They called it the “White Hurricane,” and it’s a wonder that Gordon Lightfoot didn’t write a song about it. After all, the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, the 100th anniversary of which is this fall, exacted a toll far greater than that of the gale that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. The former storm battered the lakes from Nov. 7 to 10, and remains the region’s worst natural disaster on record. Twelve freighters sank, 19 more were wrecked, and up to 300 sailors died. Vessels foundered on every Great Lake except Ontario.
Triggered by a convergence of storm fronts similar to those that generated Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the 1913 storm’s winds, which reached 140 kilometres per hour and raised waves higher than 10 metres in some waters, also devastated land. Roughly 75 per cent of the forest between the areas just north of Lake Superior and the southeast end of Georgian Bay were flattened, and more than half a metre of snow smothered cities and towns on both sides of the border.
An undated photo of the SS Wexford shows the Canadian freighter in an icy harbour, probably preparing to lay up for the winter. It sank on Lake Huron during the 1913 storm, taking with it its crew of 23 or more. Lost for decades, it was found intact in August 2000, in about 23 metres of water at the southern end of Lake Huron near Bayfield. (Image courtesy of the C. Patrick Labadie Collection/Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Alpena, MI, # 156067-156086)
The ice-crusted hull of the Captain C.D. Secord at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan (date unknown), tells something of the terrible winter conditions that often forced ships to seek refuge at ports around the Great Lakes. (Collection of the Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol)
A snapshot of stormy seas on the Great Lakes, from the personal collection of the late Captain Roy Munday, uncle of Paul Carroll, author of The Wexford and Great Lakes Storm: 1913. These waves, though mountainous, are inferior to those reported during the 1913 gales. (Image courtesy of Paul Carroll)
Captain Roy Munday aboard an unknown vessel in the mid-1940s. (Image courtesy of Paul Carroll)
A wave piles onto a ship's deck in heavy seas and high winds on the Great Lakes. The ship's name and the date of image are unknown. (Image courtesy of the Captain Bud Robinson collection)
A man watches a wave crash against the Lake Michigan shore, near Lincoln Park, Chicago, on Nov. 10, 1913. (Wikimedia Commons; Chicago Daily News, Inc.)
A body is pulled onto the beach at Blacks Point, Lake Huron, near Goderich, Ont. Search parties were met by sights much worse than this when they came to scour the lakeshore for survivors after the Great Lakes storm of November 1913. (Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
Bodies of sailors washed up on an unidentified Great Lakes shore after the storm. Eventually search parties gave up. Farmers who found corpses in the months and even years after the storm would move the remains to ground along lake-bank bluffs for respectful burials. (Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
Many stretches of Great Lakes shore, especially the beaches of Lake Huron, were littered with the shattered remains of numerous ships after the storm had subsided. Barrels, pieces of lifeboats and other debris washed in after the bodies. (Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
Part of the wreckage of a ship on the Lake Huron coast. Anything valuable that had been scattered and blown onto land was at the mercy of scavengers. (Collection of the Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol)
A solemn funeral procession in Goderich, Ont., on Nov. 27, 1913. The horse-drawn hearses, led by a band, are carrying the coffins of five unknown sailors. (Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University)
The same Goderich, Ont., funeral procession, shown here outside the J. Brophey & Son Funeral Home on West Street. (Collection of the Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol)
The often-visited sailors' tombstone in the Maitland Cemetery, Goderich. The inscription reads: “In memory of the unidentified seamen lost in the great lakes disaster of Nov. 1913” (Collection of the Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol)
Roadways from northern to southern Ontario were blocked with at least half a metre of snow and ice. Scenes such as this, of the blizzard's Ontario aftermath, indicate the massive clean-up that was required. (Image courtesy of Paul Carroll)
Communities on both sides of the Great Lakes reeled after the White Hurricane of 1913. Much of the clean-up was completed by hand, as in this image of post-storm Cleveland.