One of the most memorable and rewarding articles I researched and wrote while
employed by the National Weather Service had to do with the unprecedented and
destructive Fall Storm of 1913. On this 100th anniversary of this storm, many Great
Lakes and Weather Historians still agree that this storm was the greatest synoptic
storm in modern history to blast the Great Lakes!
"HELL HATH NO FURY LIKE A GREAT LAKES FALL STORM" CENTENNIAL ANNIVERSARY OF THE GREAT LAKES WHITE HURRICANE -
By: William R. Deedler, Weather Historian, Southeast Lower Michigan Anyone living in the Great Lakes Region for an extended period of time can become all too familiar with the incredible storms, or low pressure areas, that can settle over the Great Lakes Region in the fall. November, being the prime month for such monsters to start materializing, has had more than its share of super storms. As Polar outbreaks become more regular and intense, surging south into the area, they meet up with the warmer, moisture laden air from the Gulf of Mexico. Add to this a roaring jet stream with lots of energy and you have the ingredients for dynamic storm development. While this occurs with some regularity during fall and winter months in the Great Lakes, there are probably a dozen or so mammoth storms which are noted in history for their severity, creating extensive losses in life and property, particularly to the shipping industry. While controversy may exist about which storm was the strongest and produced the most devastation, one could hardly deny that the fall storm of November 7-12th, 1913 ranks near or at the top! In fact, it is generally agreed that the November 1913 storm (which concentrated more on Lake Huron for its death and destruction) was the greatest ever to strike the Great Lakes. No other Great Lakes storm even begins to compare in modern history with its death toll of 235 lives (possibly more, as ship personnel records back then weren't the best) and up to forty shipwrecks. Of these wrecks, eight were large Lake freighters that sank below Lake Huron's stormy surface, taking all hands with them. The November 1913 weather map pattern of storm development was ironically, not unlike the storm development of another, more recent monster low pressure system that formed during the period of January 25-27th, 1978. Both systems involved an Arctic shot of cold air moving south across the Lakes area, while at the same time, an intensifying low pressure area took shape over the southern Appalachians. In both cases, it was this low center that became the powerful storm as it tracked north northwest from the southern Appalachians into the eastern Great Lakes, absorbing the Arctic air in place. As the Arctic air was drawn into both storms, rapid intensification took place. (For the more meteorologically inclined...In the 1978 storm, an incredibly intense negatively tilted 500 mb trof formed as the Arctic jet stream phased with the subtropical jet over the eastern half of the U.S. Though I was unable to locate the 500 mb map from the 1913 storm, the surface development and trajectories of the systems show a nearly identical upper wind pattern). Both low pressure systems deepened tremendously ("bombed out") to record low pressures for their time. The 1913 storm's central pressure dipped to around 28.60 inches (968.5 mb), while the 1978 storm intensified to an almost unbelievable 28.20 inches (955 mb)! There were a couple of big differences, though, between the storms. First, and most obvious, one occurred in the mid fall, while the other was in mid winter. Second, and more importantly, the November 1913 storm was much more destructive to the Great Lakes shipping industry, being that the lakes were still open (ice free) and it contained a ferocious wind that howled for a longer period. Therefore, I decided to dig way back in the weather and Great Lakes history books and write about the November 1913 storm. (At this time, I plan a more extensive write up on the January 1978 storm late January 1997). As stated earlier, the storm of November 1913 began as two separate systems. A rather weak low pressure system tracked east across the southern U.S., November 6th through the 8th, while a low pressure area and associated Arctic front moved south out of Canada and approached the northern Great Lakes by Friday morning, the 7th. The air behind this front was very cold for early November with temperatures plunging into the single figures across the Northern Plains. In addition to the cold temperatures, a strong southwest wind blew out ahead of the Arctic front, while a strong northwest wind followed it. A storm warning was issued for the Great Lakes Friday morning at 1000 am because of the very strong winds expected ahead of and behind the Arctic front. A large dome of high pressure (30.52 in) was well behind the front at the core of the cold air, extending from southwest Canada, south into the northern Rockies. As the low pressure and attendant Arctic front moved across the Great Lakes on Saturday, storm force winds gusting 50 knots or better did indeed buffet the Great Lakes while shifting from southwest to the northwest. Weather observations at Detroit on Saturday, the 8th, also showed southwest winds averaging 25 to 35 mph with gusts 35 to 40 mph, shifting to the west. Temperatures which started in the 50s in Detroit on the 8th, fell to the lower 30s by midnight. Meanwhile, winds over the Great Lakes were reported occasionally gusting better than 50 knots, especially over Lake Superior and were accompanied by snow squalls and blizzard like conditions. But the worse was yet to come... By Sunday morning, the Arctic front continued to push southeast through the Ohio Valley, while at the same time, our storm center in the Appalachians was beginning to crank up and intensify (29.10 in) over northern