Frozen Fury: The 1913 White Hurricane

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Frozen Fury: The 1913 White Hurricane

Postby admin » Tue Jun 07, 2016 10:18 pm

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Frozen Fury: The 1913 White Hurricane
by Wendy Webb


An unknown steamer is said to be pounding to pieces on the rocks of Manitou Island, nine miles north of Keweenaw Point, with a blizzard and high winds raging.

– Duluth Herald, November 10, 1913

The date is eerily familiar in the history of Lake Superior shipwrecks. Decades later a November 10 storm claimed the Edmund Fitzgerald and all 29 lives aboard it. While the Fitz’s 1975 sinking is fresh in the minds of many people, few alive today remember – or even know about – a much deadlier November storm, one that sank a dozen freighters and wrecked 31 more, including that “unknown steamer” – discovered to be the L.C. Waldo – off Manitou Island near Copper Harbor, Michigan.

It was a storm so large that it ravaged the entire Great Lakes region and so intense that its 80-mph winds equaled those of a Caribbean hurricane. But in November on the Great Lakes, this was no tropical storm.

This frozen hurricane of 1913 is still unprecedented in its scope, destruction and strength. It remains the deadliest storm in the history of the Great Lakes.

The storm blew onto Lake Superior on November 6, 1913, and finished with lakes Huron and Erie seven days later. When the winds quieted and the waves calmed, 12 freighters were lost beneath lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie. Thirty-one more vessels had been pounded to pieces on rocks or driven onto land. The official death toll was 248, but that’s just the sailors registered on the ships that sank. Shipping personnel records of the day weren’t always accurate; it’s likely that more sailors perished. The number also doesn’t count fishermen in small vessels, workers on tugs, or those who succumbed to the storm’s fury on land.

Like the subject of Sebastian Junger’s bestselling novel, this “perfect storm” was the spawn of multiple storm systems that collided. One began as a low pressure system moving south out of Canada, carrying with it a blast of Arctic air. A second, warmer system developed over the Appalachians in northern Virginia. When they merged over the Great Lakes, they created what National Weather Service historian William Deedler calls “a meteorological monster.”

Deedler explains the phenomenon: “As the much colder air of one system fed into the warmer air of the other, the storm began backing toward its cold air supply, growing and feeding on the moisture from the Atlantic and mixing it with the Arctic cold across the Great Lakes.”

The result devastated the entire Great Lakes region. On what had been a relatively mild November day, temperatures suddenly dropped into single digits as the storm approached. And then it began. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was paralyzed by heavy snow from Calumet to Ironwood. Port Huron, Ontario, saw 5-foot snow drifts and wind so strong that people couldn’t walk upright outside. In Duluth, Minnesota, the 60-mph wind came up so quickly and swept through the downtown streets with such ferocity that windows shattered along Superior Street, named for the lake it faces. On Duluth’s west side, two blocks of sidewalk were torn up and tossed into the street and a hoisting bridge at a nearby coal dock was blown to pieces.

Cleveland endured 22 inches of snow in 24 hours. Chicago’s new Lincoln Park harbor and its piers, seawalls and pilings were reduced to rubble by the massive waves pounding into shore. Milwaukee’s harbor was similarly destroyed. Wires went down across the Great Lakes, making communication nearly impossible. People were trapped in their homes by rapidly accumulating snow drifts that extended to second-story windows.

Treacherous as it was on land, conditions were far worse for those unfortunate enough to be caught on the lakes. Offshore winds gusted to 80 miles per hour, creating relentless waves and swells of 35 feet and higher. The frigid water washed over ships’ decks and froze in seconds, encasing everything it touched in a solid layer of ice. Blinding snow and sleet reduced visibility to nearly zero.

Lake Huron took the worst of it. Eight freighters were lost beneath its waves in just four hours on the night of November 9. One of those ships, Charles S. Price, all 504 feet and 6,000 tons of it, capsized and floated upside down for several days before a diver was finally able to get close enough to confirm its identity. The Price sank shortly thereafter with the bodies of most of its 28-man crew still aboard. The frozen bodies of crew members 20-year-old Phillip Hertzog and 16-year-old Charles St. Jaques, two lifelong friends from Duluth, washed ashore in Ontario several days later, clasped in each other’s arms.

