National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce
By: William R. Deedler, Weather Historian, WFO Pontiac/Detroit Mi

Anyone living in the Great Lakes Region for an extended period of
time can become all too familiar with the incredible storms, or
low pressure areas, that can settle over the Great Lakes Region
in the fall. November, being the prime month for such monsters to
start materializing, has had more than its share of super storms.
As Polar outbreaks become more regular and intense, surging south
into the area, they meet up with the warmer, moisture laden air
from the Gulf of Mexico. Add to this a roaring jet stream with
lots of energy and you have the ingredients for dynamic storm

While this occurs with some regularity during fall and winter
months in the Great Lakes, there are probably a dozen or so 
mammoth storms which are noted in history for their severity,
creating extensive losses in life and property, particularly to
the shipping industry. While controversy may exist about which
storm was the strongest and produced the most devastation, one
could hardly deny that the fall storm of November 7-12th, 1913
ranks near or at the top! In fact, it is generally agreed that
the November 1913 storm (which concentrated more on Lake Huron
for its death and destruction) was the greatest ever to strike
the Great Lakes. No other Great Lakes storm even begins to
compare in modern history with its death toll of 235 lives
(possibly more, as ship personnel records back then weren't the
best) and up to forty shipwrecks. Of these wrecks, eight were
large Lake freighters that sank below Lake Huron's stormy
surface, taking all hands with them.

The November 1913 weather map pattern of storm development was
ironically, not unlike the storm development of another, more
recent monster low pressure system that formed during the period
of January 25-27th, 1978. Both systems involved an Arctic shot of
cold air moving south across the Lakes area, while at the same
time, an intensifying low pressure area took shape over the
southern Appalachians. In both cases, it was this low center that
became the powerful storm as it tracked north northwest from the
southern Appalachians into the eastern Great Lakes, absorbing the
Arctic air in place. As the Arctic air was drawn into both
storms, rapid intensification took place. (For the more
meteorologically inclined...In the 1978 storm, an incredibly
intense negatively tilted 500 mb trof formed as the Arctic jet
stream phased with the subtropical jet over the eastern half of
the U.S. Though I was unable to locate the 500 mb map from the
1913 storm, the surface development and trajectories of the
systems show a nearly identical upper wind pattern). Both low
pressure systems deepened tremendously ("bombed out") to record
low pressures for their time. The 1913 storm's central pressure
dipped to around 28.60 inches (968.5 mb), while the 1978 storm
intensified to an almost unbelievable 28.20 inches (955 mb)! 

There were a couple of big differences, though, between the
storms. First, and most obvious, one occurred in the mid fall,
while the other was in mid winter.  Second, and more importantly,
the November 1913 storm was much more destructive to the Great
Lakes shipping industry, being that the lakes were still open
(ice free) and it contained a ferocious wind that howled for a
longer period. Therefore, I decided to dig way back in the
weather and Great Lakes history books and write about the
November 1913 storm. (At this time, I plan a more extensive
write up on the January 1978 storm late January 1997).

As stated earlier, the storm of November 1913 began as two
separate systems.  A rather weak low pressure system tracked
east across the southern U.S., November 6th through the 8th,
while a low pressure area and associated Arctic front moved south
out of Canada and approached the northern Great Lakes by Friday
morning, the 7th. The air behind this front was very cold for
early November with temperatures plunging into the single figures
across the Northern Plains. In addition to the cold temperatures,
a strong southwest wind blew out ahead of the Arctic front, while
a strong northwest wind followed it. A storm warning was issued
for the Great Lakes Friday morning at 1000 am because of the very
strong winds expected ahead of and behind the Arctic front. A
large dome of high pressure (30.52 in) was well behind the front
at the core of the cold air, extending from southwest Canada,
south into the northern Rockies. As the low pressure and
attendant Arctic front moved across the Great Lakes on Saturday,
storm force winds gusting 50 knots or better did indeed buffet
the Great Lakes while shifting from southwest to the northwest.
Weather observations at Detroit on Saturday, the 8th, also showed
southwest winds averaging 25 to 35 mph with gusts 35 to 40 mph,
shifting to the west. Temperatures which started in the 50s in
Detroit on the 8th, fell to the lower 30s by midnight. Meanwhile,
winds over the Great Lakes were reported occasionally gusting
better than 50 knots, especially over Lake Superior and were
accompanied by snow squalls and blizzard like conditions. But the
worse was yet to come...

By Sunday morning, the Arctic front continued to push southeast
through the Ohio Valley, while at the same time, our storm center 
in the Appalachians was beginning to crank up and intensify
(29.10 in) over northern Virginia. It was during the day, Sunday
the 9th, that things really began to come together. The northern
and weaker low pressure system (with associated Arctic airmass
over the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley) was pulled into and
absorbed by the stronger, intense low pressure system over the
Virginia. As the much colder air fed into system, the storm began
backing to the north-northwest toward its cold air supply,
becoming a meteorological monster, growing and feeding on the
moisture from the Atlantic and mixing it with the Arctic cold
across the Great Lakes. 