Virginia. It was during the day, Sunday the 9th, that things really began to come together. The northern and weaker low pressure system (with associated Arctic airmass over the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley) was pulled into and absorbed by the stronger, intense low pressure system over the Virginia. As the much colder air fed into system, the storm began backing to the north-northwest toward its cold air supply, becoming a meteorological monster, growing and feeding on the moisture from the Atlantic and mixing it with the Arctic cold across the Great Lakes. By Sunday evening, our storm deepened to a very intense central pressure of about 28.60 inches as it tracked north-northwest to eastern Lake Erie near Erie, Pennsylvania. At the same time, the strong Arctic high pressure (30.54 in) was approaching northwest Minnesota. The isobaric pressure pattern between the two strong systems must have been very tight, given the extremes in pressure and thus, created even stronger storm force winds across the Great Lakes. Storm Warnings continued to fly over all the Great Lakes as northwest winds of extreme velocity backed to the north and churned the waters viciously. An extensive area of snow and blinding snow squalls developed across the Great Lakes as the Arctic cold blasted its way across the Lakes. Snow began falling Sunday evening in the Detroit area with about 3 inches on the ground by midnight and only 4.3 total. Much of this snow though, was due to "wrap around or backwash precipitation" produced on the backside of the storm and not Lake effect with the north-northwest wind trajectory. Eastern areas of the Great Lakes didn't fare as well and got hammered by snow and snow squalls as the Arctic cold blew across the relatively warmer waters of the Great Lakes. (In fact, the Fall weather previous to this storm had been mild and Great Lake temperatures were most likely warmer than normal). This, combined with the intense storm center, buried the Lake effect communities with at least a couple of feet of snow and HUGE drifts. Port Huron, which usually gets Lake effect snow from Lake Huron with mainly a northeast or north wind, got buried with heavy snow and snow squalls creating 4 to 5 foot drifts which immobilized the city. Other areas in the "snow belt" communities had similar reports including Cleveland, which was paralyzed with about 2 feet of snow, NOT including drifts. The record at Cleveland up to that time for a snowfall in a 24 hour period was shattered with 17.4 inches falling (previous was 13.0 in). Several reports of wires and telephone polls being pulled down were received due to the combination of heavy snow, ice and incredible winds. Records show that the wind at Port Huron, at the base of Lake Huron, increased steadily during the day on the 9th with maximum winds averaging 40 to 50 mph early Sunday afternoon, increasing even further to 50 to 60 mph later that afternoon and continuing to almost midnight. A maximum wind of 62 mph was recorded at 902 pm at Port Huron with similar readings at Harbor Beach. In Detroit, the northwest wind increased through the day to an average wind of 45 mph between 700 and 800 pm with an extreme gust of 70 mph recorded at 715 pm. Keep in mind, these readings were on land (not sea) but the violent weather experienced over the Great Lakes was well documented. It was best summed up in a report by the Lake Carriers Association in the wake of the Great Lakes " white hurricane": "No lake master can recall in all his experience a storm of such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed! Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over four or five hours, but this storm raged for sixteen hours continuously at an average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent spurts of seventy and over. Obviously, with a wind of such long duration, the seas that were made were such that the lakes are not ordinarily acquainted with. The testimony of masters is that the waves were at least 35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession, three waves ordinarily coming one right after the other. They were considerably shorter than the waves that are formed by an ordinary gale. Being of such height and hurled with such force and such rapid succession, the ships must have been subjected to incredible punishment!" It went on to say that the storm was so unusual and unprecen- dented, that it may be centuries before such a storm would be experienced again. As stated earlier, approximately 235 people lost their lives on the ships with most of them from the eight large freighters (for that time) sunk on Lake Huron. They include the John McGean, Isaac M. Scott, Argus, Hydrus, James Carruthers, Wexford, Regina and Charles S. Price. Most sunk over central and eastern Lake Huron, in Canadian waters. Horrific stories of dead sailors being washed ashore during the days following the storm came from Southern Ontario, along the lakeshore primarily from Southhampton, south to Kettle Point and Port Franks. This area included the larger communities Port Elgin, Kincardine and Goderich and roughly extended across the Lake from Oscoda to Port Huron in Michigan. A farmer, along the Canadian shoreline, told how the first dead body came floating ashore, "announcing" the arrival of the grisly scene to follow. It was truly an eerie and ghastly sight when, out of a dense fog, he saw a man bobbing in the water with his arms stretched out as though he were waving to him! It was a sailor from the Wexford and his shipmates quickly followed. The scene of bodies floating to shore was like out of some horror movie script in the book by Robert J. Hemming titled, "Ships Gone Missing." In it, he graphically describes the ghastly sight in the thick fog... "Singly and by twos and threes they drifted in, as