On Lake Superior, eight ships were run aground or smashed onto rocks, and two freighters went to the bottom with all hands aboard.

The steamer Leafield and its crew of 18 men vanished off Angus Island near Thunder Cape. The vessel was last seen by the captain of the nearby Hamonic, who reported to the Duluth Herald that he watched as the Leafield crested a huge wave, then suddenly dipped forward and dove toward the bottom of the lake. It was gone in seconds.

The ore freighter Henry B. Smith disappeared somewhere off the Keweenaw Peninsula near Copper Harbor, Michigan, taking 23 people with it.

The Smith’s exact whereabouts are still unknown. (Editor's note: The wreck was finally discovered in 2013, as chronicled in Fred Stonehouse's The Last Laker.) The ship is believed to have gone down on November 9, but nobody knows for sure how, when or where it succumbed to the storm. Its sinking swirled up a controversy nearly as fierce as the storm itself.

The Smith’s captain, Jimmie Owen, was a good-natured, popular and experienced sailor whose obituary made front page news in the Duluth Herald on November 15, 1913.

The Smith left port in Marquette on November 9. By that time, the storm had been raging on the lakes for nearly three days and many ships had already been lost or damaged. Owen undoubtedly knew what he was facing; indeed, he could see it with his own eyes. Yet, according to news reports, he left port believing he’d outrun the worst of the storm on his way down to the Soo Locks. He was confident of his ship’s ability to weather any gale, even one as fierce as this. At 565 feet, Smith was one of the largest freighters at that time, and Owen reportedly thought it unsinkable.

Marquette Daily Chronicle reported that captains of other ships safely in port that day were sure that Owen would realize his folly and turn the ship around within the hour. Captain Fox of the Chocknaw was standing on his ship’s bridge when the Smith passed by.

“She steamed directly out to sea for 20 minutes,” he said. “Then suddenly she turned her prow to the wind and ran for Keweenaw Point.”

Sailors from Chocknaw and Denmark watched, too, as the Smith headed out into the storm – with its sailors frantically trying to close the hatches to make it watertight.

That Owen would leave port at all in such rough weather was surprising, but that he’d do it with open hatches was astonishing. After the storm subsided, several newspapers around the lake, including The Mining Journal in Marquette, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Duluth Herald ran stories speculating about Owen’s motives.

All of it lead to scathing editorials laying the blame for the disaster on ship owners who pushed captains like Owen to take risks in order to make as many trips as possible during the season. Owen had been late in arriving at his scheduled destinations in the past and was under great pressure to deliver on time this trip. That pressure likely drove the usually cautious captain to make a deadly mistake that day.

Perhaps the most unusual and dramatic story of the 1913 storm is that of L.C. Waldo, the “unknown steamer” that was shattered against the rocks of Lake Superior’s Manitou Island. It’s the story of an icy tomb, one monster wave, two heroic rescue efforts and creativity in the face of the worst kind of adversity imaginable.

Captain John Duddleson guided the 472-foot, ore-loaded Waldo from port at Two Harbors, Minnesota, on Friday, November 7, bound for Cleveland. In addition to his 22-man crew, two women were on board, the wife and the mother of steward Arthur Rice.

Just out of Two Harbors, Waldo began experiencing rough seas. But nobody on board, including Duddleson, had any idea how rough things were to become. As the ship neared Keweenaw Point, survivors said it encountered the sort of waves that some scientists believe exist only in the minds of yarn-spinning mariners.

Lake Superior sailors have long told tales about the “Three Sisters,” three massive waves much larger than those around them. The waves travel together and appear suddenly during fierce November gales, engulfing ships unfortunate enough to be in their path. The first “sister” is larger than the waves around it. The second, larger still. The third is monstrous, capable of overwhelming even the largest ships, delivering the knock-out punch after its other “sisters” send a ship reeling. Some blame the Three Sisters for sinking Edmund Fitzgerald.

In his book White Hurricane, author David Brown claims that the Three Sisters are unique to Lake Superior and are caused by a ripple effect that occurs when the seas pound into the rocky cliffs surrounding much of the lake’s shoreline and then, in turn, bounce back with great force.

