100th Anniversary of the 1913 Great Lakes Storm

The Great Lakes were struck by a major storm 100 years ago on November 7-10, 1913. This was the worst weather-related disaster on the Great Lakes with at least 235 people killed (probably more) and 19 ships sunk. Sustained winds of 50-70 mph were common with wind gusts of up to 90 mph, waves on the Great Lakes of 35 feet, and heavy snow (especially in Ohio).

Bodies from the Wexford washed ashore near Goderich, Ontario, Canada.
Bodies from the Wexford washed ashore near Goderich, Ontario, Canada.

The storm itself was remarkable for its strength and complexity. The storm was the combination of a low-pressure system moving out of Canada and across the Great Lakes with a second low-pressure system moving up from the American Appalachians. Recently, a group from the Detroit NWS office presented a detailed description of the storm, including model-reconstructed wind speeds and wave heights that closely corresponded to the few available observations. Hurricane force winds (greater than 74 mph) lasted from 10 hours on Lake Huron to 20 hours on Lake Superior. Predicted wave heights were up to 36 feet with very steep sides.

Why was this storm so deadly? There were a number of contributing factors, including.

  1. One was that the state of weather forecasting in 1913 was not up to the task of predicting and monitoring conditions before and during this storm. Unlike Tom Skilling, forecasters of the day had little knowledge of how storm systems behave and had no access to radar, satellite, computer models, or even real-time weather observations. As a result, the storm’s development and ferocity was not understood until after the fact.
  2. The storm occurred early in November while the shipping season was still active. As a result, many more vessels were exposed than if the storm had been in late November or early December.
  3. The boats of the day (ships on the Great Lakes are called boats) were not designed to battle storms likes this. They were long and narrow, with a shallow draft, like a giant canoe. As a result, they were easy to capsize. And they were under-powered which made handling even more difficult. Even so, modern-day vessels would have a hard time coping with the 36 foot, steep waves.
  4. Lack of radio communication meant no reports of worsening conditions or distress signals could be sent. Navigation aides were few. With the high seas and heavy snow, landmarks and buoys disappeared from view.

It is hard to do the storm justice in a blog post. Fortunately, there are several great sources for more information on the storm including the ubiquitous Wikipedia article. NOAA has a very comprehensive Centennial Anniversary page.

I have read the classic book “Freshwater Fury” by Frank Barcus and the more recent “White Hurricane: A Great Lakes November Gale and America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster” by David Brown. There is a new book that I have not read yet – “November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913” by Michael Schumacher. There are several others out there as well. I also found an online copy of the Lake Carrier’s Association 1913 report of the storm.

Weather Maps from November 7-10, 1913

Here are the weather maps from the 1913 archive. The maps look different from today’s maps with a lack of fronts (frontal theory came a few years later) and not much data from Canada. Source: Historical Daily Weather Map series.

November 7, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 8, 1913.
November 8, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 9, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 9, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 10, 1913. Click to enlarge.
November 10, 1913. Click to enlarge.

Snowfall Pattern from the Storm

The snowfall from the storm was widespread across the Great Lakes region. I don’t have snowfall totals for Canada. Heavy snow and much-reduced visibility was reported over the Great Lakes themselves. The heaviest snows were in Ohio and West Virginia with amounts in the range of 15 to 20 inches. Because the lakes were still warm in early November, lake-effect snow was widespread.

Cleveland was the one major city hardest hit. They set a 24-hour record of 17.4 inches of snow with a 3-day total of 22.2 inches. Ahead of the snow was widespread ice that combined with high winds to down power and telephone lines. Some photos and descriptions can be found at the Ohio Historical Society.