if coming to be present at some ghastly muster, shrouded in life jackets bearing the names of ships gone missing. The Wexford, Argus, McGean, Hydrus, Scott, Regina, Carruthers and Price had all sent representatives to shore to announce to everyone that they foundered, that their crews were all dead. Stiff, bloated and battered, their heads capped in ice, they floated in, rolled and pitched by the combers crashing on the beach. They came draped over life preservers, they came wrapped in each others arms, they came frozen together in clusters. All week long they came, to be collected by area farmers who some- times had to dig half-buried bodies out of the sand that was trying to cover them." It's sad to say, that even with the horrible outcome of those sailors and the grief their family and friends endured, some looting of the bodies and cargo from the ships quickly became a problem. The local police were notified and they, along with the Sarnia police, enforced a stiff fine and up to 3 years in jail if caught looting. News quickly spread of the mass graveyard along the Canadian beach and scores of relatives and friends of the sailors came and identified the bodies. Unfortunately, after a few days, a change in the wind and lake currents caused some bodies to drift back out into the lake, never to be found. Some strange tales also arose from this tragedy, such as, the sailor who washed ashore from the Charles S. Price...with a life preserver from the Regina! This spawned a rash of theories on how it got there. Did the ships collide and thus, some men from the Price were rescued by the crew of the Regina...only later to go down herself? Or, where they (Regina crew) unable to rescue the men but still threw them life preservers? Another possibility, maybe the life preserver just floated in after the sailor and ended up on top of him. Another tale surrounded a unidentified sailor with the initials J.T. on his arm. After reading about it in the paper, Mrs Edward Ward, telegrammed her father, Thomas Thompson of Hamilton, Ontario, telling him his son (her brother) John, must be the unidentified man. John Thompson had been on the Carruthers, like the unidentified man and also had a tattoo with the initials J.T. on his arm. Therefore, Thomas rushed to the funeral home to identify the body. The body was badly battered but the facial features, similar to John's, were still largely recognizable. Other similarities were compelling, the feet had crossed toes, just like John's, the tattoo was on the left arm, like John's and a scar on the nose and leg matched John's perfectly. Not to mention, the body's teeth had the same teeth missing as John's! There was, however, a puzzling fact that didn't match...the hair color. The corpse's hair was light brown, while John's was almost black! The undertaker dismissed this fact, figuring the body, being immersed in cold water for a long time could have caused the hair to be lighter. In light of all the remarkable similarities, they went ahead with the funeral. You guessed it, it wasn't John. Right in the middle of John's memorial service, in walks John! You could have knocked over the mourners with a feather as they stood there, stunned as the resemblance was uncanny! Evidently, John had jumped ship to be on a ship called the Maple and waited out the storm in Toronto, where he read about his "death." Thinking it would be a real good joke, he said nothing to his family and friends and thus, walked in on his own funeral! The unidentified man, remained so and was buried with four other anonymous souls. All together, only 56 bodies would be recovered on Canadian beaches along with one near Port Sanilac, Michigan. And talk about ESP... another seaman, Milton Smith, having been bothered by persistent bad premonitions or a foreboding of something terrible happening to him if he stayed aboard the freighter Price, just up and left. He told his superior officer of the foreboding he felt, who in turn, tried to persuade him to stay for the remaining three weeks. No way, Milton was more determined than ever and left at his shipmates scoffs. Well, you know the rest of the story... Epilogue: I wish to dedicate this internet story to all the Great Lakes shipping personnel, past and present. To their hard work and difficult lifestyle they must lead...and dangerous weather they encounter. To all the men who have died in shipping tragedies, especially in this 1913 storm and those aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald, which went down in Lake Superior on a Monday evening at approximately 715 pm, November 10, 1975. The Fitzgerald was a magnificent freighter that I watched through my childhood as it pushed north and southbound on the St. Clair River past Marine City, Michigan. Finally, I'd like to dedicate this article to my deceased Grandfather, William Leo Deedler. Who, during the first half of this century, worked for several years on the freighters as a Chief Engineer, and to my Grandmother, Adelaide, who put up with it! Criteria for advisories/warnings on the Great Lakes Headline Criteria Wind (knots) Small Craft Advisory 18 to 33 Gale Warning 34 to 47 Storm Warning 48 or greater
On the 100th anniversary of this great storm, the National Weather Service has
worked on a ever encompassing tribute to the storm! A wide range of topics were
researched and put together by a number of Great Lakes offices in the
Check out the site; one of my favorites is; A Numerical Model Retrospective.
Winter is coming and so is my Winter Outlook. As usual, this winter presents its usual set of challenges, especially considering there will be a Neutral ENSO affecting (or not affecting as the case may be) the global weather pattern.
I plan to release my 17th Winter Season Outlook during the third week of November.
Bill Deedler -SEMI_WeatherHistorian