The Ultimate Storm

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SOMEWHERE IN THE emptiness between Hudson Bay and the Rockies, a vagrant puff of wind raised a dusty snow and went skittering over the plains, picking up a spiral here and another one there to create a north-country November blizzard of the kind that rages lustily for a few days and then blows itself out with no great harm done. But in this first week of November 1913, things were a bit different.

Far off to the southeast a low-pressure area had formed over the Great Lakes. The growing disturbance in Canada was drawn by that low-pressure area, and the blizzard went sliding over the curve of the earth, growing wide and deep and strong, carrying great banks of evil clouds as if it were backpacking the material for further growth and development. It grew out of the region where there was little for it to harm and swept down on the world’s busiest waterway, where immeasurable damage could be done.

On Friday, November 7, taking note of all this, the weather bureau ordered storm warnings hoisted at all its stations on the lakes: a square red flag with a square black center, flown with a pennant that shows the storm’s direction. It is an ominous signal to look at when a rising wind whips the flag away from the staff and the clouds are piling higher and higher, but Great Lakes shipmasters are hard to scare.

The end of autumn always brings storms, but the steel ships are sturdy, and they are ably handled; and besides, in those days the navigation season on the lakes closed around December 1, and it was important to finish as many trips as possible before the winter lay-up. A cargo carrier lying in harbor waiting for good weather earns no dividends—and no good marks for the skipper either.

But this time the weather bureau and the shipmasters were up against something new. This was not just another Western snowstorm; it was an outright hurricane, born freakishly in the north country instead of the tropics, and it spun into that densely traveled stretch of water like nothing the lake people ever saw before or since. To this day it is remembered as the Great Storm of 1913, the worst the lakes ever had. It destroyed nineteen ships—a dozen of them were lost with all hands, and no one will ever know just how and when they sank—and it drove twenty more onto the rocks. It drowned two hundred and fifty sailors, and it caused millions of dollars in property damage to various shoreside cities and towns. As far as the lakers are concerned, this was the ultimate storm.

To anyone used to the wide oceans, the lakes look like reasonably sheltered bodies of water. The appearance is deceptive. The winds have plenty of room to rampage, and there are a few special problems the lakers have to encounter that are unknown on the high seas.

To begin with, the lakes shipmaster is never far from a lee shore. If a storm blows up, he cannot run before it very long, nor does he dare to heave to and drift along while the storm blows itself out; that is all right on the ocean, where there is plenty of sea room, but the shipmaster who tries this on the lakes would eventually go onto the rocks. If the storm comes off the land, he may escape the worst of it by hugging the coastline—but then, if the wind suddenly shifts and blows in the opposite direction, he is almost certain to be driven ashore.

Another problem comes from the peculiar shape of the lake freighters. They carry bulk cargoes—ore, limestone, coal, grain—which are loaded and unloaded by machinery, so they are long and slim, with a great row of cargo hatches running almost from end to end of the boat. (Be it noted: On salt water a boat is a small, undecked craft, and a cargo carrier that is decked and has quarters for crew and possibly for passengers is a ship. Not so on the lakes. The word ship has never taken hold on fresh-water, and huge carriers five hundred or six hundred feet long, or more, are boats .) In any case, a typical lake boat in 1913 had bridge, pilothouse, and quarters for the captain and other deck officers in the bow, as far forward as possible, with coal bunkers, engine room, galley, engineer’s cabins, and quarters for coal passers, firemen, oilers, and usually deck hands as well in the extreme stern. When the captain and the chief engineer had a jurisdictional dispute, which did happen now and then, the engineer would say, “You take care of your end of the boat and I’ll take care of mine.”

The boat has to be narrow so that it can go through the locks at Sault St. Marie, and in 1913 it had to be of shallow draft to negotiate the various rivers and straits that lie between Lake Superior and Lake Erie. As a result it was built like a flat-bottomed canalboat, and everything between the captain’s end and the engineer’s end was cargo space: an expanse of open deck, longer than a football field, studded with a great succession of cargo hatches, giving easy access at the dock to the loading chutes and the prodigious cranes and scoops for unloading. In a bad storm, especially one that coats everything with ice, it could be quite impossible to go from one end of the boat to the other, which meant that the people in the bridge were likely to go hungry.