Michigan’s Sunrise Coasts: The Storm of 1913

by Julie Royce /
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Jun 11, 2022 / 0 comments

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Plan ahead: from 6/23/22 to 6/29/22, Royce will offer a free PDF of Exploring Michigan’s Sunrise Coasts, from 6/30/22 to 7/6/22, she will offer a free PDF of Exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula Coasts, and from 7/7/22 to 7/13/22, she will offer a free PDF of Exploring Michigan’s Sunset Coasts. Read our author interview about all three books here.

Michigan’s Sunrise Coasts: The Storm of 1913

The Charles Price, the Isaac Scott, the James Carruthers, the Wexford, the Regina, the John McGean, the Hydrus, and the Argus.

Eight huge freighters sank in Lake Huron during The Big Blow.

It was a killer storm, the likes of which had never been seen before—and the fury of which has never been repeated. 

SS Charles S. Price. From Michigan’s Sunrise Coasts: The Storm of 1913
SS Charles S. Price

While the remains of the ships that went down that night may belong to a specific beach or city, the magnitude of the disaster is best understood by the story that uniquely belongs to Lake Huron.

The Ojibwe have a legend that explains November’s fury. They attribute the whims of the winds to two spirits: Gitche Manitou and Matchie Manitou. Gitche Manitou is a good wind spirit that favors Ningabianinodin, the pleasant and steady West Wind. Gitche Manitou also loves the gentle South Wind, Jawaninodin, that brings the pleasant summer breezes. Matchie Manitou, on the other hand, is an evil wind spirit that favors Kiwedininodin, the terrible North Wind, or Wabaninodin, the evil East Wind that breeds many of the Lake’s tempests.

When the winds become schizophrenic and unable to find their direction, the Ojibwe believe it is the two spirits competing to test their wind-summoning strengths. The maelstrom of 1913 made Lake Huron the playing field of the competing winds. At some point, as in many sporting events, the game got out of hand. During that November weather aberration, a dozen or so longships became Gitche Manitou and Matchie Manitou’s playing pieces.

Settlers in the Thumb area, oblivious to the legends of Gitche Manitou and Matchie Manitou, spent November 9 in their own houses of worship. When they entered their churches, the weather was an unseasonably warm 80 degrees. Mother Nature could not decide if she was headed to December or retreating to August. The heat, so uncharacteristic of November, begged a last day at the beach. 

As a Lexington congregation sat in their pews singing Shall We Gather at the River, the music was drowned by sounds like that of ricocheting buckshot. Pellets of ice, snow, and sleet peppered the handsome stained-glass windows, and the temperature dropped at least 50 degrees by the time the pastor sent ushers to take up the collection.

On the lake two days earlier, one seasoned captain had predicted the white hurricane, but crews of other ships were ignorant of his warning. Captain George Holdridge captained the steamer Robert W. Bunsen. On November 7, he was downbound on Lake Huron. His crewmen believed the unseasonably hot weather and placid lake were cooperating with their efforts to get their last haul of the season behind them.

Captain Holdridge saw it differently. He had been a sailor all of his life. He had sailed the salt waters of the China Sea, where he developed an internal barometer that told him with no uncertainty what was coming. On this November morning, as his ship briskly traversed the glassy Huron surface, Holdridge grew concerned about what his internal weather equipment predicted. The sky was copper-colored and although the sun was out, he could not distinguish it. The world was cloaked in surrealistic garb. When the Bunsen was off Harbor Beach, Holdridge announced to a crewmate, “Boy, you’re going to see a storm such as you never saw before!” The Captain then called down to the engine room and ordered his chief to give it all he could; they needed to make time. He knew the storm was coming; he just was not sure when the monster would strike.

About the same time as church let out, the James Carruthers, the Wexford, and the Hydrus entered Lake Huron headed downlake. They ignored the warning flags and lights hoisted in accord with maritime procedure. These ships had endured rough seas on Lake Superior, and hoped Huron would afford them better conditions.

At the far end of the lake where the St. Clair River gives way to the big lake’s open water, the Charles Price, the John A. McGean, and the Isaac Scott charted a northern course at daybreak. Gale warnings in Sarnia and Port Huron and dozens of other ports signaled the folly of their actions as early as the preceding Friday morning. It seems foolhardy that ship captains blithely ignored the threat. But November storms didn’t frighten experienced captains, who needed to make every minute count before the close of navigation for the season. Chances were taken. For many it was the last run of the year, and they were eager to get home. They didn’t know it would be the last run of their lives.

The storm started no more threatening than many wild November squalls originating on Lake Superior. By the time it reached Huron two days later, it had mutated into a witch’s brew beyond anything seen before or since. It was birthed by an unusual and horrific confluence of factors. A massive low-pressure system had spawned in the Aleutians and moved steadily over the Canadian provinces on a course headed for Superior. A second low-pressure system, born in the Rocky Mountains, beat a northeasterly path from lower Minnesota to join the first. The marriage of these two colossal fronts brought savage and sustained winds and rough seas. The fickle gusts started from the east, turned in minutes to the south, or north, or even west, as though they could not make up their minds from which direction they wanted to pummel the sea.

This was bad, yet predictable. 

What came next was unprecedented. 

A third low-pressure system originating in the Gulf of Mexico swept northward from Georgia in an abnormal route. This diabolical third front covered the east coast with record-breaking snowfalls and hurricane-strength winds.

Straight from the docks of lower Lake Huron, the three fronts converged, creating a cataclysm like no other. The lake convulsed and churned under the assault of hurricane-strength winds. The snow raged down and sideways in 80- and 90-mile-per-hour gusts in a gale that lasted for at least twenty-four hours.

