White Hurricane

By | November 7, 2013

Essay
Winter on the Great Lakes // Photo courtesy NOAA

WINTER ON THE GREAT LAKES // PHOTO COURTESY NOAA

It reads like the tale of the Titanic times a factor of at least a dozen. Freighters thought invulnerable to the weather cracked in two. Hundreds of sailors drowned. Sad farewell messages tucked inside glass bottles washed up on Lake Superior beaches. The “White Hurricane,” a cataclysmic storm which pounded Michigan 100 years ago this week, was quite simply the biggest, deadliest natural disaster ever to hit the Great Lakes. It’s also one of Michigan’s most epic tales.

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William H. Alexander was new to the job, but not the work. As it was every day, the newly appointed chief weather observer for the Cleveland office would wait by the telegraph for D.C. headquarters to wire the morning’s forecast. To the layman, the message was incomprehensible—a complex system of symbols left over from the days when the Weather Bureau was still part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. But given a little time, Alexander could decipher the code, carefully reconstructing the national weather map that lay embedded in the government hieroglyphs, and relay the local forecast. Today, it seemed, Clevelanders would like what their weatherman had to say. According to the map, the Indian summer that the Great Lakes had been enjoying for the past few weeks would make November 4, 1913 another pleasant fall day.

At that time, the type of meteorology practiced by Alexander and his colleagues was still largely a guessing game, though one aided in recent years by science. The Weather Bureau had some 2,000 employees and volunteers stationed across the country, each keeping careful track of their thermometers and barometers as a matter of official government business. They were not the modern local weather men and women of today. Trained to observe and little else, it was their job simply to relay raw observations back to Washington, D.C., where the scattered data would then be woven together into a national weather map. By the time the daily maps were constructed, broken down into code, wired, and reconstructed at local offices by the likes of William H. Alexander, they were often already half a day out of date. Mailed copies of headquarters’ daily national maps arrived days later, as obsolete as a three-day-old copy of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Weather Bureau national map, November 6, 1913

WEATHER BUREAU NATIONAL MAP, NOVEMBER 6, 1913

The forecasting itself was the exclusive domain of a small cadre of Washington meteorologists back at headquarters. Though William H. Alexander would be the one to physically transcribe and replot the day’s weather map, he was merely the local delivery man for a set of predictions that had taken shape hundreds of miles to the east. Forecasting was complex, even paradoxical work that often left meteorologists looking at historical records for trends typical to a particular date when divining the day’s forecast. Sometimes the system worked; other times, weathermen became scapegoats for large, unexpected storms. In the Great Lakes, of course, sudden changes could make weather prediction a practice hardly worthy of the name. It was a volatile region of the country where cold, arctic air from Canada and warm air from the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico regularly collided, producing violent storms. Divining a proper Great Lakes forecast was particularly difficult in fall, when the famed “Gales of November” would, with little or no warning, pound the region with premature blizzards and churn inland seas into traps that sent sailors to cold, wet deaths almost every shipping season.

For now, this November seemed to be bringing nothing of the sort. From Marquette down to William H. Alexander’s Cleveland office, the Great Lakes region was recording near record-high temperatures. On Thursday, November 7, as Alexander plotted another day’s map, there was some indication of a system moving in from Canada that might bring the Indian summer to a close by the end of the weekend. But according to the national forecast, the worst that would come of it was a cold November rain. Indeed, though unknown to forecasters back at headquarters, the changing weather had already advanced into western Lake Superior and was starting to make things a little uncomfortable for sailors eager to make their last trips of the season. When Captain Neil Campbell of the Sarnian prepared to push off from the docks at Thunder Bay on Lake Superior’s northern coast, he noticed an unusual coincidence: His barometer was dropping quickly, but the winds were almost completely still. The wind gusted plenty, however, as the Sarnian rounded the cape and headed into open water. Heavy waves and wind quickly out-powered the 320-foot ship’s engines and swept the vessel dangerously toward the rocky Canadian coast. With some clever seamanship, Captain Campbell was able to steer the vessel to safety, but the winds sounded enough of an alarm that some nearby ships decided to take cover rather than start their journeys down to the Soo Locks, where Superior met the lower Lakes.

By mid-morning Friday, the Weather Bureau in Washington was finally starting to take notice of the disturbance developing on the Big Lake. With the code of that morning’s weather map still being deciphered by Alexander and the country’s local observers, the Bureau issued revised data to stations on all five Great Lakes now reflecting the Superior system that had seemingly come out of nowhere. Red warning flags bearing a black rectangular center were ordered hoisted at all points across the Lakes, signaling to ships a “storm of marked violence.” Despite the strong language, such warnings left much to interpretation, especially among experienced captains familiar with November gales. Indeed, even as choppy water dogged Lake Superior, most ships travelling to and from the Soo decided to remain on course, figuring both the weather and warnings were typical November fare.

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Conditions were becoming less ordinary, though, by Friday evening. The full brunt of the cold front sweeping down from Canada enveloped Duluth, Minnesota first, ripping downtown with sudden 60-mile-per-hour winds. Offshore, ships already on the northern stretches of the Lakes were prepared for rough seas, but not for the wind to triple in speed in the matter of a half hour. Among those caught in the sudden trap was the Louisiana—a mammoth 287-foot wooden relic of the days before steel freighters ruled the Lakes. Once clearing Green Bay in northern Lake Michigan, 70-mile-per-hour winds began forcing the ship backwards toward the rocky Wisconsin coastline. The captain ordered the steam engines to full power, but it was useless. The Louisiana crashed into the rocks around 2 a.m. and caught fire soon after. Faced with threats from both fire and water, the crew of the wrecked Louisiana had little choice but to chance the waves in a lifeboat. “She burned clear to the water as we watched,” the ship’s first mate later remembered. “There was nothing left of her but red-hot engines, which hissed like a volcano and set off clouds of steam as the seas rushed over them.”

Down on Lakes Huron and Erie, the Weather Bureau’s red and black warning flags looked as out of place as the yellow and purple crocus that sprout from the snow in springtime. Indeed, with temperatures still in the 50s and 60s, some flowers may have been coaxed into bloom. The Cleveland Press boasted of some of the warmest weather on record. And the winds from the south, though noticeable, were both warm and unremarkable. Early in the day, along the St. Clair River at the base of Lake Huron, Captain Edward McConkey ordered his northbound vessel, Regina, to be loaded on schedule. As was typical for package freighters, the cargo was a hodgepodge of goods destined for the remote lumber camps of northern Canada. Boxes of bottled ketchup, whiskey, kitchen matches, buckets of roofing tar, and a case of French champagne scheduled for a New Year’s Eve uncorking all joined the hundreds of hay bales that had been loaded into the cargo hold further downriver. The only conundrum now for first mate Wesley Adams was figuring out where to put the stack of iron sewer and gas pipe yet destined for the the ship’s manifest. As Regina finally steamed from the dock late in the day, ship spotter Denny Lynn noted with some concern the load of heavy metal pipe now stacked atop the ship’s deck. Carrying such a heavy load on deck would make the boat top heavy and vulnerable to rough seas should the weather deteriorate. Falling temperatures and heavier winds that moved in by late evening suggested this might soon be the case, as Regina motored on beyond the safety of the St. Clair River.

Meanwhile, ships in the northern half of the Lakes were already overrun by the full strength of the storm. In such conditions, land became more dangerous than sea. As it remains today, one of the Lakes’ great hazards is its shore, lined unpredictably with underwater rocks and cliffed coastlines capable of tearing a ship apart in a matter of moments. In the near hurricane-force winds and flying snow, navigation around the known hazards became impossible, and even anchored ships now drifted uncontrollably toward the coast. As the fury intensified on Saturday night, the upbound Canadian freighter Turret Chief was losing such a fight in central Lake Superior. Blown all the way from its course in the middle of the Lake to the danger of the Keweenaw Peninsula on Superior’s southern end, the ship smashed head on into the cliffs around 4 a.m., wedging itself tightly against the rocks.The unplanned docking had been so snug, the ship’s rail now extended out beyond the cliff, allowing the crew to climb safely onto land. In the rush to abandon ship, however, they were left with no food or supplies. A few men scrambled to reboard the ship, but a thick coating of ice aboard the decks made reentry impossible. The men of the Turret Chief were now no longer in danger of drowning, but freezing or starving looked likely, as they hurried to build a makeshift shelter in the remote Upper Peninsula woods.

On Thursday, November 6, Cleveland was recording near record-high temperatures. By Tuesday night, two feet of snow lay in Cleveland's streets, disrupting the city for days afterward.

CLEVELANDERS DIG OUT AFTER TUESDAY NIGHT'S STORM.

Not far from the Turret Chief, a similar fate had befallen the L.C. Waldo. The storm began tearing apart the ship shortly after midnight Saturday, a rogue wave first washing away its pilothouse and subsequent batterings knocking loose its rudder. With no way to steer, the sound of the surf battering the Keweenaw coast soon became audible, signaling certain doom. When the ship finally ran aground, it began to break apart—almost into two halves. The crew scrambled to the bow, now safely wedged against the rocks, while the dangling stern still thrashed in the waves. At any moment it could break loose, pulling the entire ship back into the water to be shredded into finer pieces. For now, the crew, huddled together in the unheated windlass room, could do little but wait.

Waiting was something Captain James Owen decided he had had enough of by Sunday afternoon. His straight-decker vessel, the Henry B. Smith, was due in Cleveland in a few days with a heavy load of iron ore, its last haul of the season. The storm now battering the Marquette loading dock was threatening to make him late once again. Allegedly, Owen had a track record of late November deliveries, and the Smith’s owners had threatened to strip him of his captainship if this final load did not arrive on time. Whatever the reason, the normally easy-going, well-liked captain, who had steered the ship since its launch, ordered the men working the dock into the blizzard to load the 10,000 tons of frozen iron ore. The heavy load, he thought, would stabilize the ship in rough water; the wind blowing in from the north would help him make up time on his southbound trip. Reports from the dock suggest that Owen left in such a hurry, the ship’s hatches were still being covered when the Smith began moving out toward open water. “Wire the company that I’m coming,” Owen reportedly shouted just before launch. The temperature dropped into the teens, as the Henry B. Smith cleared the harbor and disappeared into a swirling sea of white.

Down in Lake Huron, the Indian summer was now officially over. The package freighter, Regina, bound with its sundry supplies for the lumberjacks waiting on Georgian Bay, was now bashing its way north into seas and winds the likes of which its captain had never seen. Regina had made her way into one of the notoriously dangerous parts of the whole Great Lakes, Saginaw Bay, when the wind speed suddenly shot up to 70 miles per hour. Rather than risk pushing farther north in the storm, Captain Edward McConkey thought it prudent to retreat back to the safety of the St. Clair River and wait out the blizzard. Turning the ship around in a full-on November gale would be a daring move; the maneuver would require exposing the full length of the ship—and its top-heavy load of iron pipe—to the oncoming waves. If caught in a trough, the ship could easily turn and capsize. Despite the danger, Regina was able to reverse its route safely, and Captain McConkey began steering the vessel to the south, toward what he thought would be the calmer waters he had just come from.

The Weather Bureau collected its data from observers twice a day—once at eight in the morning, and again at eight in the evening. This gave the Washington meteorologists time to synthesize all the observations and send back a forecast in time for the coming day’s shipping schedule. But it left a huge 12-hour hole during the day in which quick changes in the weather would go virtually unreported. By Saturday, the new daily maps in William H. Alexander’s office were reflecting the intensifying storm blowing in from the north. But rapid changes to the south were threatening to turn the ongoing storm on the northern Lakes into a weather cataclysm. An organized system of warm air blowing up over the Appalachians had intensified and was now rushing toward the lower Lakes by noon on Sunday. It was bad timing for the Weather Bureau: New observations weren’t due for another eight hours. If the two systems caught up with each other, there would be no warning sailors until the even bigger storm was already upon them.

