White Hurricane
November 9, 2013 6:05 AM   Subscribe

100 years ago a storm on the Great Lakes sank dozens of ships I found it a riveting story. "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. "
posted by leslies (20 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
The last message from Chris Keenan really got to me. I'm glad it's Saturday and I'm not at work.
posted by tommasz at 6:38 AM on November 9, 2013

That was a remarkable essay and I hadn't known anything about this storm. Thank you for posting.

OTOH, my Canadian husband is now singing Gordon Lightfoot just to annoy me.
posted by workerant at 6:42 AM on November 9, 2013 [15 favorites]

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early...
posted by jferg at 7:14 AM on November 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early...
I actually was up on the north shore with friends last weekend, and my fiance googled about this on the way up. It turns out that it's because lake Superior is so cold that it significantly impedes bacterial decomposition, resulting in corpses that stay sunk because they never fill up with gasses.

So there's that.
posted by kavasa at 7:31 AM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Great. I haven't even read the article, and now I've got that song stuck in my head. Thanks, Obama.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 7:35 AM on November 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Stan Rogers - White Squall
posted by oulipian at 7:42 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Reading the list of the ships lost in that storm on Wikipedia led me to the bizarre story of John Thompson, who supposedly went down with the SS James Carruthers. And here's a Toronto World article from 1913, but it seems little other information exists.
posted by Hey Dean Yeager! at 8:09 AM on November 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

lake Superior is so cold that it significantly impedes bacterial decomposition

Also why one of the recent Great Lakes-centered industries is reclaiming old-growth hardwood that was logged in the Upper Midwest and sank in transit.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:33 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

What a powerful, sad story.
NOAA has a site dedicated to the centennial.
posted by islander at 9:36 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I've been singing Gordon Lightfoot all morning as well.
posted by Gronk at 9:51 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

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.

Oh, America.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:10 AM on November 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

A lot of the ships appear to have been Canadian. What was Canada's response, in terms of reforms?
posted by TwoStride at 10:33 AM on November 9, 2013

The article doesn't mention the fate of the Turret Chief's crew (which abandoned ship); looks like they survived.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:42 AM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

The wreck of one of the ships mentioned as lost at sea was actually discovered just this year: the Henry B. Smith.
posted by ubersturm at 11:49 AM on November 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm having trouble finding specifics, but I'm generally finding more positive assessments of the outcome of the storm, such as:

In the aftermath of the storm, what became clear was that weather forecasting techniques, storm warnings and communications between the mainland and ship crews had to be improved dramatically. As a result of the calamity, shipbuilding techniques were engineered to take into account the forces at work in storms such as this. Improvements in communications resulted in safer ship commerce on the Lakes. To date, no storm has brought about the loss of life and property as the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.

Even Wikipedia says (unreferenced, alas):

The storm had several long-term consequences. Complaints against the USDA Weather Bureau of alleged unpreparedness resulted in increased efforts to achieve more accurate weather forecasting and faster realization and communication of proper storm warnings. Criticism of the shipping companies and shipbuilders led to a series of conferences with insurers and mariners to seek safer designs for vessels. This resulted in the construction of ships with greater stability and more longitudinal strength. Immediately following the blizzard of Cleveland, Ohio, the city began a campaign to move all utility cables underground, in tubes beneath major streets. The project took half a decade.

So I think the article may distort what actually happened in the interest of highlighting a spat that may ultimately have reflected only posturing.

Interestingly, the Turret Chief represented one of the newer types of cargo vessel design, the turret deck steamer*^, which was an outgrowth of the better-known but itself-problematic whaleback^ design -- although the turret deck design owed much to the toll policies of Suez, rather than the requirements of the Great Lakes specifically (where canal dimensions are a primary consideration).

* By the way, the Turret Chief was salvaged, hauled munitions during the war, got abandoned and salvaged again, and was finally lost for good off Muskegon in 1930.
posted by dhartung at 1:21 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

The forecasting - or lack thereof - reminded me of the storm that took out Galveston in 1900. The book Isaac's Storm is pretty revealing about the stateof the mmeteorological arts in that era.
posted by Dashy at 7:12 PM on November 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a town on Lake Erie, next door to a ship engineer who'd sailed both the Atlantic in World War II and then the Lakes for another 30. He always said the Lakes were more dangerous because of the very sudden way storms could develop.
posted by etaoin at 7:13 PM on November 9, 2013

Great story I'd never heard about. Thanks. I'll never forget swimming in lake Superior; a fearsome lake.
posted by old_growler at 4:00 AM on November 10, 2013

This happened 38 years ago today.
posted by timsteil at 9:07 AM on November 10, 2013

One of my favorite pastimes lately...
Great Lakes & Seaway Shipping Online Vessel Passage Maps
posted by DesbaratsDays at 12:09 PM on November 11, 2013

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