The Ultimate Storm

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From Lake Michigan comes just about the only lighter note in the story of this storm. The steamer Illinois was carrying package freight from Mackinac Island to Chicago when the gale struck, and her captain took shelter in the lee of South Manitou Island. The wind was too strong, the sharp slope of the bottom offered no holding ground for anchors, and the captain finally drove the Illinois ’s bow on the beach and sent men ashore with a hawser to tether the big steamer to a stout tree, for all the world as if she were a rowboat tied up for the night on an inland pond. This unconventional mooring held, and eventually the skipper was able to resume his voyage and go on to Chicago.

All the rest of the story is grim. The Louisiana , bound for Alpena to get ore, steamed head on into the storm and found herself borne straight backward and broken on the beach of Washington Island. Not far away the Halsted went hard aground on an offshore reef—to be picked up, when she was on the verge of coming to pieces, by an extra-big wave, lifted clear over the reef, and put high on the beach so that her crew could clamber down from her bow to dry land and perfect safety.

On Lake Superior the Leafield , carrying steel rails to Port Arthur, went missing with all hands. The Turret Chief got to the middle of Lake Superior before the storm took final charge; it drove her far off course and finally put her on the rocks off the Keweenaw Peninsula. She was close ashore, and the crew managed to scramble to solid ground, but they had no idea where they were and there was a howling snowstorm. They spent Saturday night and Sunday in a driftwood hut they built. On Monday they plodded grimly off through the wilderness. They finally reached a small town, with shelter and warmth and food—fifty chilly, hungry hours after their boat was wrecked.

Usually when a westerly gale sweeps Lake Superior, it blows itself off into the northern Ontario wilderness, and shipmasters assumed this one would do the same. When the J. H. Sheadle , which had been stormbound coming from Fort William, locked down at the Soo (that is, passed through the locks bound for the lower lakes), it was 8:30 on the evening of Saturday, November 8, and her skipper had planned to lie low until the storm abated; in a few hours the wind died and the snow stopped falling, so he continued down the St. Mary River and went out into Lake Huron early on Sunday morning, November 9. There was a light breeze from the north-northeast and everything seemed peaceful. Ahead of him was the James Carruthers , followed by the Hydrus , and the three steamed out on what looked like a routine cruise down to Lake Erie. The Sheadle eventually made it; nobody ever saw the other two boats again.

Apparently Lake Huron was on good behavior until somewhere around 8:30 Sunday morning, when the Sheadle was off Thunder Bay. Then came the switch. The mild breeze became a living northeast gale, bringing a heavy snowstorm with it, and any skipper who had been steering close to the Michigan shore in order to get protection if the northwest gale reappeared found himself dangerously close to shipwreck.

Nobody could see anything at all; at the foot of the lake, where the St. Clair River leads past Port Huron to Detroit and on to Lake Erie, the Fort Gratiot lightship had been blown two miles from its proper position. It would have been a beacon leading to disaster, except that in the whirling snow nobody could see it. A boat that had a deep-sea sounding machine and a skipper who was throughly familiar with channel depths all along the Thumb to Port Huron could feel its way to safety (provided her engines had power enough to keep the storm from taking complete charge). The Sheadle survived that way, although waves washed out the galley, put four feet of water in the after cabin, and deluged the men in the engine room.

Many ships did not make it: in addition to the Hydrus and James Carruthers , the John A. McGean, Isaac M. Scott, Argus, Andrus, Wexford, Regina, and Charles S. Price were all lost. Nobody ever knew just where, when, and how they sank; they simply disappeared, and there were no survivors.

For a fortnight or more, bodies drifted onto the Ontario coast at the lower end of the lake. There was a mystery here. One of the bodies was definitely identified as a member of the engine-room force of the Charles S. Price ; but when it came ashore it was wearing one of the Regina ’s life jackets. A day or so later other bodies, similarly identified as belonging to the Price ’s crew, came ashore—each one wearing a Regina jacket. As far as anyone knew, the two ships had not been in company. How did the men get into those jackets?