Rapid changes to the south were threatening to turn the ongoing storm on the northern Lakes into a weather cataclysm. An organized system of warm air blowing up over the Appalachians had intensified and was now rushing toward the lower Lakes by noon on Sunday. It was bad timing for the Weather Bureau: New observations weren’t due for another eight hours. If the two systems caught up with each other, there would be no warning sailors until the even bigger storm was already upon them.

Residents around Cleveland felt the collision of the storms before anyone else. As the two weather systems merged, the city was ripped by wind gusts that reached nearly 80 miles per hour. Huge waves bashed its breakwater, whipping the normally protected harbor into a white, unnavigable mess. Power lines, battered by the wind and weighted by ice, began to fall. Close to two feet of snow assaulted the city in just 24 hours. In the midst of it, weather observer William H. Alexander took cover in a local hotel, stranded five miles from home by the surprise intensifying of the storm.

As always, conditions on the water were far worse than on land. As the now mega-storm ripped its way onto southern Lake Huron, 90-mile-per-hour winds and 35-foot waves pushed vessels helplessly into a killing zone at the foot of the lake. Aboard the Crawford, Captain Walter C. Iler and crew watched helplessly as the upbound Argus crashed into the waves and “crumpled like an eggshell,” the crew still inside. Further north, near Port Austin, the Howard M. Hanna was torn nearly in half against rocks just 500 feet from shore, while groups of survivors huddled together in both bow and stern, awaiting their fates. Nearby, the package freighter Regina started losing its battle against the storm. Running aground on the eastern coast of Michigan’s Thumb, the ship began to take on water and sink around midnight. The crew managed to launch at least one lifeboat into the towering waves, while others remained on board. It was likely Captain McConkey who began pulling hard on the ship’s steam whistle, letting forth a universally-recognized distress call. Residents of nearby Port Sanilac reported hearing the scream for help all the way from shore, but there was nothing anyone could do. No one could launch a rescue vessel in this weather, let alone ring a church bell to guide the unseen lifeboat to safety. After an hour, the Regina’s whistle went silent.

“Extratropical cyclone” was a term not likely in the regular vocabulary of the era’s meteorologists. But just such system—a hurricane-like storm originating outside the globe’s tropical zones—had just battered the Great Lakes. When the system started to move east on Tuesday afternoon, losing power over Ontario, the clearing weather finally offered an unfettered view of the storm’s deathly wake. For weeks, bodies washed up on the beaches lining southern Lake Huron’s Canadian and American borders. Identifying sailors often proved a guessing game, aided at times by clues like unsent postcards held in coat pockets or life jackets stamped with a vessel’s name. Most men of the wrecked Charles S. Price were afforded the final dignity of being positively identified. When news of the ship’s foundering reached Milton Smith, the young assistant engineer immediately boarded a train to Michigan’s Thumb to aid in the work of identifying the dead. Smith had handed in his resignation from the crew of the Price just a few days earlier, when the ship was readying for its last scheduled haul of the season. Now, as the boat’s only surviving crewman, he began the work of sorting the bodies of his former friends.

Rescue stories occasionally interrupted the bad news. Shortly after the L.C. Waldo was announced lost by local newspapers, the crew—still clinging to life inside the wrecked bow–heard shouts coming from outside their metal tomb. Miraculously, not one but two rescue boats that had battled for more than 10 hours from different directions to reach the Waldo arrived almost simultaneously. The Waldo’s frozen crew, marooned since Saturday evening, piled out of the icey hull and into the arms of their rescuers. They’d still have a two-hour ride to safety across choppy seas churned up by the gale. But on land waited a crate of fresh eggs and 100 pounds of ham, preparations that one of the rescue boat crews had been smart enough to make should their mission prove successful.

