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The Ultimate Storm

July 2024
14min read

The Great Lakes hurricane of 1913 was a destructive freak. As far as lakers were concerned, it was …

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.

All of these peculiarities of construction mean that the lakes sailor has a few problems the saltwater man does not meet. With some modifications, the old design is still followed. The boat is very long and narrow and, when heavily loaded with ore or coal, it has a low freeboard; if it falls into the trough in a heavy seaway, it rolls infernally. It may roll all the way over, in which ease it is eventually posted as “lost with all hands.”


So you stay out of the trough or, if you get in it, you get out of it as quickly as possible, but in the ultimate storm, accidents can happen.

Another item. When the bridge and pilothouse are very close to the stem, a really tremendous head sea can drive waves—not spray, but tons of water—right up against or clear over them. In that case something is likely to give, and the whole command position (along with the people commanding) can get thrown off into the windy dark. Bits of wreckage usually come ashore after a week or two. A similar wave may drive along the entire length of the open deck, putting an abnormal strain on hatch coamings and covers; in 1913 the various improvements that make today’s hatches almost stormproof had not yet been devised.

A BOAT RUNNING before the wind faced a similar danger at the engineer’s end. If the craft got “pooped,” the wave might not only wash out the galley and living quarters but also could smash in the engine-room skylights and send solid water down into the engine room, which meant interesting times for the black gang and, in an extreme case, could mean total disaster for everyone. It ought to be added that in 1913 hardly any freighters had wireless, and none had direction finders or radar.

The great storm of 1913 was enough to try the staunchest vessel to the limit.

The Lake Carriers’ Association, which speaks for ship-owners as a group, issued a statement afterward that discusses the big blow almost with awe, as if the men who wrote it found the English language not quite adequate to say what they wanted said.

“No lake master can recall in all his experience a storm of such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed,” they said. “Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over four or five hours, but this storm raged for sixteen hours continuously at an average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent spurts of seventy and over. … The testimony of masters is that the waves were at least 35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession. … The wind and sea were frequently in conflict, the wind blowing one way and the sea running in the opposite direction. … It may be centuries before such a combination of forces may be experienced again.”

THE FREAKISH NATURE of the storm seemed to hint that all rules were off. On the night of November 6, before the storm warnings went up, the steamer Cornell was heading west on Lake Superior, forty miles out of the Soo Locks, a mild southeast breeze following. Suddenly, toward midnight, the Cornell encountered tremendous waves from the northwest; the following breeze died, there were confused puffs and blasts from nowhere for a few minutes, and then a whole gale came driving in from the northwest bearing blinding snow and freezing temperatures.

On the same evening, the J. H. Sheadle battened down her hatches on a cargo of grain at Fort William, some two hundred miles northwest of the Cornell ’s position, and set out for the lower lakes. Upon clearing Thunder Cape she met such a sea and wind from the southwest that her captain pulled back to shelter and waited until the morning of November 7, when the wind swung around to the north and he could go on with his voyage.

While the Sheadle was waiting for better weather, the L. C. Waldo sailed from Two Harbors with iron ore and got the worst of it—towering following seas that smashed pilothouse, steering wheel, and compass and drove the blinded vessel onto a reef off the tip of Keweenaw Point. The Waldo was broken in half; by some prodigy of good luck and rugged self-help, her crew survived for ninety hours in the forward end until shore people were able to come out and take them off.


On Lake Michigan the barge Plymouth anchored near St. Martin’s Island to ride out the storm, icy waves breaking over her but never quite able to take her down. When rescuers finally reached the barge, they found an eerie scene: the crew of seven had lashed themselves to rail and rigging to keep from going overboard—and all of them had frozen to death.

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?

Nobody ever knew where or when the boats sank. There were no survivors.

The only possible explanation seemed to be that the two ships had collided, mortally injuring each other, and that some of the Price ’s people scrambled aboard the Regina in those last desperate moments. But a few days after the storm died down, the all-but-submerged hull of a big cargo boat, bottom-side up, temporarily kept at the surface by air trapped in the hull, was found in the open a dozen miles north of the Port Huron exit. Very little of this dead craft could be seen, and it seemed important to make an identification, so a diver was taken out to the boat and he went twenty or thirty feet underwater and groped along the submerged plates of the bow until he found the raised letters giving the boat’s name. In the green darkness he traced them with his hands, spelling the words out letter by letter, and then surfaced to report. It was the Charles S. Price . Before anything could be done in the way of salvage, the trapped air escaped and the hull went to the bottom, and it has been there ever since. The diver reported that he found no sign of collision damage, but it has never been clear whether he examined enough of the hull to be certain that no collision had taken place.

Strange business. And there was more. Just before the Price sailed from Cleveland on her final voyage, an engineer officer named Milton Smith had a powerful hunch: he simply did not want to sail on this trip, so he took himself off the payroll (despite the pleading of the chief engineer) and stayed ashore. It was he who later went to Ontario and identified certain bodies as those of Price crewmen.

THE SORT OF THING that must have happened to some of the lost ships was described later by the captain of the steamer Matoa , which started up Lake Huron early Sunday morning, November 9, with a load of coal for the Upper Peninsula. The Matoa was about six hours out of Port Huron, steaming north through a sea that was giving no trouble at all, when she suddenly met tremendous waves sweeping down the lake, followed by a blinding snowstorm. The after cabin was wrecked, and the galley and messroom were washed out, with tons of water down in the engine room; on the open deck the strongbacks holding down three hatch covers were carried away. The temperature dropped to fifteen degrees, and the after part of the boat was quickly encased in ice.

In desperation, the captain of the Matoa , needing a harbor of refuge above all things, took the considerable chance of turning his boat around, got the wind astern at last, and ran before the storm. The Matoa fought the storm in mid-lake all day long. The captain was just beginning to hope that the worst was over, when deck plates began to split open, and it was obvious that Matoa was going to break up … at which point she ran hard aground on a reef not far from Pointe Aux Barques. “It’s lucky that we stranded,” the captain said later, adding that in the open lake they could not have stayed afloat another half hour. After roosting on the rocks for two long days, the crew was rescued by a tugboat. The Matoa was a total loss.

For days bodies drifted onto the Ontario coast at the lower end of the lake.

Similar was the experience of the Howard M. Hanna, Jr. , which set out from Lorain, Ohio, for Fort William, Ontario, on Saturday morning, coming up into Lake Huron about the same time as the Matoa . The weather was good and the northwest breeze was light; then, after a few hours, the wind boxed the compass, swinging around to southeast, then on to northeast, and finally to north-northeast; snow flurries developed into a blinding snow-storm—and then the worst of it came all at once, full orchestra, wrecking the after cabin and sending torrents down into the engine room. The Hanna could make no headway. With engines working at full speed she could’ not even hold her head to the wind, and presently she dropped off and fell into the trough, rolling heavily but never quite going all the way over.

Sometime after ten on Sunday night the storm slammed the helpless vessel onto an offshore reef near Port Austin Light. The crash broke the hull in half; the smokestack was already gone, fore and aft the deckhouses were wrecked, and while the deck force took what shelter they could find at the captain’s end of the boat, the rest of the crew huddled in the wreckage at the engineer’s end. The Hanna of course was unsalvageable; somehow, lifesavers got out and rescued the crew.


One more. The steamer H. B. Hawgood , running light (that is, without cargo), came out into Lake Huron and got the full force of the storm without delay. She was completely helpless, unable to steam ahead or to maneuver. Her captain anchored, but he might as well have saved himself the trouble; after dragging her anchors for eight miles, the Hawgood hit the beach, and all hands eventually were rescued. The captain remarked afterward, “But for the crash on the beach just in time, there would have been another missing ship.” He added, “By God, that wind blew full seventy-five miles an hour.”

The great center for steamboat ownership and control in those days (and to a large extent today) was Cleveland. Due to an oddity of the storm, Cleveland was probably the last place on the lakes to get a clear picture of the disaster that had befallen her cargo carriers.

The storm hit Cleveland on Sunday and Monday, and for the time being the city was completely isolated. Railroad trains could not get in or out, streetcar and interurban systems were paralyzed, city traffic was hopelessly blocked—snowdrifts eight feet deep were reported on some streets—and telegraph lines were down. It was days before Cleveland knew what had happened out on the open lakes.

As a matter of fact, it was days before anyone knew the extent of the damage, for many of the boats that survived the storm were long overdue when they made port. On Lake Superior and the upper end of Lake Huron, many craft edging their way into port were all but unrecognizable because of the masses of ice that had formed around their deckhouses and pilothouses. In most cases crewmen took axes to chop away enough ice so that the man at the wheel could see where he was going; in other cases it was necessary to hook up steam hoses and melt the ice.

The lakes are still hit by prodigious storms now and then, and stout cargo carriers are still lost, but there has never been anything like the big storm of 1913, and there probably never will be, because equipment has improved. Hatch covers today are much stronger, more solidly fastened, almost impossible to dislodge. Radio beacons give shipmasters a clear guide, even when snow and ice and wrecked lightships make it impossible for a skipper to see where he is going. Ship-to-shore communications now make it possible for a captain to get up-to-the-minute weather forecasts. It is highly unlikely that the disaster of 1913 could ever be repeated.

Nobody on the lakes will miss it.

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