The 1913 Great Lakes Storm: The White Hurricane
Largest Marine Catastrophe on the Great Lakes
Much attention has been paid to the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975. The loss of the largest ship in the Laker fleet and 29 lives was a horrific event. However, the most savage storm in the history of the Great Lakes swept the inland waters on November 7-12, 1913 resulting in much greater loss of life.
The White Hurricane was formed by the combined forces of two storm fronts colliding with gale-force winds bringing 35 foot monstrous waves and driving snow and ice that doomed anyone caught out on the big lake. The greatest losses in lives and ships occurred on Lake Huron where 24 vessels were lost or severely damaged. All told, 19 ships went to the bottom of the lake and a total of 248 souls were lost. Many of the ships that went down where along the Michigan Thumb coastline.
The 1913 storm remains the most devastating natural disaster to ever strike the Great Lakes.
Early Warnings from Weather Bureau
It was a cool Wednesday, November 5th in Detroit. Temperatures were hovering around 30F it was a typical late Fall day. The weather forecast in The Detroit News called for “moderate to brisk” winds for the Great Lakes, with occasional rains Thursday night or Friday for the upper lakes (except on southern Lake Huron), and fair to unsettled conditions for the lower lakes.
On Thursday, November 6th the storm was organizing over Minnesota and western Wisconsin. An artic blast of cold air was starting to creep in on North Dakota. Forecasts across the region predicted increased winds and falling temperatures through Saturday.
The Great Storm Grows
Friday the 7th, brought on the start of the storm. A hurricane warning was posted with estimated winds exceeding over 70 mph. The winds on Lake Superior winds were popping around 50 mph, and snow was set to start over Superior by evening. The stage was set for the system to slide over the entire Great Lakes region as the storm slid toward the eastern edge of Lake Superior by nightfall.
On Saturday November 8, 1913, the Weather Bureau reported a severe storm centered over the entire lake region. The forecast was that “the wind will shift to the northwest on Lake Huron sometime this afternoon or early evening, and will attain about 50-mile speed on the open lake, especially in the northern half.”
Some noted that on late Saturday the winds started calming and the barameter rose a bit. Some capitans ignored the storm warning and proceeded up the St. Mary’s river near Sault St. Marie and along the Straits of Detroit between southern Lakes Huron and Erie.
Massive Storm Hits Michigan’s Thumb
The storm swept down and fastened its grip on the Thumb area on Sunday afternoon, November 9. Towards evening the wind grew in velocity and streetcars in Port Huron were stopped in their tracks by huge snowdrifts. The lightship, believed to be so securely moored as to be proof against all storms, was torn away from its fastenings and lifted over to the Canadian side, where it was stranded.
Unknown to most was a low pressure front creeping north in a counter clockwise motion up from Lake Erie. By early evening Sunday, cities along the southern coast of Lake Erie were being bashed by up to 80 mph winds in Cleveland along with a dramatic drop in barometric pressure.
First Freighters Hit By Storm
On Lake Huron, big freighters were tossed about by winds blowing from seventy-five to eighty miles an hour. One of these steamers was the Charles S. Price which received more space on the front pages of newspapers than any other ship. On Saturday morning, the Price, laden with soft coal, left Ashtabula, Ohio. When the freighter passed the town of St. Clair before dawn on Sunday morning, November 9, Second Mate Howard Mackley gave a short blast of the whistle as a signal to his young bride that he was passing and in reply, she turned on an upstairs light in their home. By dawn, the Price was making its way up to Lake Huron. About noon Sunday the Price was seen north of Harbor Beach by Capt. A. C. May of the Steamer H. B. Hawgood. On Monday afternoon a big steel freighter was seen floating upside down in the lake about eight miles north and east of the mouth of Lake Huron. Many people were anxious to learn the name of the steamer, although it was generally believed to be
the Regina. On Wednesday morning an attempt was made to find out the identity of the vessel, however, owing to the high sea the diver did not make his descent. Lake Huron kept its awful secret for almost a week. It was not until Saturday morning, November 15, that William H. Baker, a diver from Detroit, solved the mystery. When he went down he read the name of the steamer twice and the letters spelled out Charles S. Price. The forward part of the bottom of the ship was buoyed up by air that was held in her when she turned turtle, but two streams of bubbles were coming out of the bow which meant that she would settle gradually. On Monday morning, November 17, the Price disappeared from view.
The Charles S Price was built in 1910 at Lorain, Ohio. A steel bulk freighter, measuring 524 x 54 by Mahoning Steamship Co. 6,322 tons gross. Officially the Price was listed as lost in Lake Huron, approximately 8 miles north of Port Huron, with all hands, 27 men and 1 woman. Capt. W. M Black, Chief Eng. John Groundwader. Its cargo was listed as coal. (2)
The Wexford Grounds in Canada
Three years later salvage operations were attempted on the Price by two companies. Both abandoned the attempt. While the mystery of the identity of the ship floating upside down was solved, another mystery remains unsolved to this day. How did it happen that several bodies found along the Canadian shore were identified as from the crew of the Price, but they were wearing lifebelts bearing the name Regina?
Other ships that went down in Lake Huron during the massive storm were.
The Argus sank off of Pointe Aux Barques early evening of November 9th with 28 crew on on board.
Thought to have sank near Grand Bend Ontario at 12 am on November 10th with 22 lives lost. This ship has yet to be found. The James Carruthers was one of the newest vessels on the Lakes; the vessel was heavy and built with extra
steel to ensure seaworthiness (Marine Review Vol. 43 1914:435).
Thought to be capsized late on November 9th but according to local divers, the wreak is still in one piece, the coordinates are from the stern and the mid-ship off the eastern shore near Port Sanilac with 20 lost.
The Hydrus is still a ship that has yet to be found. Current estimates put her at the outer mouth of Saginaw Bay near Rogers City. But after a 106 years, her true location is still unknown.
John A. McGean
The John A. McGean sank near Pointe Aux Barques on November 9th with 28 on board.
Isaac M. Scott
The Isaac M. Scott foundered and sunk near Alpena on November 9th with 28 on board. Before sinking its thought that the ship capsized in the Lake Huron waves.
The Wexford went down near Goderich, Ontario with 20 on broad. The ship went down on the the southeastern side of Lake Huron.
In all , eight ships and 189 lives were lost on Lake Huron. For days after the 1913 Great Lakes storm relatives of the men who lost their lives patrolled the shore in the hope of finding their bodies.
After the Great 1913 Storm
Cities from Port Huron south recieved the brunt of the lake effect snow. Cleveland experienced 17.4 inches of snow falling in a 24 hours with a three day total of 22.2 inches. The snowstorm paralyzed the city with nearly all businesses, factories, and schools closed on November 10th. Street cars and trains rolled at a crowl and roads were impassible. Cleveland suffered extensive power, telephone and telegraph outages has lines snapped with the weight of the snow.
Snow drifts ranging from 4 to 5 feet were reported from Port Huron, south to Cleveland, Ohio.
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Sources of the 1913 Great Storm
- Information taken from Telescope Magazine, November 1963, pages 247-253.
- Based on a thesis written by Robert A. Dongler, Michigan State University, East Lansing.
- The New History of Michigan’s Thumb by Gerald Schultz, 1969 pp 105-107
- Pointe Aux Barques Lighthouse and Museum
- Weather map from the Weather Bureau’s Toledo observer and published in the Toledo Blade in Nov. 1913
- Catastrophic Disaster in the Maritime Archaeological Record: Chasing the Great Storm of 1913 By Sara Christine Kerfoot , April 2015
- NOAA.gov “Centennial Anniversary Storm of 1913”