Thursday, November 7, 2013

Could such tragedy happen today? Reflections on the 100-year anniversary of the epic Great Lakes storm of 1913.

Cleveland was perhaps the hardest-hit city by the deadly 1913 storm. Heavy winds tore up structures, blew out windows, and created five-foot drifts. Emergency vehicles struggled to get through drifting streets, hospitals coped with lost electricity, and the impassable streets made delivery of food and fuel almost impossible. Photo from the Library of Congress.


BY MICHAEL SCHUMACHER
Author of November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913


I recently spoke about the deadly Great Lakes storm of 1913 at the annual “Gales of November” conference in Duluth, an occasion that found me spending time with Great Lakes historians, shipwreck hunters and divers, maritime artists, booksellers, members of the Coast Guard, and a stream of Great Lakes enthusiasts of every age and type imaginable. It’s a terrific event, and I felt honored to be invited to talk about a storm that still holds the distinction of being the most terrifying and destructive storm in Great Lakes history.

The storm lasted for four days, from November 7 to November 10, and it hit all five of the lakes, though it did its most extensive damage on Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron. Dozens of vessels were destroyed, heavily damaged, or grounded as they fought what has been described as a “freshwater hurricane.” Eight powerful boats sank on Lake Huron alone, all in a matter of hours. The overall toll of lost lives amounted to more than 250 sailors. Cleveland was buried in a blizzard that isolated the city for the better part of a week. Shorelines were re-sculpted. The property damage on land was immense.

The storm produced scores of stories about great heroism and seamanship amid unbelievably difficult circumstances, of great and poor decisions, of survival and rescue. My job, in writing November’s Fury, was to tell some of these stories in the ultimate tale of human struggle against nature. Some of the stories are legend among Great Lakes historians and enthusiasts, and some are relatively unknown.

It seems that people never tire of hearing accounts of travails on the lakes, and this was certainly the case during the “Gales of November” weekend. I was especially delighted to meet Jerry Eliason and Ken Merryman, two shipwreck hunters and explorers who recently discovered the Henry B. Smith, one of the vessels that sank during the ’13 storm.

I was asked a number of questions over the weekend, but the one asked the most was also the most obvious: could such a thing happen again?




Front page of The Detroit News on Nov. 13, 1913. The boat pictured,
referred to as the "mystery boat," turned out to be the Charles S. Price,
last seen trying to turn in the storm. Bodies of some of the crew of 28
were recovered on the Ontario shore.


The answer depends upon what you mean. A storm of equal proportion could occur again. If it happened once, it could happen again. On the other hand, it’s extremely unlikely that a similar storm would even approach the destruction of the storm of 1913, and I say this for several reasons.

-First and foremost, weather prediction and reporting is infinitely better. In 1913, the U.S. Weather Bureau, located in Washington D.C., depended on reporting stations throughout the Great Lakes region, and most of these locations reported wind velocity and direction, barometric pressure, precipitation, and air temperatures; jet streams and radar had yet to enter forecasting. The Weather Bureau would create charts and prognosticate to the best of its ability, but it was a painfully slow process. By the time a vessel’s captain obtained information at the docks, the wind could be changing direction, the barometric pressure could be falling at an alarming rate, and waves waves of monstrous sizes could form. After the storm of 1913, shipping company officials and boats’ captains accused the Bureau of incompetence—or, worse yet, not reporting a major storm in progress—when in fact storm warnings had been posted throughout the region. There was little respect for weather reporting, and captains often ignored the warnings, or, in some cases, left port before the warnings were posted.

The L. C. Waldo, for instance, left port loaded with iron ore before the storm blew in. The early part of her trip was uneventful, but the ship’s captain, John Duddleson, one of the most capable and experienced officers on the lakes, eventually found his vessel in the teeth of a storm that dismantled his boat and tore away the Waldo’s rudder, leaving her helpless against gigantic seas. The Waldo ultimately grounded in an extremely precarious position, and only a heroic rescue mission saved her crew from being lost.

-It’s also important to remember that trip and tonnage bonuses were paid to captains at the time, creating an incentive to go out in inclement weather. Captains would never risk their vessels and the lives of their crews for the extra money, and most vessels dropped anchor and did not sail until the storm passed, but as the numbers show, many went out. In at least one case—the previously mentioned Henry B. Smith—the captain was allegedly ordered to sail or face unemployment. This just would not happen today.

-Communications equipment—ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship—existed, but only a small percentage of boats had this equipment in 1913. The equipment was expensive and shipping companies did not want to invest the money in it, especially when the captains and crews opposed the idea of it. Sailors hated the idea of a company’s “spying” on them via onboard communications equipment. One fleet—the Shenango fleet—was known for its safety features and communications capabilities; every one of its vessels stayed in during the storm.

-Finally, vessel construction is much, much better today. In 1913, there were still wooden boats and whalebacks working on the lakes, along with barges that were often old schooners no longer reliable in carrying huge loads while navigating stormy waters; all of these were being phased out by steel vessels, but even these newer bulk carriers were constructed with steel that proved to be more brittle than the materials used a little more than three decades later.

This doesn’t mean that big, modern freighters are fail-safe against the forces of nature. The Edmund Fitzgerald, as strong and supposedly safe as any vessel on the lakes in her time, fell victim to a vicious storm in 1975—a tragedy that still seems impossible to believe today. November is a very unpredictable month, but with modern weather forecasting and communications, the chances of a storm claiming as many vessels as you saw in 1913, with the tremendous loss of life, is very unlikely.

Still, nature will have her way in unexpected ways. The bottom of the five Great Lakes is littered with wrecks that stand as silent proof of that.

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Michael Schumacher has written twelve books, including (most recently) November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913, Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and Wreck of the Carl D., and twenty-five documentaries on Great Lakes shipwrecks and lighthouses. He lives in Wisconsin.


"After 100 years, the definitive book about the Great Storm of 1913 has finally been written. In November’s Fury, Michael Schumacher deftly interweaves the stories of the scores of ships sunk, grounded, or damaged by the freak November hurricane with the tragic stories of a cross-section of the more than 250 Great Lakes sailors that died or were forever psychologically scarred."
—Mark Thompson, author of Graveyard of the Lakes

"November’s Fury is a moving and historically rich account of spectacular survivals, daring rescues, and heartbreaking loss. Michael Schumacher’s meticulous research and adroit storytelling give voice to the hundreds who perished in the Great Lakes storm of the century, revealing a human tragedy of immeasurable magnitude. November’s Fury touches all of our hearts."
—Andrew Kantar, author of Deadly Voyage and Black November

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