The Great Lakes “White Hurricane” of 1913

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Submitted by Joe Wooden

This is the first of a series of articles covering the Great Storm which devastated the Great Lakes area in 1913.

The St. Joseph and Area Historical Society is providing these articles and in November, the Historical Society will be offering a dinner theatre event at Hessenland to commemorate the Great Storm.

The causes of the weather conditions have been described in various ways. This report uses some recent work by James Clary of St. Clair MI, using US weather service information.

This year, 2013, is the 100th anniversary of the most devastating storm conditions every to strike the Great Lakes since records were kept and non-native settlements existed.  This storm or storms, to be accurate, produced heavy snow falls and rains, thirty-five foot waves, hurricane force winds, the lowest barometric pressure readings observed in North America until 2011.  These weather conditions experienced on the Great Lakes in November, 1913 took the lives of 250 sailors, perhaps more; the numbers vary in different records.  Many ships were destroyed, shore facilities were damaged, and lakeshore communities were severely affected.  The causes of the weather conditions have been described in various ways.  This report uses some recent work by James  Clary of St. Clair MI, using US weather service information.

There were two storms associated with the two frontal depressions. One of these formed over northern Wisconsin and it reached Lake Superior on November 6.

This depression produced northerly gales on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan on the night of November 6 and 7 and on Lake Huron by early November 8. This depression moved easterly and this resulted in an easing of storm conditions.  As the winds diminished ships’ captains ordered their vessels onto Lake Erie, into the Detroit River and the St. Clair River and through the Mackinac straits and down the St. Mary’s River.  So numbers of ships were moving on November 8 and 9.

What the ships’ captains did not know about was the formation on November 9 of a frontal depression moving along Lake Erie.  What they did not know was the more than abnormal barometric pressure readings.  The lowest reading recorded was at Erie. Pennsylvania where the eye of the storm was over that town; the reading was 28.61 “.  It has been commented by present day students of the weather that occurred in November, 1913, that this figure may have been the lowest recorded in the United States until the hurricane which came up the eastern seaboard of the United States in 2011.  The lower the barometric pressure higher and higher wind speeds result.  In the northern hemisphere winds move in a counter clockwise direction around a frontal depression and you can plot wind directions in the lakes as this depression advances.

This depression moved north and created the weather conditions which devastated Lake Erie, lower Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.  Wind speeds exploded.  The term used for what this depression created was “weather bomb”.  Winds reached 80-90 miles per hour.  Waves as high as 35 feet were reported.  As the depression moved wind speeds and directions changed unpredictably with wave directions changing in a confused pattern.  The storm brought rain and snow.

Snow falls were heavy from Cleveland north to the shores of Lake Huron with depths on the ground reaching four feet.  The air was white with wet snow, hence the term “white hurricane” as the high winds whirled the snow as it fell.  The storms incredible intensity lasted for 16 hours, late into the night of November 9-10.

Weather science in 1913 was in its infancy.  The paths of frontal depressions were difficult to forecast.  In retrospect it seems that the first depression with its stormy gale force winds moved off to the east thus creating a situation which seemed to allow a captain to order his vessel out.  What was not known was the coming of the second storm which may have come over the Appalachians to the south of the Great Lakes Basin.  So the absence of forecasting science, the lack of radio communication on the ships and the approaching end of the navigation season all conspired to encourage the shipping companies and the captains to move their ships out after the original gales diminished.

The result was serious loss of life and the loss or partial destruction of about 40 vessels.   Future articles will provide descriptions of these losses and stories about the crews.  The next article will look at one of the ships and the rescue of the crew.

The Wreck of the “Northern Queen” during the White Hurricane of November, 1913- Port Franks  

Submitted by Joe Wooden

The “Northern Queen” went down off Port Franks as a result of the worst storm in the history of navigation on the Great Lakes.  The “Northern Queen” was a 2500 ton steamer, 300 feet long and 41 feet in the beam. There is no record of what its cargo was.

The story of its wreck is one of great courage and strength on the part of the crew and of great kindness and generosity of the local people in the Port Franks area.

The details of the events concerning this ship’s last days come from the Parkhill Gazette and the Port Huron paper.  There are significant differences in the two reports.  Anyway, the “Northern Queen” passed port Huron northbound on Sunday morning November 9 and sailed about 40 miles north in terrible weather.  By the time Captain Crawford turned his ship around to go back south the storm was a “white hurricane.”  One report suggests that the “Queen” nearly made it to Port Huron but turned north again and found the storm made it impossible to do anything.  According to one report the ship was about 8 miles off Port Franks, unable to sail further.  Captain Crawford described waves of tremendous heights pounding over the ship “stripping some of the upper works and smashing through the ports.” Water poured into the Captain’s quarters and throughout the ship putting out most of the boiler fires and leaving the ship without steam for power.  At some point the ship lost its rudder and drifted.  On Monday the ship “dropped into the triangle of the sea” and the crew lowered both anchors.  After a time there was “a sudden lurch she shivered and crunched from stem to stem…there was a terrible crash and we knew she had lost both anchors.”

