The Great Lakes Storm of 1913

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Today, as I write, marks the 45th anniversary of the wrecking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a disaster that took 29 lives and one ship. But November also marks the anniversary of one of the biggest storms to hit the Great Lakes in recorded history – the great storm of 1913. 

Late fall brings the shipping season to a close and commercial lakers are under pressure to maximize the season’s profits, but it is in November that the weather changes dramatically on our Lakes– air masses bearing moist warm air from the Gulf of Mexico flow north, where they meet with dry cold air that has travelled down from the northern part of Canada. These currents collide over the Great Lakes, and when the warmth of the waters rises up into the air, the winds begin to spin. This is known as a November gale, or a November witch, and can produce winds in excess of 145 km/h, waves over 11m, and significant levels of snowfall. A witch can last for days before the winds blow themselves out.

Before 1913 there was no consistent or effective storm warning system, and many ships would set out for one last run of the shipping season without adequate information. As a result of one particular storm, forecasting techniques and response time to alerts were improved and the architectural design of the ships themselves was enhanced.

The fierceness of this particular storm was, and remains, unrivalled, due to both the strength and the duration of the winds. At the most intense period of the tempest– that point where most gales reach their maximum strength and last for a period of about four hours– this witch screamed for 16 hours. When the storm had finally passed, 19 ships had been stranded, 19 ships had been lost, and more than 250 people had perished.

THE GREAT LAKES STORM OF 1913

When November skies turn bruised and grey 

When the Great Lakes cease to sleep

Then the north winds bring their icy rain and churn the waters deep

Brave sailors know the hazards and keep a watchful eye

On the mounting waves,

the gale force winds, 

the danger from the skies

November 7 that fateful year 

the storm started just the same

By the time it left the damage done

had granted it a name

The “Big Blow”, the “White Hurricane”, the “Freshwater Fury” too

By whatever name they called that witch

It was the worst that any sailor knew

Signal flags were run up poles, storm warnings on the mast

Lakers tried for one more trip –these winds would surely pass–

But the gusts drove from the north and south

They twisted when they hit

With icy air, warm lakes below,

it was disaster’s perfect fit

The winds roared on and stronger still

the waves stacked up, they rose

then snow squalls came and blizzards too 

–machinery just froze

No stars above to guide them, no buoys and no light

The ships were tossed, the brave men 

fought on into the night

For sixteen hours the gale raged on–most times they last for four–

From Whitefish Point to Goderich, vessels wrecked at Huron’s door

Nineteen ships gone–some vanished–and more stranded in the foam

And sailors too, two hundred more, called to their eternal home

The shores were filled with wreckage,

it washed up for many days

Ships’ timbers, barrels, boots and men, as is the Great Lake’s way

Not all were found, nor all the ships, too heavy was the loss

The worst disaster of these lakes,

this storm levied such a cost

November storms come howling,

they visit every year

Some men are filled with courage, and some are filled with fear

The gales cannot be outrun, 

they cannot always be forecast

But such devastating loss of life, may this storm never be surpassed

Lorraine Campbell, Tobermory