Thanks to Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s song, the sinking of the American freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald during a severe Lake Superior storm has become an iconic event in Great Lakes history. The ship went down on Nov. 10, 1975, claiming the lives of all 29 crew members.
Less well known is another severe storm on the Great Lakes known as the “White Hurricane,” on Nov, 7-10, 1913. It was even more catastrophic, having destroyed 12 ships, stranded another 19 and resulted in the loss of 255 lives.
This major winter storm “remains the largest inland maritime disaster, in terms of the number of ships lost, in U.S. history,” according to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “This historic storm system brought blizzard conditions with hurricane force winds to the Great Lakes.”
Two low-pressure systems merged and intensified over Lake Huron. Over the four days, 90 miles-per-hour winds and 35-foot waves hammered ships. They withstood it but the accumulation of ice and whiteouts caused their demise.
The unique and powerful nature of the storm caught even the most seasoned captain by surprise, as two low pressure centres merged and rapidly intensified over the Lake Huron. Its storm-force winds occurred over a four-day period.
While tragedies cannot be rewritten with happy endings, they are followed up with investigations of the causes and recommendations to prevent a repeat.
In 1913 weather forecasters sent warnings of gales to on-shore Great Lakes stations, which, in turn, relayed them via volunteers displaying flags and lanterns from the shore. But once out of port the sailors were on their own, with no means to access forecasts. Forecasters were surprised by the storm’s strength and longevity. They had originally predicted moderate-to-brisk winds, but later boosted it to “severe.”
A pause in the storm prompted captains to keep on going, ignoring gale flags in ports. Another complication was that the storm lasted much longer than usual. It developed into a “weather bomb,” with hurricane- velocity winds striking the western Great Lakes. Lake Huron took the worst pounding.
Among the issues raised in the storm’s aftermath were complaints about vessel safety. Shipbuilders responded by creating ships with better stability and more longitudinal strength. Weather forecasters also faced criticism. In fairness, their equipment wasn’t even close to today’s computer models, upper-air observations, weather satellites and radar.
In 2013, at the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, the NOAA noted the technical advances and the event that triggered them. “Modern systems of shipping communication, weather prediction and storm preparedness have all been fundamentally shaped by the events of November 1913.”
New technology won’t diminish the gales of November. It will diminish their toll.
Documented shipwreck casualties in the 1913 storm Lake Superior: Leafield, 18 victims; Henry B. Smith, 25 victims Lake Michigan: Plymouth (barge), seven victims Lake Huron: Argus, 28 victims; James Carruthers, 22 victims; Hydrus, 25 victims; John A. McGean, 28 victims; Charles S. Price, 28 victims; Regina, 20 victims; Isaac M. Scott, 28 victims; Wexford, 20 victims Lake Erie: Lightship LV 82, Buffalo, six victims
The Leafield, James Carruthers, and the Plymouth have never been found. The Hydrus (2015) and the Henry B. Smith (2013) are the most recent discoveries.