Since we’re in the middle of a pretty H-O-T summer, I thought a Wild Weather Wednesday article about a blizzard might be cool and refreshing. Historically, the entire year of 1913 was full of disastrous and record-setting weather events. The Ohio Valley was flooded in January, an Illinois ice storm in February, heavy and disastrous flooding and tornadoes in March (see articles on The Great Flood of 1913 here and here), Midwest drought and heat waves and the hottest day on record in Death Valley on July 10 – 134 degrees!
In November the Great Lakes region experienced a storm called “The Great Lakes Storm of 1913″ or “The White Hurricane.” “November gales” or “The Witch of November” are not uncommon in that part of the country – since 1847 there have been several killer storms recorded. In 1975 one of these storms sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald and inspired the Gordon Lightfoot hit song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The Great Lakes, although located in the northern region of the mainland United States, hold their heat later in the year than one might expect given the harsh winters we hear about. Typically, two weather tracks converge on the area with cold, dry air from the Canadian provinces and warm, moist air flowing northeast from the Gulf of Mexico. When these two storm systems converge over the Great Lakes they are affected by the still-warm waters of the Lakes, creating a cyclonic effect. These storms are capable of producing hurricane-force winds, waves in excess of fifty feet accompanied by several inches or either rain or snow – and they can sit over the region for days.
The approaching weather system began to be tracked on Thursday, November 6 with an advisory for “moderate to brisk winds” and some rain for the upper Great Lakes. By the next morning the advisories had been changed to “moderately severe” and later in the afternoon the Coast Guard raised lanterns to signal the coming hurricane-force winds (winds exceeding 74 mph). Lake Superior winds had already been measured at 50 mph and a blizzard was approaching Lake Huron.
On Saturday November 8, the storm was centered over the eastern part of Lake Superior and had been upgraded to “severe.” At one point that day, a false lull occurred, called a “sucker hole.” Ship captains mistakenly believed it was safe to navigate across the region and by the morning of the 9th the storm headed south to Virginia, merging with a southern low pressure system.
By noon on Sunday the barometric pressures had even begun to rise which usually indicates a storm has passed – the lower pressure area was moving northeast away from the lake region. So at 8:00 a.m. the Weather Bureau was reporting more favorable conditions (they only issued two daily reports, one at 8:00 a.m. and one at 8:00 p.m.).
However, a southern low-pressure system was moving toward Lake Erie, formed overnight it didn’t appear on the last weather map. The counterclockwise rotation brought wind gusts of 75-80 mph in Buffalo and Cleveland, with a dramatic barometric pressure drop. As the system continued to churn, wind speeds increased accompanied by blowing snow. Ships on Lake Huron were hit with massive waves.
The worst part of the Sunday storm raged from 8:00 p.m. to midnight with continuously sustained winds of more than 70 mph. Ships on Lake Huron sustained the greatest damage, one gust of 90 mph was recorded at Harbor Beach, Michigan. Without the dynamic weather forecasting tools available today, meteorologists of that day didn’t have adequate data to understand what was approaching the Great Lakes region. Data was collected twice daily around the country and hand-drawn maps were created, but without the technology and instant news we have today, the information was soon outdated and of little use, especially when it came to unusual and fast-moving weather systems like this one.
The storm began to move northeast on Monday morning, the famous lake effect accompanying it. Cleveland received seventeen additional inches of snow that day and snow drifted to six feet high in some places. Streetcars were stranded and without power for several days, telephone and telegraph communications were cut off with downed lines. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on November 11:
Cleveland lay in white and mighty solitude, mute and deaf to the outside world, a city of lonesome snowiness, storm-swept from end to end, when the violence of the two-day blizzard lessened late yesterday afternoon.
Cleveland’s chief weather forecaster declared it was the worst storm the city had experienced since the Weather Bureau had a establishing a station in 1870. However, as bad as the damage and isolation was in Cleveland and other cities, the Lakes suffered far worse. Newspapers around the United States and Canada printed headlines like this one:
Several ships had sunk and over two hundred and fifty deaths were estimated, with Lake Huron by far claiming the most ships and victims. Four ships, the Leafield, James Carruthers, Plymouth and Hydrus, have never been located. In recent years two ships, the Wexford (2000) and Henry B. Smith (2013) have been found. Here is a picture of some of the twenty victims from the Wexford who washed ashore:
The losses were significant in 1913 dollars: $2,332,000 for ships totally lost; $830,900 for damaged vessels; $620,000 for damaged ships later returned to service and approximately one million dollars in lost cargo (grain, coal, lumber, iron ore). Cleveland streetcars and businesses were shut down for two days. However, after cities were stranded without power and communication for days, one forward-looking plan following the aftermath was the decision to place utility cables underground.
Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!