1913 Great Lakes Storm Kills over 250, Destroys 19 Ships

A furious, deadly storm struck the Great Lakes for four days on Nov. 7-10, 1913. The storm peaked on November 9, with blinding snow, hurricane-force winds over 70 m.p.h., and killer waves up to 35 feet high. No one was expecting the storm to be that intense, and many cargo ships were caught unprotected on the lakes’ open waters.

Photo: the Charles S. Price, upside down near the southern end of Lake Huron
Photo: the Charles S. Price, upside down near the southern end of Lake Huron. Credit: Marine Museum of the Great Lakes at Kingston; Wikimedia Commons.

By the time the tempest finally moved east, 12 ships were sunk and another 30 stranded – 7 of those destroyed in the process – and more than 250 sailors were dead. Monetary damages ran into the millions of dollars, and the coastal areas – especially Cleveland – were buried in snow for days, with power, telephone and telegraph lines down, breakwaters smashed, streetcars stranded and streets impassable. It was the deadliest storm ever to hit the Great Lakes region.

Photo: Cleveland digs out after the Great Lakes Storm of 1913
Photo: Cleveland digs out after the Great Lakes Storm of 1913. Credit: Cleveland Memory Project; Wikimedia Commons.

With communication down and inaccurate forecasts, there was a great deal of uncertainty, confusion and panic that only worsened the disaster. There were also incredible scenes of heroism and tragedy.

When a huge 450-foot freighter was discovered overturned in Lake Huron, Captain Reid and his crew kept their tug, Sarnia City, patrolling alongside the wreck all night long, braving dangerous winds and waves, in the forlorn hope that a survivor might be found. Men in lifesaving stations sprang into action, heading into the teeth of the storm in daring rescue attempts. One such crew tried to reach a ship that was smashed onto Gull Rock on Lake Superior’s Manitou Island. The would-be-rescuers could see that 28 of the ship’s crew had lashed themselves in the rigging, desperately trying to hang on, but despite the brave lifesavers’ repeated attempts they could not reach the shipwrecked men.

The following newspaper article gave its readers as much information as was known right after the storm ended. It was published by the Bellingham Herald.

An article about the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, Bellingham Herald newspaper article 11 November 1913
Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Washington), 11 November 1913, page 1

Here is a transcription of this article:

Great Lakes Strewn with Wrecks

Big Freighter Overturns in Lake Huron Storm

Six-Hundred Foot Steamer Bottom Side Up and Crew of Thirty or Forty Is Drowned – Identity of Ship Not Determined – Scores May Have Perished on Great Lakes in Disastrous Storm

Many Reported Missing

Several Unidentified Vessels Are Sighted on Lakes Pounding to Pieces – Lightship with Six on Board Thought to Be Lost

(Port Huron, Mich., Nov. 11. – The steamship lost in the lake near here in the storm yesterday or Sunday was identified positively today as the 450-foot freighter E.A.S. Clark. It was commanded by Captain John Low and carried a crew of twenty, all of whom perished.)

(Enormous damage was done and many lives were snuffed out by the blizzard which swept the lake region Sunday and yesterday and was but just beginning to subside today. Losses both of property and lives were greatest on the lakes, where shipping had not closed and sailors were caught by surprise by the earliest storm of such severity within the memory of any of them. Revised estimates today placed the number of the storm’s dead at from sixty to 100. The value of the property destroyed could only be roughly guessed but amounted to millions.)

Port Huron, Mich., Nov. 11. – United States lifesavers returned this afternoon from the scene of the wreck of the overturned boat in Lake Huron and reported that they were absolutely unable to definitely solve the mystery attached to the identity of the vessel. Several vessels have not reported since Sunday and many unfounded rumors are current concerning the ship’s name.

When the tug Sarnia City returned this forenoon after an all-night watch over the big steel freighter which lies upside down in Lake Huron, she brought no additional information as to the identity of the unfortunate vessel. The name of the derelict is hidden beneath the water and the waves are still rolling high.

Six Hundred Feet Long

Captain Reid, of the tug, returned more firm than ever in his belief that all of the thirty or forty members of the crew of the 600-foot freighter must have been drowned.

Captain Plough, in charge of the local lifesaving station, left this morning with his crew for the scene of the wreck. Searching parties were also organized to patrol the shore in the search of wreckage.

Captain Reid also expressed the opinion that another vessel may be on the bottom of Lake Huron near where the overturned steamer was found.

