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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Hurricane of November.

When I was around 9 or 10, a friend of mine said his uncle had told him a mini-hurricane once formed on one of the Great Lakes. Knowing, like most Michiganders, that the Lakes were formidable bodies of water, and knowing, like most fifth graders, bupkis about meteorology, it made sense.

Much later on, after learning something of the mechanics of hurricane formation, I discounted it. The Lakes aren't tropical bodies of water, and cyclonic formation isn't very likely. "Mini-hurricane" meant "big storm," like the one that had claimed the Edmund Fitzgerald when I was six.

As it turns out, my friend's uncle was right. In November 1913, an "extra-tropical cyclone" very likely formed over Lake Huron as part of a unique merging of two fronts with a jet stream coming down from Canada. The result: The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, also known as the "White Hurricane."

By the time it blew itself out, after four horrendous days, nineteen ships were wrecked, twelve of them sunk by the waves, including then-new steel freighters, and more than 275 sailors (including men and women) died.

While not as well known as the Fitzgerald's gale (though Lightfoot's classic understandably ensures it), the White Hurricane is worthy of a retelling, and three authors have taken cracks at it. Sadly, only one is currently in print, but the other two are readily available from used book sellers.

The best from a technical standpoint is David G. Brown's White Hurricane. Brown does a masterful job of explaining what was--and was not--known by weather forecasting back in 1913. The jet stream would not be discovered until a generation later, which would radically change forecasting. In the meantime, the Weather Bureau (the precursor to the National Weather Service) did its best with barometric pressure and understanding of fronts. All told, Brown makes a good case that the Bureau did as well as it could with the tools of the time to warn about the Hurricane, going so far as to warn the shipping companies with personal phone calls.

But what was coming was far beyond what anyone, sailor or meteorologist, had ever seen. 90 mph sustained winds, waves topping 35 feet and whiteout squalls making navigation all but impossible, turning southern Lake Huron into a killing ground (the storm would also claim ships on Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Erie, sparing only Ontario during the onslaught). As Brown explains, there's no "running before the storm" as can can be done on the oceans--you quickly run out of lake and have to turn, which during the White Hurricane was a serious capsize risk.

Where Brown trips up slightly is in not personalizing the loss of certain ships--e.g., the first ship lost, the Leafield on Lake Superior, is briefly mentioned without context. Overall, Brown is a solid historian, showing a critical eye for mariner's tales, the occasional hoax and the tendency of newspapers to exaggerate for effect. The prose is serviceable, if occasionally a bit dry. But while he avoids speculation for the most part, he ends with a reasonable hypothesis to explain one of the persistent mysteries of the Hurricane: why the body of John Groundwater, the engineer of the doomed Charles S. Price was found wearing a lifejacket from the tragic packet freighter Regina.

Robert Hemming's Ships Gone Missing is an earlier account which nicely fills in the gaps in Brown's narrative. Hemming is a very good prose stylist, and he manages to work in anecdotes about all the lost ships, however briefly. He also has an appendix describing later storms, up to and including the Fitzgerald.

Finally, Frank Baucus' Freshwater Fury gives the first person accounts of the Hurricane. This is very valuable, as it includes the remarkable tales of survival of the James H. Sheadle (which made four turns during the storm and yet survived the death zone in southern Lake Huron) and the J.F. Durston, which smashed its way north to Mackinaw over the same grounds, encased in tons of ice but still afloat. The seamanship of both crews was nothing short of extraordinary, and in the former case was still questioned in a fit of idiocy by the company's ownership.

In addition, it contains the description of the loss of the Argus, which was crushed by waves as a surviving ship watched helplessly three miles away, battling for its own life. The silent horror of the other ship's bridge haunts. The body of the Argus steward's wife would later be found in the Captain's lifejacket, a sign that chivalry was alive and well. Hard to picture Captain Schettino doing the same, alas.

Take, read, and--fair warning--prepare to be chilled. The stories are often tragic, if occasionally interspersed with humor. The latter includes the case of the Worst Son of the 20th Century, who, incorrectly reported as having died during the storm, thought it would be a great joke to show up at his own funeral.

To this day, five of the wrecks have never been found, with the most recent find, that of the Wexford, dating to 2000.

1 comment:

DP said...

This post is now inaccurate in one respect: only four ships remain to be discovered.

The Henry B. Smith was located in the summer of 2013: