrop of maritime disaster, it seems fair to ask what makes the eleventh month so potentially deadly. Adam Clark, chief meteorologist for the Northland NewsCenter weighed in.
"November is notorious for large strong storms because it is a transitional period for us. Warm air and cold air meet on a more regular basis in November. The lake is also relatively warmer, which adds moisture to the atmosphere via evaporation, giving a storm in November more energy and moisture to bring more precipitation," he said. "As the Northern Hemisphere cools into December and January, we don't have as much of a battle between the warm and cold air". U.S. Army Corps of Engineer Maritime Museum park ranger, Mary George, offered examples of the season's fickle temperament, in particular, a storm that occurred Nov. 8. 1974.
"It was balmy and flowers were still blooming," she recalled, "by late afternoon the weather had turned cold and the winds were swirling sleet pellets around" The next morning when she reported to work at the museum, she said the parking lot was flooded and the storm surge had deposited what appeared to be a large underground fuel tank in the middle of the open space.
Schumacher's interest in the Great Lakes goes back to childhood and has influenced his writing over the years. He is also the author of Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald (Minnesota, 2012) and Wreck of the Carl D., and twenty-five documentaries on Great Lakes shipwrecks and lighthouses.
The Maritime Museum in Duluth's Canal Park currently has an informational display commemorating the 100th anniversary of the white hurricane of 1913.