The White Hurricane of 1913, a Blizzard That Killed Over 250 People

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A misleading snowstorm that did a lot of damage.

The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, also called the Big Blow or White Hurricane was a hurricane-force blizzard that struck the Great Lakes region and Ontario’s Canadian province from November 7–10, 1913. The storm reached its greatest strength on November 9, wrecking ships on four of the five lakes, most notably on Lake Huron. Misleading storm power interruptions and slow warnings added to the extent of the damage.

The most devastating disaster ever to hit the lakes resulted in more than 250 deaths, sank 19 ships, and left 19 others stranded on the coast. The financial damage to ships and cargo alone was nearly $5 million, which adjust to $120 million with inflation. The damage included approximately $1 million in then-value of the lost cargo of 68,300 tons, including coal, iron ore, and grain.

The storm resulted from the merger of two weather systems and was fueled by the lake’s relative warmth — normally in November. It caused gusts of 90 mph (145 km / h), waves over eleven meters high, and dense snow showers. Analysis of the storm led to improvements in the forecast and faster response to warnings, stronger ships’ construction, and better preparation for bad weather.

The Background of the Blizzard

The large water volume of the five Great Lakes retains heat for a long time during autumn. In these months, two air currents, in particular, reach the area alternately. Cold, dry air flows southeast from Canada; warm, moist air flows northeast from Mexico’s Gulf. The meeting of these two air masses creates depressions on the American continent. When the depression passes over the Great Lakes, it can become more active due to the relatively warm water combined with a jet stream in the upper air.

November storms have been a bane of the Great Lakes, with at least 25 deadly storms since 1847. During the Big Blow of 1905, 27 wooden ships were wrecked. In a November storm in 1975, the large ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald was wrecked with the entire crew, without sending a distress signal. The blizzard at the end of January 1978 had a more or less comparable development as the storm of 1913. This storm made more clear about the history and further course of both storms through a more extensive network of measuring stations supplemented with observations for the higher air layers (which did not take place in 1913). The differences are that the storm of 1978 was one and a half to two days shorter and that the depression coming from the south followed a somewhat more westerly course, past Cleveland to the north. As a result, significantly less snow fell in Cleveland than in 1913. There were no shipping disasters on the Great Lakes in 1978. Because of the harsh winter for some time they were largely unnavigable.

The Course of Events

On Thursday, November 6, the storm was first noticed on Lake Superior’s west side and was moving rapidly towards the northern part of Lake Michigan. The Detroit News forecast reported strong winds for the Great Lakes, with local rain Thursday evening and Friday in the northern part and slightly changeable in the southern part.

At around midnight, the steamer Cornell, 50 miles (80 km) west of Whitefish Point in Lake Superior, suddenly encountered a northern storm and sustained significant damage. The storm lasted until late November 10th and nearly stranded Cornell.

7th of November

On Friday, November 7, the Port Huron Times-Herald weather report described the storm as “moderately severe.” The center lay over the upper part of the Mississippi Valley, causing strong southerly winds with fairly warm weather over the lakes. The weather forecast predicted an increase in wind and decreasing temperatures for the next 24 hours.

At 10 a.m., the Coast Guard raised warning flags for a storm from the northwest at Lake Superior’s ports. They were replaced with a hurricane-force storm warning over 74 mph (119 km / h at the end of the afternoon). The winds had already reached 50 mph (80 km / h) on Lake Superior, and an accompanying snowstorm was moving into Lake Huron.

8th of November

On Saturday the 8th, the storm’s status was raised to “severe.” The center was now over the east of Lake Superior. The weather report from the Port Huron Times-Herald indicated that the southerly winds on the east side of downtown remained strong. Over northern Lake Michigan and west of Lake Superior, winds from west to north had reached gale force, reaching speeds of 60 mph (97 km / h) at Duluth at the far west of Lake Superior.

A temporary decline in winds resumed shipping traffic on both the St. Marys River, Michigan-Ontario, Lake Erie, and the Detroit River and St. Clair River, to Lake Huron. High wind warning flags continued to fly in many ports but were ignored by many captains

9th of November

Around noon on Sunday the 9th, the weather on Lake Huron was like a normal November storm. The slightly rising air pressure raised hope that the storm was coming to an end. The depression that had passed over Lake Superior moved northeast away from the Great Lakes.

The Weather Bureau had issued its first message of the day and forwarded it to Washington headquarters at 8:00 am; the second would follow as usual at 8:00 pm. This turned out to be a problem: the storm would have all day to reach hurricane strength again before Washington, D.C. headquarters would receive new information.

Along the south side of Lake Erie, a depression coming from the south drew towards the lake. This had developed during the night and was therefore not visible on Friday’s weather map. The layer had moved north and was moving northwest after passing Washington, D.C.

