100th anniversary of powerful winter storm

By Paul Gross - Meteorologist
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DETROIT - 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.

One of the ships lost to the storm, The Regina

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

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. 

To give you an idea of how much power Mother Nature threw at those ships and crews, when dawn broke on November 10th, people along the Lake Huron shoreline saw something shocking:  a freighter upside down in the water.  It wasn't until the wind and waves settled down several days later that divers discovered that the "mystery ship" was the Charles S. Price.  It was the first time that anybody had ever seen a fully loaded ore carrier flipped upside down.

A Cleveland street car after the 1913 storm.

One ship, the Harvester, managed to get through the storm, and its captain, William H. Smith, later reported that when they reached harbor, they were over a foot deeper in the water than when the trip began – showing that they were coated with more than 800 TONS of ice that had accumulated on the freighter from water spray blowing onto the ship and freezing. 

There will be some wonderful opportunities this weekend to honor the memories of those who perished in the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, and commemorate the storm's 100th anniversary: 

On Saturday, Nov. 9, the Port Huron Museum (which has a nice exhibit about the storm) will dedicate a memorial to the storm's victims in Port Huron at 5:00 PM at Bridge Plaza.  That will be followed by a dinner at the nearby Doubletree Hilton, where I will speak about the meteorology of this historic storm (I'll be showing slides of my hand plotted maps…the most detailed history that has ever been done about the storm).  Dinner tickets are still available.  Call 810-982-0891 for more information and to purchase tickets.

On Sunday, November 10th, The Detroit Historical Society's Dossin Maritime Group hosts its annual remembrance for sailors lost on our inland seas at 6 p.m. at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle.

This year's featured speaker is author Michael Schumacher, who's latest bookNovember's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913 (recently published by the University of Minnesota Press) chronicles the ships and sailors lost in this devastating storm.

The evening's activities begin with a lantern vigil at the Edmund Fitzgerald anchor, followed by a performance by Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock, a color guard escort of a memorial wreath to the Detroit River for receipt by an honor flotilla of Great Lakes vessels, and Schumacher's program. More than 20 international maritime agencies are participating in this year's event.

For more information or reservations, call (313) 833-1801 or visit their website at www.detroithistorical.org.

For those of you on the Ontario side of Lake Huron, the Port of Goderich will have special activities this weekend, including free admission to the Lake Huron Museum.  There will also be performances of The Great Storm at the Livery, and Mariners' Musical Reflections at 8:00 PM Saturday and 12:00 AM Sunday at the Goderich Legion hall.  Sunday, November 10th at 2pm, Knox Presbyterian Church will conduct a Memorial Service for those lost in the Great Storm of 1913.

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