This weekend marked the 100th anniversary of one of the most powerful winter storms ever to hit the U.S.

This storm caused great destruction and calamity on the lakes, and caused one of our nation’s worst maritime disasters -- killing at least 235 men working aboard ships and freighters unfortunate enough to be caught out in the storm.


Map of the Shipwrecks of the Great 1913 Storm Source: David G. Brown, White Hurricane, 2007

Before I delve into the meteorological history of this historic storm, let’s remember two things:

1.Back in 1913, there were no computer models, upper air data, satellite and radar images, or internet…things we take for granted today.  Meteorologists had no idea that this storm was coming and, as you will read below, there was no way they could have.

2. November was traditionally the last month of the shipping season. There were many freighters out trying to get those last loads delivered.

Alright, let’s look back 100 years and see how a storm of this magnitude could have possibly surprised every meteorologist in the nation.  While some people attribute this storm to the “collision” of two storms, that isn’t true. 

Back in 1989, former WDIV chief meteorologist Mal Sillars ordered a huge stack of copies of the original 1913 surface weather observations, and I then hand plotted and analyzed surface maps showing the true history of what some weather historians call “The White Hurricane.”

This story begins with what we now call an “Alberta Clipper” storm and its attendant cold front (the front edge of some very cold air) swinging down from northwest Canada and across the Great Lakes on November 7-8, 1913. 

This storm actually did have some good wind with it, and caused some damage in the Duluth, Minnesota area.  Forecasters looking at the once-a-day 7:00 AM (ET) surface weather map provided by our National Weather Bureau, as it was then called, thought that everything would clear out across the Great Lakes once this storm went by.

What they didn’t know was that a very weak area of low pressure was forming in northern Georgia. 

By the end of the day on November 8th, this low was over South Carolina.  An evening weather map, if it was available, would have shown this low but, even then, meteorologists would not have been concerned.

The South Carolina storm started moving northward up the East Coast.  Meanwhile, the Alberta Clipper’s cold front continued moving east toward the storm.

The most critical moment in this storm’s development occurred at 1:00 AM on November 9, 1913:  at that time, the front edge of that cold air reached the storm, now located over central Virginia.  The storm exploded, with its barometric pressure dropping so rapidly that meteorologists today would have called it a “bomb” (a real term for an explosively strengthening storm).  No 1913 meteorologist could have possibly anticipated what transpired next. 

The deepening storm moved from Washington, D.C. back to the northwest…reaching its maximum strength over Erie, Pennsylvania at 7:00 PM on November 9th.  That’s right:  this massive, intense storm moved from Washington, DC all the way to Erie, Pennsylvania in just eighteen hours.


Wave breaking on the shore of Lake Michigan. Published November 10, 1913 in the Chicago Tribune.

Something to remember here is that air flows counterclockwise around low pressure.  Something else to remember is that wind is stronger over the Great Lakes than over land, because there is no friction from trees, buildings, and terrain to slow the wind down over the lakes. So, a very strong north wind developed, and blew straight down the length of Lake Huron where, for twelve consecutive hours, hurricane force wind (74 mph or greater) and waves over thirty feet high battered ships.

The Regina

One of the ships lost to the storm, The Regina

One ship captain estimated the wind at 100 mph at one point.

ship bell

Lucky ships were the ones that ran aground, as those crews survived. But crewmembers aboard eight freighters – the John McGeen, Isaac M. Scott, Argus, Hydrus, James Carruthers, Wexford, Regina, and Charles S. Price – suffered one of the most horrible nightmares imaginable:  knowing that their ship was going down, and that there was no chance of surviving in life boats through the high wind and waves, not to mention the bitter cold and blinding snow. 

The 235 men who died all experienced a long, terrifying road to their final moments.