Various observations showed the powerful air movement around the layer. In Buffalo, New York, northwest winds first in the morning, which became northeast around noon and southeast in the late afternoon with the heaviest gusts, 80 mph (130 km / h) by early afternoon. About 180 miles southwest, in Cleveland, the wind remained northwest during the day, turning west in the late afternoon, maintaining speeds of over 50 mph (80 km / h). In Buffalo, the barometer dropped sharply, from 999.7 hPa (hectopascal) at 8:00 in the morning to 974.3 hPa at 8:00 in the evening.

The low night moved further north in the evening, strengthening the northwest wind already blowing over Lake Superior and Huron. This resulted in a northern storm with snow. Ships on Lake Huron, especially south of Alpena, such as Harbor Beach and Port Huron in Michigan and Goderich and Sarnia in Ontario, were hit by high waves moving south to St. Clair River.

From 8:00 a.m. to midnight, a hurricane-force storm over 70 mph (110 km/h) hit the four western lakes. Most of the damage occurred on Lake Huron, where ships crowded for shelter along the southern end. Following the length of the lake, the wind had free rein. Gusts of 90 mph (140 km/h) were reported at Harbor Beach, Michigan.

In retrospect, the meteorologists did not have enough data and understanding of atmospheric dynamics to understand or predict the events of Sunday the 9th. For example, it was not yet clear what fronts are and how they behave. Observations were made only twice a day, only at the Earth’s surface. Hours had passed by the time these were collected, and hand-drawn weather maps were created.

10–11th of November.

On Monday morning, the 10th, the depression had moved towards Toronto near Lake Ontario, followed at the rear by lake effect blizzards. In Cleveland, Ohio, another 43 cm of snow fell that day with snowdrifts up to two meters high in the streets. Travelers were forced to wait for weather improvement and snow removal on site.

On Tuesday the 11th, the depression quickly swept across eastern Canada. No longer fed by the warm waters of the lakes, the storm lost momentum. Snowfall also decreased due to the lack of the lake effect. On the 10th and part of the 11th, all shipping on the St. Lawrence River in the Montreal area was still at a standstill.

The Aftermath

The snowstorm shut down traffic and communications on land, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. 22 inches (56 cm) of snow in Cleveland, Ohio, closed stores for two days. There was no electricity for days in many parts of Michigan and Ontario, so telephones and telegraphs did not work. A recently built weir to protect Chicago’s Lincoln Park from storms was washed away in a matter of hours. Milwaukee lost the southern pier and much of the adjacent South Park area that had just been renovated.

After the last snowdrifts passed Cleveland, the city was paralyzed under a snow and sleet foot and without electricity for days. Telephone poles were broken and electricity cables snapped. The November 11 issue of the Plain Dealer described the situation:

“Cleveland was completely covered in a white blanket, deaf and mute to the outside world, a city in a lonely white world after the violence of the two-day blizzard calmed down yesterday afternoon.”

William H. Alexander, Cleveland’s head of the weather service, stated:

“Considering everything — the thickness of the snowpack, the tremendous wind force, the amount of damage and the complete unpreparedness of the people — I think we can safely say that this storm is the most severe we’ve seen in Cleveland in the 43 years we have a weather service here.”

The greatest damage was in the lakes. Ships were wrecked on all lakes except Lake Ontario, most to the south and west of Lake Huron. Waves reached heights of at least eleven meters. In the late afternoon of November 10, an unidentified ship was discovered floating upside down in the water about 20 meters from the east coast of Michigan, within sight of Huronia Beach and St. Clair River’s mouth. Determining the identity of this “mystery ship” became a locally important issue with daily front-page reports.

The ship eventually sank, and it was not until Saturday, November 15, when it was determined to be the Charles S. Price. This was the first time in Great Lakes history that a fully loaded ore carrier had capsized. Milton Smith, an assistant engineer who decided not to sail at the last minute, helped identify some of the bodies found.

The final amount of the financial damage was $2,332,000 for completely lost ships, $830,900 for total-loss ships, $620,000 for stranded ships that could be used again, and approximately $1,000,000 in lost cargo (all at the then value of the dollar). The amounts do not include damage on land.

The storm had various long-term consequences. Complaints against the Meteorological Department resulted in increasing efforts to provide more accurate forecasts and faster communication of storm warnings. Shipping and insurance companies entered into consultations to arrive at safer designs for ships. This led to the construction of more stable ships with more strength in the longitudinal direction so that they are less likely to break. Shortly after the snowstorm, Cleveland’s city began laying all electrical and telephone cables underground, a project that took five years.

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