By Sunday evening, our storm deepened to a very intense central
pressure of about 28.60 inches as it tracked north-northwest
to eastern Lake Erie near Erie, Pennsylvania. At the same time,
the strong Arctic high pressure (30.54 in) was approaching
northwest Minnesota. The isobaric pressure pattern between the
two strong systems must have been very tight, given the extremes
in pressure and thus, created even stronger storm force winds
across the Great Lakes. Storm Warnings continued to fly over all
the Great Lakes as northwest winds of extreme velocity backed to
the north and churned the waters viciously. An extensive area of
snow and blinding snow squalls developed across the Great Lakes
as the Arctic cold blasted its way across the Lakes. Snow began
falling Sunday evening in the Detroit area with about 3 inches
on the ground by midnight and only 4.3 total. Much of this snow
though, was due to "wrap around or backwash precipitation"
produced on the backside of the storm and not Lake effect with
the north-northwest wind trajectory. Eastern areas of the Great
Lakes didn't fare as well and got hammered by snow and snow
squalls as the Arctic cold blew across the relatively warmer
waters of the Great Lakes. (In fact, the Fall weather previous to
this storm had been mild and Great Lake temperatures were most
likely warmer than normal). This, combined with the intense storm
center, buried the Lake effect communities with at least a couple
of feet of snow and HUGE drifts. Port Huron, which usually gets
Lake effect snow from Lake Huron with mainly a northeast or north
wind, got buried with heavy snow and snow squalls creating 4 to 5
foot drifts which immobilized the city. Other areas in the "snow
belt" communities had similar reports including Cleveland, which
was paralyzed with about 2 feet of snow, NOT including drifts.
The record at Cleveland up to that time for a snowfall in a 24
hour period was shattered with 17.4 inches falling (previous was
13.0 in). Several reports of wires and telephone polls being
pulled down were received due to the combination of heavy snow,
ice and incredible winds.

Records show that the wind at Port Huron, at the base of Lake
Huron, increased steadily during the day on the 9th with maximum
winds averaging 40 to 50 mph early Sunday afternoon, increasing
even further to 50 to 60 mph later that afternoon and continuing
to almost midnight. A maximum wind of 62 mph was recorded at
902 pm at Port Huron with similar readings at Harbor Beach.
In Detroit, the northwest wind increased through the day to an
average wind of 45 mph between 700 and 800 pm with an extreme
gust of 70 mph recorded at 715 pm. Keep in mind, these readings
were on land (not sea) but the violent weather experienced over
the Great Lakes was well documented. It was best summed up in 
a report by the Lake Carriers Association in the wake of the
Great Lakes " white hurricane":

  "No lake master can recall in all his experience a storm of
such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the
direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed!
Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over four or
five hours, but this storm raged for sixteen hours continuously
at an average velocity of sixty miles per hour, with frequent
spurts of seventy and over.

   Obviously, with a wind of such long duration, the seas that
were made were such that the lakes are not ordinarily acquainted
with. The testimony of masters is that the waves were at least
35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession, three
waves ordinarily coming one right after the other.
  They were considerably shorter than the waves that are formed
by an ordinary gale. Being of such height and hurled with such
force and such rapid succession, the ships must have been
subjected to incredible punishment!"

It went on to say that the storm was so unusual and unprecen-
dented, that it may be centuries before such a storm would be
experienced again. As stated earlier, approximately 235 people
lost their lives on the ships with most of them from the eight
large freighters (for that time) sunk on Lake Huron. They include
the John McGean, Isaac M. Scott, Argus, Hydrus, James Carruthers,
Wexford, Regina and Charles S. Price. Most sunk over central and
eastern Lake Huron, in Canadian waters. Horrific stories of dead
sailors being washed ashore during the days following the storm
came from Southern Ontario, along the lakeshore primarily from
Southhampton, south to Kettle Point and Port Franks. This area
included the larger communities Port Elgin, Kincardine and
Goderich and roughly extended across the Lake from Oscoda to
Port Huron in Michigan. A farmer, along the Canadian shoreline,
told how the first dead body came floating ashore, "announcing"
the arrival of the grisly scene to follow. It was truly an eerie
and ghastly sight when, out of a dense fog, he saw a man bobbing
in the water with his arms stretched out as though he were waving
to him! It was a sailor from the Wexford and his shipmates
quickly followed. The scene of bodies floating to shore was like
out of some horror movie script in the book by Robert J. Hemming
titled, "Ships Gone Missing." In it, he graphically describes
the ghastly sight in the thick fog...

