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Beware the ides of November

Beware the ides of November
On November 11, 1940, the Armistice Day storm, one of the worst storms in Great Lakes history, struck Lake Michigan, sinking several vessels along the West Michigan coast. In Ludington, the Carferry City of Flint 32 was driven ashore north of the breakwater where waves and blizzard conditions coated the ship in ice. The Photo is from the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum exhibit, operation by Mason County Historical Society.

By Judy Reed

There are storms, and then there are the deadly November gales on the Great Lakes with hurricane winds and ice—the stuff that legends are made of.

This week was the anniversary of three of the many storms that have taken lives of sailors and others in November. 

The White Hurricane of November 11, 1913 was the most devastating storm ever on the Great Lakes. The photo shows headlines from the Detroit News on November 11, 1913.

The deadliest of them all, according to NOAA, was the White Hurricane of 1913. “Although there have been many shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, what made the White Hurricane event of 1913 unique was the number of shipwrecks that occurred in that storm and the number of fatalities,” they said.

The storm included 35-foot waves and northerly hurricane force wind gusts. With over 12 ships destroyed and 31 crippled, the storm claimed more lives than all of the other major Great Lakes maritime disasters combined. Financial loss in ships and cargo totaled estimated at $117 million in today’s currency.

The storm was a blizzard with hurricane-force winds that devastated the Great Lakes Basin in the Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada from November 7 through November 10, 1913. The storm was most powerful on November 9, battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron.

NOAA said that ships built prior to 1948 used a type of steel in their hulls that became brittle below 33 degrees. This likely contributed at least partially to their demise, during the twisting and turning encountered on the choppy waves. A common theme associated with many 20th century shipwrecks were high waves churned up at the end of a long wind fetch across the water.

This week was also the 80th anniversary of the Armistice Day storm that occurred on November 11, 1940. The day started out with balmy 55-degree weather. According to a story by the National Weather Service, many businesses and schools were closed due to the Armistice Day holiday; and duck hunters were pleased by the opportunity to take to the fields and streams. Few suspected the weather was about to change.

“During the day and into the night severe weather erupted across much of the Midwest. A tornado was reported one mile west of Davenport Iowa, 2-3 inches of heavy rain fell over the Mississippi Valley, and heavy snow began to fall across Minnesota and Western Iowa. Gale velocities were measured at 80 mph at Grand Rapids, Michigan, and were estimated to be even higher over the lakes.

“Mariners, aware of the dangers on the Great Lakes, paid close attention to the weather. But during the Armistice Day storm many of the crews were unaware that the winds would shift until their ships were struck broadside by the full force of the wind. During the storm three large ships sank near Pentwater, Michigan—66 sailors died in the sinking of three freighters, the SS Anna C. Minch, the SS Novadoc, and the SS William B. Davock, and two smaller boats.

Survivors on ships that ran aground waited for days on their damaged vessels until winds subsided and rescue boats could be launched from shore. 

Hunters couldn’t believe the amount of waterfowl they saw. But the birds knew something the hunters didn’t—they were fleeing the approaching storm.

“Across the Midwest hundreds of duck hunters, not dressed for the cold, were overtaken by the storm. Winds came suddenly then masses of ducks arrived flying low to the ground (Washburn, 2008). Hunters, awed by the site of unending flocks of birds, failed to recognize the impending weather signs that a change was in process. Rain started and temperatures fell rapidly. By the time the rain, sleet, then heavy snow reduced the visibility to zero, hunters lost their opportunities to return safely to shore. Hundreds of duck hunters lost boats, gear and guns as 15-foot swells and 70 -80 mph winds swept down channels and marshy backwaters. Some hunters drowned, others froze to death when the near 60 degree temperatures plummeted, first to freezing, then into the single digits (Knarr, 1941; Swails, 2005; Washburn, 2008).”

The NWS said that during the next few days search parties retrieved frozen hunters from islands and the icy waters. Some of those lucky enough be stranded on islands survived the storm, but lost hands or feet due to severe frost bite.

“Across the upper Midwest drifts up to 20 feet high buried cars and rescuers had to force long probes into the rock hard drifts in their search for missing people. Passenger trains were stranded, and roads and highways remained closed for days. Newspaper deliveries were halted; telephone and power lines were damaged as were homes, barns, and outbuildings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan.”

This week was also the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, on November 10, 1975. At 729 feet long, the Fitzgerald is the largest ship to ever sink on the Great Lakes. In transit to a steel mill near Detroit Michigan the Fitzgerald was hit by a storm with 70 mph winds and 40-foot waves on eastern Lake Superior. It was reported that 29 men died in the wreckage. Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the event with his song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was reportedly carrying a full cargo of ore pellets with Captain Ernest M. McSorley in command. She embarked on her ill-fated voyage from Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, on the afternoon of November 9, 1975. En route to a steel mill near Detroit, Edmund Fitzgerald joined a second taconite freighter, SS Arthur M. Anderson. By the next day, the two ships were caught in a severe storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet (11 m) high. Shortly after 7:10 p.m., Edmund Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian (Ontario) waters 530 feet (88 fathoms; 160 m) deep, about 17 miles (15 nautical miles; 27 kilometers) from Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario—a distance Edmund Fitzgerald could have covered in just over an hour at her top speed.

Edmund Fitzgerald previously reported being in significant difficulty to Arthur M. Anderson: “I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.” However, no distress signals were sent before she sank; Captain McSorley’s last (7:10 P.M.) message to Arthur M. Anderson was, “We are holding our own.” Her crew of 29 perished, and no bodies were recovered. The exact cause of the sinking remains unknown.

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