Thursday, March 21, 2013

Great Lakes Storm of 1913 destroyed 19 ships, killed 251 sailors

While the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior in 1975 may be the most famous shipwreck on the Great Lakes, the storm that caused it pales in comparison to the granddaddy of weather fury: The Great Lakes Storm of 1913.
This November will mark the 100th anniversary of the most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the lakes, which took place over five days in November 1913. The storm killed 251 sailors, destroyed 19 ships and damaged 19 others plying four of the five Great Lakes. Lake Ontario was the only lake that escaped damage.
Jim and Pat Stayer, owners of Out of the Blue Productions out of Lexington, discussed the topic at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Festival in Ann Arbor.
“The 1913 storm was the biggest ever on the Great Lakes,” Jim Stayer said. “They had storms in 1869, 1905, 1940 (The Armistice Day storm), but nothing was the equal to this storm. Two low-pressure systems met and produced 90 mile per hour winds for more than four hours.”
“If you think about the size of the waves that weekend, you would stand at the bottom of a telephone poll and you would look up, and the waves were 10-feet higher than that,” added Pat Stayer. “That’s why most of the wrecks from the 1913 storm are turtled and upside down (at the bottom of the lake).”
The storm is historically referred to as the “Big Blow,” the “Freshwater Fury,” or the “White Hurricane.”
Described as an extratropical cyclone, it originated as the convergence of two major storm fronts, one heading southeast across Lake Superior, and other heading northeast from Colorado. Although the storm went from Nov. 6-11, a lull in the storm, called a “sucker hole,” prompted ships to begin heading out again. Most of the ship destruction occurred on Nov. 9.
“They did forecast the storm, but weather forecasting had just started out,” Jim said. “And shipmasters were under pressure to make one more last run for the season. There was a little lull as the two pressures were meeting, and they got sucked out into it and that was the worst part of the storm, particularly on Lake Huron.”

Illustration by Robert McGreevy
This painting is based upon an eyewitness account of the Argus falling into a trough between giant waves. The eyewitness, the captain of a nearby ship, said when that happened, the Argus “crumpled like an eggshell.” The Argus sank near the tip of the Thumb in Lake Huron, losing 28 sailors.
Illustration by Robert McGreevy
This painting illustrates the Issac M. Scott cutting through waves during the storm. The Scott was lost near Thunder Bay, killing all 28 aboard.
In addition to the tremendous waves and winds, the ships caught in the storm also accumulated a large amount of ice buildup, 5-6 inches on the rails and the upper structures, which helped speed their demise.
Of the 12 ships that sank during the storm, eight were lost on Lake Huron alone. Those ships included two ships that still have not been found -- the Hydrus, which lost 25 crew, and the James Carruthers, which had 22 victims. Those two ships are presumed to be on the Canadian side of Lake Huron in deeper water, and searching for them would require special permits. The other ships found in Lake Huron include: the Charles S. Price (28 victims), the Regina (20 victims), the Argus (28 victims), and the Wexford (20 victims).
The total financial lost from all the lakes was nearly $5 million, or about $100 million at current value. The lost cargo, totaling about 68 tons, included coal, iron ore and grain.
The Price, Regina and Wexford all sit at recreational dive depth and are popular with scuba divers. The Price, in 64 feet of water and the Regina, in 80 feet of water are upside down, while the Wexford sits upright in 75 feet of water.
Check out the video above for more from Jim and Pat Stayer about the Great Lakes Storm of 1913.

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