The fact that the huge vessel is lying bottom up eight miles out in the storm-swept lake has convinced local mariners that the crew had practically no chance to escape. The tug Sarnia City stood by the wreck all night.

Scores May Be Dead

Chicago, Nov. 11. – That scores perished in the storm which has been sweeping the Great Lakes since early Sunday was feared here today.

All on board the unidentified steamship on Gull Rock, Manitou Island, in Lake Superior, were believed to be doomed. Lifesavers failed in repeated attempts to reach the stranded craft. The vessel’s decks were awash when dawn broke today and the members of the crew could be seen lashed in the rigging. It was believed there were twenty-eight on board. Several were thought to be dead already from exposure.

Messages from Sault Ste. Marie said the Tomlinson liner James Davidson had gone down off Gross Gap point, Lake Superior, presumably with all on board. Just how many she carried was not known.

Many Ships Missing

The steamship L.C. Waldo also was missing on Lake Superior and supposed to be lost. The steamship Huronic was reported ashore on Whitefish point, with its crew in great danger. Two unidentified steamships were stranded at Isle Royale and Copper Harbor, the steamship Simon Langell and two consorts, which left Portage Lake United States Ship Canal Friday were missing, and the Merchants’ liner Acadian, of Toronto, was ashore in Thunder Bay, though it was believed its crew was safe.

The Santa Maria, the reproduction of Columbus’ caravel, on its way from Chicago to San Francisco, on the bar outside Erie Harbor, was pounding heavily today and threatened momentarily to go to pieces.

Other Disasters Feared

Telegraphic communication was badly disorganized and shipping men feared that when it is reestablished many more disasters will be reported on the east shore of the lakes, toward which the storm swept the distressed craft.

Lightship May Be Lost

Buffalo, N.Y., Nov. 11. – Lightship No. 82, carrying a crew of six persons and stationed in Lake Erie, off Point Abino, fifteen miles west of this city, is reported lost by incoming vessel men and it is believed to have foundered during the recent storm. Wreckage of the lightship floated into Buffalo Harbor today and was picked up on the beach.

This afternoon a lifeboat from the lightship was found floating bottom up off the Buffalo breakwater. A broken oar was fast in its oarlock. A heavy overcoat and the cabin door of the vessel were washed ashore.

Two Steamers Safe

Duluth, Nov. 11. – The steamer Simon Langell, which was reported last night as possibly lost, has been tied up in this port since yesterday morning, it was learned today.

The steamer James E. Davidson, which was reported in trouble, passed the Soo [Locks] this morning.

Ship Going to Pieces

Milwaukee, Wis., Nov. 11. – The United States revenue cutter Tuscarora left Milwaukee early this morning for Cait Rock, Manitou Island, where an unidentified steamer, evidently a large lake carrier, is going to pieces.

Steamer Is Ashore

Duluth, Nov. 11. – The steamer H.B. Hawgood of Cleveland is ashore near Port Huron, Lake Huron, according to definite information received late this afternoon by officials of the Tomlinson line. The messages received by the officials made no mention of the Hawgood turning turtle.

Sunken Carrier Sighted

Alpena, Mich., Nov. 11. – The captain of the steamer Alpena, after arriving here today, reported having sighted an unidentified lumber carrier sunken in Lake Huron. He said that only the bow of the boat and part of the cargo was visible.

Waldo Goes to Pieces

Calumet, Mich., Nov. 11. – The steamer L.C. Waldo of the Robin Transportation Company went to pieces last night on Gull Rock, Manitou Island. The crew was rescued by the Portage Lake Ship Canal life saving men, who arrived on a tug just in time to save the sailors, all of whom suffered terribly from exposure. The boat went ashore Saturday, but her identity was not learned until news of the life savers’ exploit reached here today. The rescued men were brought to Houghton.

The Canadian steamer Gurephis, of the Merchants’ Mutual line, of Ontario, Captain Paddington, is high on shore six miles east of Copper Harbor, Keweenaw Point. The crew of seventeen arrived at Copper Harbor at noon today, suffering terribly from frost-bitten feet and hunger. The boat also went ashore Saturday and the men had no food since that time.

Bodies Washed Ashore

Detroit, Nov. 11. – A special from London, Ont., states that five bodies were washed ashore this afternoon at St. Joseph, above Kettle Point, on the Canadian shore of Lake Huron. Four had on life belts marked “Wexford,” and the other wore a belt marked “London.” It is thought they may have been victims of the overturned freighter disaster.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers. Were any of your ancestors caught up in the Great Lakes Storm of 1913? Please share your stories with us in the comments section.

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