After the storm subsided, the sailors’ bodies began drifting to the shores of Lake Huron. They all had one thing in common: Their watches had stopped between 8 and 11:30 p.m. on Nov. 9, 1913.
Now, to mark the 100th anniversary, Michael Schumacher has chronicled the freshwater hurricane that put a chokehold on Lake Huron that night. Forget about the Edmund Fitzgerald 62 years later, or the Duluth-centered Mataafa Blow that whipped up Lake Superior eight years earlier.
The hurricane of 1913 “will be entered in the history of navigation as one of the most violent and one that exacted a greater toll,” wrote district editor J.H. Armington in his November 1913 issue of the “Monthly Weather Review.”
Because there were no accurate crew lists, the precise death toll isn’t known, but at least 248 sailors were killed. The wind blew at 40 miles per hour for 14 straight hours. Torrential rain morphed into blizzard snow. Waves climbed to 40 feet.
Of the 17 boats on Lake Huron between 8 p.m. and midnight that day, only two heavily damaged ones managed to limp to their destinations.
Schumacher’s storytelling is comprehensive, introducing readers to captains at the helms of one massive freighter after the next. The book hits its best notes when it details the individual stories of the men working that night — men such as Milton Smith, an engineer on the Charles S. Price, and the boat’s 23-year-old wheelman, Arze McIntosh.
Smith resigned his post just before sailing, despite needing the money to support his wife and six kids in Cleveland. He had a bad premonition. As he walked off the boat and headed to the train depot in Ashtabula, Ohio, he bumped into McIntosh.
“Damn it,” the wheelman said. “I wish I were going with you.”
But McIntosh needed the money he’d earn hauling this load of coal to Milwaukee to pay for eye surgery. He would become one of the storm’s 248-plus victims.
As with all the stories chronicling such disasters, the words of the lucky live on, while those who saw the worst of it are rendered silent. So we are left with descriptions from witnesses such as Capt. Walter C. Iler, who watched as another boat, the Argus, “seemed to crumple like an eggshell,” buckling and splitting under enormous waves with 28 on board.
Schumacher, a Wisconsin author of a dozen books on Great Lakes storms, sums up his latest effort thusly: “This is a story of human folly and error, bad luck and timing, heroic actions and decisions, resistance to warning, bad judgment, superb seamanship, and determination in the face of impossible odds.”
For me, its strength comes from its ability to breathe new life into the long-gone voices of folks like Durston Capt. James B. Watt, who eluded the troughs of the great waves and was ironically blessed when ice encased his vessel, sealing his hatch covers with a natural armor.
Watt said the lifeline between the forward and rear sections of his boat was “as thick around as a man’s body and absolutely useless.”
“Never in all my years do I remember such terrible seas,” Watt said. “All the lifeboats, life rafts and life belts in the world wouldn’t have been worth a tinker’sdamn … in the black seething water.”
Staff writer Curt Brown’s 2008 book, “So Terrible a Storm,” chronicles the 1905 Lake Superior gale that walloped Duluth.