“Sister” or not, a monster wave certainly engulfed Waldo that night, a single wave so large and so powerful that it destroyed the ship’s pilothouse and the officers’ quarters beneath it. One wave washed it all away, along with the electrical system, steering gear and compass.

Captain Duddleson and his second mate narrowly escaped being swept away by crawling from the pilothouse into the windlass (or winch) room in the raging storm.

They attempted to steer the ship in 70-mph wind and snow without benefit of a compass or light (let alone the shelter of the pilothouse) for several hours, but the storm proved too fierce an adversary. At about 4 a.m. on November 8, Waldo crashed bow first into Gull Rock. Soon after, it cracked in two.

The good news was, Duddleson had given the order for all hands to evacuate to the forward of the ship, so for the moment, they were safe and together. The bad news was, the food in the galley, the warm clothes and blankets in their cabins, and any source of heat were in the other half of the ship. With the wind howling around them and the waves continuing to slam the ship into the rocks, death seemed imminent. But the ingenuity of Chief Engineer Albert Lembke saved the lives of everyone on the Waldo that night.

Braving the worst of the storm, Lembke made his way to the captain’s quarters, dragged a bathtub to the windlass room and turned it upside down on the steel deck. He directed sailors to fashion a makeshift chimney out of fire buckets. Lembke had created a stove, and the crew began burning every piece of wood they could get their hands on.

As warm as they were in the windlass room, the freezing waves were still washing over the beleaguered ship. Soon all of its exposed surfaces were covered in a thick layer of ice – including the doors and windows of the windlass room. The crew was trapped inside an icy tomb. According to survivors, everyone on board believed they would soon freeze to death.

The crew didn’t know the wreckage had been sighted. Some reports credit George Stephenson, a freighter that passed the Waldo before safely anchoring at Bete Gris, about 13 miles southwest of Gull Rock. Legend has it that the mate from the Stephenson rowed to shore in a lifeboat and walked 8 miles through the blizzard to report the Waldo’s position to the lifesaving station at the Eagle Harbor lighthouse. But the November 10, 1913, issue of the Duluth Herald reports that workers on a fishing boat first spotted an “unknown steamer” being pounded to pieces.

Whoever reported it, Eagle Harbor received word of the wreck. According to Frederick Stonehouse, author of Wreck Ashore, the lifesaving station had two motorized boats, a 34-foot lifeboat and a smaller, eight-horsepower surfboat. Unfortunately, the larger craft was in for repairs.

The Waldo was on the rocks 32 miles from Eagle Harbor. In that storm, the trip would be harrowing for the larger boat. It would be nearly impossible for the smaller craft, but it was the only boat available. It would have to do.

Captain Charles A. Tucker and several other men climbed into the small craft and headed out into the frozen hurricane knowing they would likely become its victims.

A few miles into the trip, the boat and the lifesavers in it were encased in ice. The boat’s engine was freezing up and becoming unmanageable. Tucker was forced to turn around and head for home. When the boat reached Eagle Harbor, the men were frozen to their seats; their life preservers frozen to their coats. Nobody could move. They had to be cut out of the boat with pick axes.

But Tucker and his men didn’t forget the crew of the Waldo. Mechanics had been frantically working on the larger boat. At 3 a.m. the next day, Tucker and his men boarded the repaired, larger boat and set out into the icy hurricane again.

Meanwhile, a crew from the Portage lifesaving station near Houghton, Michigan, also headed toward the Waldo. Like Tucker’s crew, the Portage crew, captained by Thomas H. McCormick, experienced trouble on its first attempt and had to turn back. Both crews arrived at the Waldo within hours of each other. It looked as though the sailors of the Waldo had a chance after all.

Still, the storm had not abated. Waves battered the Waldo, and the lifeboats rose and fell on the violent swells. Boarding the Waldo was going to be difficult … but not impossible. The lifesavers on the two boats were able to rescue everyone aboard the Waldo, including the ship’s dog.

When the hurricane finally quieted, the angry voices began. Editorial writers around the lakes laid blame on the greed of ship owners for the loss of so many lives, politicians launched an investigation of the weather service for inaccurate and incomplete reporting, captains called for improvements in the ships themselves.

But all sailors on the inland seas, then and now, know that even without human error of any kind, such dangers always threaten … especially on the Great Lakes in November.
"There's no better bilge pump than a scared man with a bucket"