So the crew are now without any way of steering or controlling the ship as it drifted rapidly before the wind.   Sometime on Monday the Northern Queen was a mile off Port Franks.  The men had no food, no fires for warmth, and they clustered together on the bow soaked, cold, and miserable in the still heavy seas.  On Tuesday morning they were about 1000 yards off shore.  The Captain ordered the one remaining life boat over the side and 10 men went over the side into the lifeboat.  Great effort was needed to keep the boat from being smashed against the hull of the ship.  According to one report a cable had been attached to the lifeboat so that it could be pulled back to the ship.  The cable, however, snapped.  The 10 crew members got to shore with the help of local people who took them into their homes to be fed, dried, and warmed up after days of exposure to wind, snow, cold water, and lack of food.

Here the stories vary.  One story has the crew attaching a cable to a large crate of goods and throwing the crate overboard.  When it drifted close to shore the local men went in and pulled it to shore.  The cable could now be attached to the life boat and pulled back to the ship.

Another version of the story has 2 of the crew from the group of 10 taken to shore trying to return the life boat to the ship only to be capsized in the heavy surf.  In this version a second life boat was then launched from the ship to take 9 crew members to shore leaving the captain, the first mate, William McDonald, and the second mate.

One way or another last three were taken ashore and the crew of 22 from the “Northern Queen” were saved by their own courage and fortitude and by the aid given to the crew by the local people.

The ship itself may have drifted further south before it finally went to the bottom.  Evidently a number of years ago divers looking for a ship northwest off Kettle Point may have been looking for the “Northern Queen”.  The official location of its sinking is Kettle Point.

This is just one anecdote of many related to the great storm of November, 1913.

November has always been the critical month for Great Lakes storms

Submitted by Pat Rowe

November has always been the critical month for Great Lakes storms, but researchers and sailors agree with author Fred Landon who wrote the following:

“Sunday, Nov. 9, 1913 is the blackest day in the history of navigation on the Great Lakes.”

Within a 72 hour span, 13 ships were completely lost and between 230 and 260 people died. Lake Huron alone claimed 8 of those ships. This story recounts the tragedy of just three vessels, and if you manage to read it all, I hope you will want to buy some scuba gear,  or purchase a good boat, or pay a visit to your local library or book store. Please do read on!

The first ship is the Regina, named after the capital of Sakatchewan. She was built in Scotland but was Canadian owned which meant, that although smaller than most of these ships, she must have been sufficiently seaworthy to survive an Atlantic crossing to her home port of Montreal.  James Clary’s book,  “The 1913 Storms” says this about the Regina: 

“ You might say she was a floating general store.” 

 Listed regularly on her manifests were items such as paint, hardware, kitchen utensils, cloth, and food supplies. Each shipping season she visited ports all up and down the lakes. On Nov.9, she was going north from Port Huron, top heavy with sewer pipe but she completely vanished in the storm. Her final resting place between Port Sanilac and Lexington in Michigan was not discovered until 1986 when divers found much of her cargo, including bottles of still drinkable scotch and champagne. Today, this site is a part of Michigan’s underwater park system and, I am told, an excellent dive location.         

Next is the Wexford, also an ocean going ship, constructed in England. She too came under Canadian ownership and although she had no trouble coping with Atlantic weather, she fell victim to Lake Huron’s waves. She was coming south from  Fort William/Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) with a load of grain and was to make port in Goderich. There are stories which tell of Goderich residents who thought they heard the ship’s whistle on the 9th but perhaps the boat was unable to find the harbour, or indeed navigate into it under the terrible conditions. Her captain was the newly appointed Frank Bruce Cameron of Collingwood. He was just 26 years old but came from a family of mariners which enabled him to become an experienced and able seaman for one so young.  This voyage was both his first and last as a ship’s master because he is remembered as the youngest captain to die in the 1913 storm. The lake gave proof of this ship’s loss over the following days when wreckage and bodies of the crew began washing ashore from near Goderich south as far as Point Edward.

The Wexford was found by a fisherman, quite by accident, in August of 2000. Quickly, shipwreck hunters along with members of the Goderich  Marine Heritage Committee explored and verified her location, NNE of Grand Bend which, I believe, makes it in the lake west of St. Joseph, does it not?

The James Carruthers is last boat included this article. This ship was the newest, the largest, and the most expensive of all the ships on all of the Great Lakes during the storm. Unlike the first two, she was Canadian built in Collingwood and just launched in May of 1913 and, like the other two, she was Canadian owned. She was said to be one of the best built boats on the lakes. Brand new! Unsinkable! It somehow reminds me of the Titanic.

The Carruthers was southbound from Superior with a cargo of grain en route to Midland.

Robert Hemming, author of “Ships Gone Missing” tells us that one of the crewmen on Carruthers waved to a friend on an upbound ship  as the two boats passed by one another in the St. Marys River just south of the Soo.  The distance was not far so he shouted across the water: 

We’re going to Midland this time, Jack. I’ll tell your father we passed you.” 

But the James Carruthers never arrived in Midland. Bodies and wreckage from this ship washed ashore in an area from around Point Clark south to near Goderich.  The mystery remains. Why was she so far south when she was supposed to go east around the Bruce Peninsula to Midland? And in this present year she still has not been found, so where on the bottom of Lake Huron is she? 

There it is – three ships, all Canadian and all lost in the same storm. Now find your scuba gear and visit the dive site at the Regina, or take your new boat out on Lake Huron and become famous by finding the Carruthers,  but, if those options seem beyond you, obtain a copy of Paul Carroll’s book, “The Wexford” or perhap Hemming’s, “Ships Gone Missing.” These books are two gems written in an informative yet entertaining way  to help you to become an avid fan of Huron County history.