   "Singly and by twos and threes they drifted in, as if coming
to be present at some ghastly muster, shrouded in life jackets
bearing the names of ships gone missing. The Wexford, Argus, 
McGean, Hydrus, Scott, Regina, Carruthers and Price had all
sent representatives to shore to announce to everyone that they
foundered, that their crews were all dead. Stiff, bloated and
battered, their heads capped in ice, they floated in, rolled
and pitched by the combers crashing on the beach.

   They came draped over life preservers, they came wrapped in
each others arms, they came frozen together in clusters. All
week long they came, to be collected by area farmers who some-
times had to dig half-buried bodies out of the sand that was
trying to cover them."

It's sad to say, that even with the horrible outcome of those
sailors and the grief their family and friends endured, some
looting of the bodies and cargo from the ships quickly became a
problem. The local police were notified and they, along with the
Sarnia police, enforced a stiff fine and up to 3 years in jail if
caught looting. News quickly spread of the mass graveyard along
the Canadian beach and scores of relatives and friends of the
sailors came and identified the bodies. Unfortunately, after
a few days, a change in the wind and lake currents caused some
bodies to drift back out into the lake, never to be found.

Some strange tales also arose from this tragedy, such as, the
sailor who washed ashore from the Charles S. Price...with a
life preserver from the Regina! This spawned a rash of theories
on how it got there. Did the ships collide and thus, some men
from the Price were rescued by the crew of the Regina...only
later to go down herself?  Or, where they (Regina crew) unable to
rescue the men but still threw them life preservers? Another 
possibility, maybe the life preserver just floated in after the
sailor and ended up on top of him. Another tale surrounded a 
unidentified sailor with the initials J.T. on his arm. After
reading about it in the paper, Mrs Edward Ward, telegrammed her
father, Thomas Thompson of Hamilton, Ontario, telling him his son
(her brother) John, must be the unidentified man. John Thompson
had been on the Carruthers, like the unidentified man and also
had a tattoo with the initials J.T. on his arm. Therefore, Thomas
rushed to the funeral home to identify the body. The body was
badly battered but the facial features, similar to John's, were
still largely recognizable. Other similarities were compelling,
the feet had crossed toes, just like John's, the tattoo was on
the left arm, like John's and a scar on the nose and leg matched
John's perfectly. Not to mention, the body's teeth had the same
teeth missing as John's! There was, however, a puzzling fact that
didn't match...the hair color. The corpse's hair was light brown,
while John's was almost black! The undertaker dismissed this
fact, figuring the body, being immersed in cold water for a long
time could have caused the hair to be lighter. In light of all
the remarkable similarities, they went ahead with the funeral.
You guessed it, it wasn't John. Right in the middle of John's
memorial service, in walks John! You could have knocked over the
mourners with a feather as they stood there, stunned as the
resemblance was uncanny! Evidently, John had jumped ship to be
on a ship called the Maple and waited out the storm in Toronto,
where he read about his "death." Thinking it would be a real good
joke, he said nothing to his family and friends and thus, walked
in on his own funeral!

The unidentified man, remained so and was buried with four other
anonymous souls. All together, only 56 bodies would be recovered
on Canadian beaches along with one near Port Sanilac, Michigan.

And talk about ESP... another seaman, Milton Smith, having been
bothered by persistent bad premonitions or a foreboding of
something terrible happening to him if he stayed aboard the
freighter Price, just up and left. He told his superior officer
of the foreboding he felt, who in turn, tried to persuade him to
stay for the remaining three weeks. No way, Milton was more
determined than ever and left at his shipmates scoffs. Well,
you know the rest of the story...

Epilogue: I wish to dedicate this internet story to all the 
          Great Lakes shipping personnel, past and present.
          To their hard work and difficult lifestyle they must    
          lead...and dangerous weather they encounter. To all the
          men who have died in shipping tragedies, especially in
          this 1913 storm and those aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald, 
          which went down in Lake Superior on a Monday evening at 
          approximately 715 pm, November 10, 1975. The Fitzgerald 
          was a magnificent freighter that I watched through my   
          childhood as it pushed north and southbound on the
          St. Clair River past Marine City, Michigan.

          Finally, I'd like to dedicate this article to my        
          deceased Grandfather, William Leo Deedler. Who, 
          during the first half of this century, worked for       
          several years on the freighters as a Chief Engineer,
          and to my Grandmother, Adelaide, who put up with it!   
Criteria for advisories/warnings on the Great Lakes

     Headline                 Criteria
                              Wind (knots)

Small Craft Advisory          18 to 33
Gale Warning                  34 to 47
Storm Warning                 48 or greater