100 years ago, deadliest Great Lakes storm was at its peak

The storm raged for nearly a week, but Nov. 9 was by far the deadliest day. Wind speeds up to 90 mph created waves 35 feet high. Cities, including Cleveland, shut down as more than 2 feet of snow fell. Great Lakes freighters were tossed like toy ...

Charles S. Price
The Charles S. Price, upside down near the southern end of Lake Huron after the "White Hurricane" storm of Nov. 7-11, 1913. Engineer Milton Smith, who decided not to travel with the crew on the premonition of impending disaster, was called to identify bodies swept ashore. (Source image in the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston)

The storm raged for nearly a week, but Nov. 9 was by far the deadliest day.

Wind speeds up to 90 mph created waves 35 feet high. Cities, including Cleveland, shut down as more than 2 feet of snow fell. Great Lakes freighters were tossed like toy boats, with large ships overturned on four of the five Great Lakes -- including eight on Lake Huron alone.

It wasn't just another November gale that raged 100 years ago today, but a storm with hurricane-force winds and blizzard snowfall.

All told, the "White Hurricane" of 1913 claimed more lives -- nearly 250 -- than all other Great Lakes disasters combined. A dozen boats were lost, and another 31 were grounded or damaged. The storm caused the equivalent of $118 million in damage in today's dollars to freighters and cargo alone, not counting damage on shore.

Could a storm cause such calamity on the Great Lakes again?


Not likely, experts say, considering modern weather forecasting and maritime communications. The public, let alone ships' captains, has access to more-accurate forecasts days in advance. In fact, the 1913 storm is credited with spurring maritime and weather service officials to develop better port structures, better safety features on boats, better communications and better forecasting for the Great Lakes region.

"They had ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship radio available, but most of the companies didn't have them; they didn't see any use for them. ... The one company that did have them in, the Shanango Line, didn't lose a boat because they all stayed where they were and sat it out," said Michael Schumacher, author of the recently published book "November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913." "The weather forecasting they did have was archaic ... it all came out of the Washington, D.C., office based on the local weather stations reporting in each day. And what they did have for forecasts, many captains didn't pay attention to. But you can bet that, after this storm, they did figure out a way to get better forecasts and you can bet the captains did pay attention."

Even the type of steel used to make ships has changed since then. Ships at that time used a type of steel in their hulls that became brittle at temperatures below 33 degrees, probably contributing to their destruction amid high winds and waves. Since the 1940s ships have been made of a much more resilient steel.

According to Schumacher, the 562-foot passenger ship Huronic left Sault Ste. Marie in 80-degree weather but was caught in the brunt of the storm on Lake Superior. The Huronic survived, as did its passengers, but only after a close call near Whitefish Point.

"Snow and sleet blinded us," Huronic passenger James B. Potter said in an interview a few weeks after the storm, recounted in Schumacher's book. "The docks and the engine room were solid ice. The ship was an iceberg. The wind blew 80 miles per hour and the snow striking the pitching vessel froze as it struck. The ship tossed and lurched and creaked and trembled. It was a terrible sea, a wicked sea, such as I never saw before. Inside the ship, men were thrown like toys and furniture was broken to bits."

"How could such a thing happen on a (expletive) lake?" Potter wondered.

Quite easily, and not that infrequently, it turns out. While the loss of property and life on the lakes is far less likely now, the weather phenomenon that occurred a century ago can and still does happen, and most often at this time of year.

In this case, two low-pressure systems converged over the Great Lakes and became an "extratropical cyclone" fueled in part by the lakes' still relatively warm waters. The first low struck Lake Superior on Nov. 7 and moved slowly across the region through Nov. 11. Deceptive lulls in the storm, before the second low-pressure system arrived from the southeast, probably contributed to the peril as some ships ventured out from safe harbor.


The rapid drop in pressure and increase in wind speed spurred what forecasters called a "weather bomb."

"This situation, two low-pressure systems sort of coming together to have a combined impact, happens fairly often, especially at these transition times of year, the fall and spring," said Carol Christenson, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Duluth. "We get these big fall storms, the November gales, because we have such a difference in temperature between air masses. We have warm air to the south and cold arctic air coming in from the north. ... We get the strongest winds when we have the largest temperature differences."

Those strong winds create big waves and heavy lake-enhanced snows, the hallmarks of Great Lakes storms.

The 1913 storm's impact on Duluth and the North Shore was limited because the strongest winds were from the northwest, hitting only 60 mph here. Areas at the south ends of the lakes, where the wind had more chance to build big waves, were hit the hardest.

"As far as storm impact on our area, the 1913 storm wasn't even close to the Mataafa storm (November 1905) or the Fitzgerald storm (Nov. 11, 1975) or even the Halloween Blizzard (1991) or 2007 March Monster," Christianson said. "They set up differently and their centers hit different areas ... but the thing they all had in common was they came in the seasonal transition period."

Schumacher, however, said the 1913 storm appears to have had unique qualities, including a sudden and unexpected wind increase on Nov. 9 and then hurricane-force winds coming out of multiple directions -- northwest, north and northeast. And the second low-pressure system from the south moved so fast, between daily forecasts, that no one in harm's way knew it was headed north and west into the Great Lakes.

"It switched so fast, they had waves coming from multiple directions. They call it confused seas," Schumacher said. "And then those sustained winds lasted so long, 16 hours in some cases, that the waves just kept building and building on the southern ends of the lakes. Some of the people at the time said they had never seen that happen before or since."

The 1913 storm has kept many of its victims hidden, unfound in the century since the waves subsided. But just this past May, a group of shipwreck hunters with Northland ties found a previously undiscovered wreck sitting largely intact amid a spilled load of U.P. iron ore in about 535 feet of water offshore from Marquette. It turned out to be the 525-foot Henry B. Smith that had gone down with all 25 crewmen in the 1913 storm.


"Of all the boats that went down, there wasn't one survivor. Not one," Schumacher noted. "Most of the boats simply flipped over and sank. The guys didn't have a chance. That tells you what kind of fury that storm had."

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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