The Great Lakes’ Greatest Storm

One-hundred-years ago today (November 6, 1913) a storm began to brew over the Great Lakes. By the time it was finished – five days later – twelve ships went down taking over 250 lives. There were shipwrecks with loss of life on four of the five of the Great Lakes, with Lake Huron having the heaviest toll.

In 1913, weather predictions were far less accurate, and far less timely than today. To predict weather, the National Weather Service in Washington DC gathered observations from stations all over the country and compiled maps. Information on these maps were sent to stations – via telegraph – to the rest of the country where they were carefully plotted on new maps. Only then were flags hoisted to warn of impending storms. This process could take up to two days, long enough for disaster to strike.

On November 5th the weather in the Lower Great lakes was unseasonably mild, as had been the case throughout the Fall. All across the lakes, captains and ship owners were loading up for one last run of the season before laying up for the winter. Shipping on the Great Lakes in November is always a dangerous game, but none so as in 1913.

The storm whipped up because two low pressure cells converged on the lakes. One from the southwest bringing warm, moist air. The other from the north west bringing frigid temperatures and high winds. The two storms, each powerful in their own right, converged on the Lakes creating a cyclonic storm with the power of a hurricane.

At the peak of the storm, the barometer read 28.60 inches. Winds were clocked at over 90 MPH, and produced waves over 35 feet in height on the lakes. This would classify the storm as falling between a Category 3 and Category 4 hurricane, striking a region that was completely unprepared. To make matters worse, the storm dumped over 24 inches of snow – not rain – in parts of the region.

On land, entire cities were cut off from each other. In the days before television or the ubiquity of telephone, the bulk of communication was by telegraph. The snow and ice snapped communication lines, choked rail roads, and made the relatively crude roads of the day completely impassible. Power was also knocked out rendering most wireless communication impossible.

One of the phenomena of storms on the lakes, is the idea of “piling seas”. When a sustained wind rushes along the lake, it carries with it enormous amounts of water. The longer the “run” of the wind, the higher the seas will be. At the Southern end of Lake Huron, the waves had 200 miles to gain force. Because the winds were sustained, the waves came in rapid succession, occasionally hitting ships as a deadly “three sisters” trio.

There are volumes written about the ships that went down. Some were the newest of steamers, some were ships on their last legs. Many took their stories along with all hands to the bottom of the lake.

In today’s world of internet communication, satellite TV, and computer modeling of storms it is hard to imagine a time when disasters like this hit without warning. When Katrina and later Sandy pounded the US wreaking havoc on entire regions, there were several days of warnings giving hundreds of thousands or people time to prepare and move inland. In 1913, there were no such warnings. We live in a dangerous world, where the force of Mother Nature is never to be underestimated.

Over these next few days, take a moment to reflect on the 250 souls who lost their lives in the White Hurricane of 1913.

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