Ninety years ago this November, one of the worst disasters in Great Lakes history took place over a period of four days, when twelve ships foundered and thirty-one were stranded, and 253 sailors drowned during the deadliest storm ever to hit the Great Lakes. The actual toll was probably higher, but no single agency in 1913 kept track of vessels lost or sailors killed. According to this author, the death toll did not include "the commercial fishermen, hunters, or anglers who also lost their lives."
At least three books have been written about this storm, including "Fresh Water Fury" (1960), "Ships Gone Missing" (1992), and this book by David G. Brown, published in 2002. One of the things that sets Brown's book apart from the others is his meticulous meteorological reconstruction of the 1913 storm that raged for four days in early November and sank ships on Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron (the worst hit) and Erie.
According to the author's research, the weather in early November 1913 was remarkably dry and balmy, tempting the shipping companies into making one last run before the end of the season. The U.S. Weather Bureau issued storm warnings on November 7, 8, and 9 but these did not come close to suggesting the true ferocity of the 'White Hurricane.' In fact the Weather Bureau never did post hurricane warnings--two red flags with black centers, displayed one above the other--on the Great Lakes, preferring to reserve that warning for tropical storms even though the four-day storm that struck the Lakes was of hurricane intensity.
This book is organized as a temporal narrative of the storm, starting on Wednesday, November 5 as freighters such as the 'Charles S. Price' took on loads of coal, railroad ties, and iron ore for their last trips of the season. The 'Price's' Assistant Engineer Milton Smith had such a strong premonition about the forthcoming voyage that he quit his job and went home. He would later be asked to identify the bodies of his shipmates that washed up on Huron's icy shores.
On November 6, ships on western Lake Superior were already experiencing rough weather, but nothing that qualified as a full-fledged November gale--not yet. In Detroit, a prominent halo ringed the moon, perhaps bringing to mind the rhyme: "When halos ring the moon or sun/ Rain is coming on the run." In the case of this particular storm, it was a warning of the ferocious blizzard that would paralyze Cleveland and other cities on the Lakes, and add to the woes of the ships that were already battling life-threatening gales.
The empty wooden bulk freighter 'Louisania' was the first casualty of the storm. On Saturday, November 8, the onrushing gale stranded her near Port des Mortes on Lake Michigan, where she burned to the waterline. Up on Lake Superior, the storm "began picking apart the 'L.C. Waldo' shortly after midnight near the Keweenaw Peninsula." Her sailors were some of the lucky few to be picked up from their stranded, ice-bound freighter, but they would have to wait until Monday, November 10 to be rescued.
Brown's narrative of the height of the storm is truly frightening and he can only speculate on the fates of the ships that disappeared far from land. Of the seventeen ships known to be in lower Lake Huron on Sunday, November 9, only two survived and they sustained serious damage.
This book also provides an extended aftermath, appendices, bibliography, and index.
If you'd like to read more about the 'Big Blow' of 1913, I highly recommend Dwight Boyer's "True Tales of the Great Lakes," William Ratigan's "Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals," and the above-mentioned "Ships Gone Missing" by Robert J. Hemming.