Bodies wash up on a southern Lake Huron beach. Photo courtesy Bowling Green State University

BODIES WASH UP ON A SOUTHERN LAKE HURON BEACH

More times than not, what the water brought ashore in the coming weeks was a reminder of what had been lost. Down on Lake Erie, pieces of Lightship 82, the beacon of the harbor at Buffalo, started washing up on the beach Tuesday afternoon. Among the wreckage was a broken section of cabin door bearing an apparent goodbye message from the captain to his wife back in Manistee: “Goodbye Nellie, Ship is breaking up fast. Williams.” The Lakes would give up even sadder farewells in the coming weeks. In the earliest hours of the gale, the tug James H. Martin and its barge, the Plymouth, were caught in the storm around Green Bay. The tug’s engine was no match for the winds and waves, especially towing the engineless barge, so its captain had little choice but to anchor the Plymouth in what appeared to be safe waters around Gull Island. When the Martin went back to pick up the barge, no trace of it was found. Pieces of the Plymouth began washing ashore in the days following the storm, though none more poignant than the bottle arriving 11 days after the ship’s last sighting. Inside was a message from Chris Keenan, a federal marshal stationed aboard the barge:

“Dear wife and children. We were left up here in Lake Michigan by McKinnon, captain James H. Martin tug, at anchor. He went away and never said goodbye or anything to us. Lost one man yesterday. We have been out in storm forty hours. Goodbye dear ones, I might see you in Heaven. Pray for me. — Chris K.

P.S. I felt so bad I had another man write for me. Goodbye Forever.”

The White Hurricane exacted a deathly toll never before seen on the Lakes. Dead sailors were an accepted part of the shipping industry at the time, with an average of a dozen or so men lost each season. The number of dead for this storm alone now stood at more than 250. In all, 12 major ships, some thought unsinkable, had been destroyed with complete loss of crew. Dozens of other boats had been stranded along the coastline, each sustaining major damage. Cleveland and Toledo, which each saw multiple feet of snow and ice, ceased to be functioning cities for days. It was, simply put, the worst and deadliest natural disaster the Great Lakes had ever seen.

With such grave costs paid, the process of assigning blame for the epic disaster began almost immediately. Newspapers caught wind of the story of Jimmy Owen, the good-natured captain of the Henry B. Smith who had been pressured by the ship’s owners into making a suicidal run at the height of the storm and was lost at sea with his entire crew. Owners of wrecked ships attempted to shift the focus to the Weather Bureau, which they claimed had given inadequate warnings about the severity of the storm. When shipowners pressured for an investigation of the Weather Bureau, President Woodrow Wilson fired back with a threat to look into the less-than-kosher practices of ship owners, who regularly incentivized captains to make dangerous late-season runs, though always off the books. In the end, no major reforms came on either side, and the most measurable immediate effect of the storm was a spike in insurance rates for ships and cargo. Meanwhile, shipping resumed on the Great Lakes as soon as the weather improved, even as bodies were still washing ashore.

In the ensuing decades, the type of work practiced by weather observer William H. Alexander would gradually grow into a modern science. In 1919, Norwegian meteorologist Jacob Bjerknes developed the concept of weather fronts. In the 1930s, the “jet stream” became a known quantity. And soon after, sophisticated weather instruments were giving meteorologists understanding of how the upper atmosphere influences surface weather. Still, November gales continue to be a haunting feature of life on the Lakes. As late as 1975, a November storm not unlike the White Hurricane cracked the mighty Edmund Fitzgerald in two, sending her and crew to the bottom of Lake Superior. Then, as in 1913, observers looked on with astonishment as natural forces claimed lives and another invulnerable human invention. In some sense, surprise seems an odd reaction to what should by now be considered the perennial power of the Lakes.

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Many Great Lakes communities are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the “White Hurricane.” The Port Huron Museum is showcasing an exhibit titled “Storm of 1913 Remembered” now through January 14; the Dossin Great Lakes Museum will host its annual “Lost Mariners Remembrance” on November 10 in Detroit. Dozens of other remembrances are being held across Great Lakes states and Canada.

 

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2 Comments

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robert on November 9, 2013 at 8:30 pm.

Exceptionally fine writing.

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Jack Douglas on November 14, 2013 at 12:41 am.

This is a remarkable piece of history. The farewell note of Chris Keenan, despite its brevity, contains the power of a great novel. His words act as does ancient starlight to enable to see what existed before our own existence. This article was sent to me by my daughter, Emily, who lives in Chelsea. She is like fresh starlight.

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