Lake Huron lies in a geographic area where cyclonic storms can and do come up quickly—often without warning. The lake also has its own peculiar and distinctive danger spots. One of the foremost is the Six Fathom Bank that lies almost due east of the Black River and Port Huron. It is in the center of the lake and not too far from what would normally be considered by ship captains to be a fair uplake or downlake course. The earliest explorers, like Father Louis Hennepin, received warnings from local Native American tribes to avoid that area, and stay close to the coast because the sands made navigation dangerous when they were disturbed by high wind.

During the storm of 1913, ship captains operated blind. The storm reduced visibility in most parts of the lake to mere feet. Captains gave up trying to stay on course and fought to stay afloat and avoid collisions. In one instance, their efforts may have been sabotaged by a lightship keeper’s unwillingness to authorize a payment of $25. The operator of the light had been offered the services of a Canadian tug to tow her back to her assigned station. He balked because he was not authorized to make the expenditure. It is one of the unnecessary horrors of such natural disasters. During foul weather, ship captains depended on the lightship stationed offshore at the mouth of the St. Clair River to guide them safely from Lake Huron into that narrow river channel. By midday on Sunday, November 9, 75-mile-per-hour winds dragged the lightship and her anchors two miles east and two miles southeast, leaving her up against the Canadian shore. By a cruel quirk of fate, her light and fog signal continued to operate, guiding unsuspecting ships into the waiting trap of the Corsica Shoal. This tragic circumstance claimed the Northern Queen and the Matthew Andrews. 

SS Isaac M. Scott after collision with John B. Cowle. From Michigan’s Sunrise Coasts: The Storm of 1913
SS Isaac M. Scott after collision with John B. Cowle

Captain Joseph Lampoh had successfully brought the Andrews, loaded with iron ore, down the length of Lake Huron through the early hours of the vicious storm. Relying on the signals from the lightship, he then steered her aground at Kettle Pointe, Ontario. 

In fairness, although both the Northern Queen and the Matthew Andrews were forced ashore by misdirection and these vessels sustained heavy damage, the crews lived to tell the tale of the Storm of 1913. The crews of ten others (two in Lake Michigan) did not. What we know of their ordeal is speculation supplanted by the accounts of vessels, like the Hanna, that passed them as she headed to shore and relative safety.

We love tales of adventure, and there will always be a romanticism connected with sailing the seas and braving its dangers. But on Sunday, November 9, and Monday, November 10, 1913, it can be said with absolute certainty that no captain or crewman considered himself (or herself, because a couple of women went down, too) caught in a web of romantic circumstances. Theirs was a raw and ugly struggle for survival and, unlike sentimental formulaic plots, there would be no triumphant happy ending.

Romance was starkly absent as these terrorized men and women clutched slippery railings with numbed fingers and fought desperately to keep from going over. Giant sheets of ice, intent upon capsizing their colossal freighters, repeatedly swamped them. Romance must have been miles from their minds as they sought last-minute reprieves from a god who seemed to have momentarily lost track of them, but with whom they were intent on making final peace. Every gesture, every act was a meaningless effort in futility. They were going down. 

Some of their distress calls were heard on shore, but there was no possibility of sending assistance. Aboard, they got out the life rafts and vests, both useless and trivial protection against a sea that sent waves 35 feet high exploding over them—waves capable of taking a flat-bottomed ship—over 500 feet in length or nearly twice the distance of a football field and weighing several hundred tons—and flipping her turtle-style to the bottom.

The best they could hope for was an easy death. Perhaps for a few lucky victims, death was instantaneous, a blow to the head by flying debris. For others it may have been blessedly brief as they gasped for two or three minutes to suck in fresh air, but were doused by angry water that filled their straining lungs. For the remainder of the crew, it meant freezing to death. Floating around them, the last earthly sights they would witness were carnage from their ships and the bodies of their mates.

Wexford victims ashore, 1913. From Michigan’s Sunrise Coasts: The Storm of 1913
Wexford victims ashore, 1913

The morning it all ended, a farmer saw what appeared to be several men covered with ice walking out of the water. Upon closer inspection, he discovered frozen corpses bobbling upright in the waves, held in that position by their worthless lifejackets. Altogether, eight long-ships vanished in Lake Huron that wretched night.

So spiteful was the storm that the final resting place of the James C Carruthers remains a mystery. 

The Wexford moldered in an unknown grave until 2000. The Hydrus was not found until November 2015, more than a century after she sank. The 416-foot long, 4,700-ton vessel was discovered sitting upright on the bottom of Huron, and was identified by a sign bearing her name found inside the engine room. 

SS Wexford. From Michigan’s Sunrise Coasts: The Storm of 1913
SS Wexford

When the White Hurricane ended, it fell to the living to pick up the pieces.

The final death count from the Big Blow is estimated at 248. Of those, 178 perished in the original Sweet Water Sea, Lake Huron. These numbers are considered fairly accurate, but back then ship rosters were not kept in a precise manner. Many crewmen were not listed by their full or legal name. Local cemeteries where they are buried honor them only as Skip or Red. Some may never be acknowledged.

Read Part Two of this series here!


Click through to read excerpts from Royce's three books exploring Michigan's coasts:

Exploring Michigan's Coasts: A Compendium



Julie Albrecht Royce, the Michigan Editor for Wandering Educators recently published a three-book travel series exploring Michigan’s coastlines. Nearly two decades ago, she published two traditional travel books, but found they were quickly outdated. This most recent project focuses on providing travelers with interesting background for the places they plan to visit. Royce has published two novels: Ardent Spirit, historical fiction inspired by the true story of Odawa-French Fur Trader, Magdelaine La Framboise, and PILZ, a legal thriller which drew on her experiences as a First Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan. She has written magazine and newspaper articles, and had several short stories included in anthologies. 

All ship photos in the Public Domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons