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One hundred years ago this week, a severe storm with hurricane-force winds swept across the Great Lakes region between November 7 and 11, 1913. It wreaked havoc not only on ships and sailors, but also on people and structures ashore. Over 250 sailors lost their lives. Twelve ships – the majority of them on Lake Huron – were lost with all hands.
As the storm moved across Lake Superior, the crew of the Henry B. Smith sailed out of the harbor at Marquette, reportedly tightening down the hatch covers in preparation for a rough trip in the midst of a snow squall. The ship broke in half and foundered, remaining invisible on the bottom for the next one hundred years, until divers last spring discovered the wreck about twenty miles away from its point of departure.
The fifty-nine-year old schooner-barge Plymouth was left behind near Gull Island when its towing tug, the James H. Martin, decided to seek shelter. In so doing, the Martin abandoned the lumber-laden barge with a seven-man crew to ride out the storm alone on Lake Michigan. The ship remains missing to this day. Chris Keenan, a deputy sheriff who was on board the Plymouth because the vessel was the subject of litigation, threw a message overboard in a bottle. The bottle eventually washed ashore near Pentwater.
“Dear Wife and Children:
We were left up here in Lake Michigan by McKinnon, captain of the tug James H. Martin; tug at anchor. He went away and never said goodbye or anything to us. Lost one man yesterday. We have been out in the storm forty hours. Goodbye dear ones. Might see you in Heaven. Pray for me.
P.S. I felt so bad I had another man write for me. Goodbye forever.”
On Lake Huron, the storm generated huge waves over thirty-five feet high and winds more than seventy miles per hour. The Isaac M. Scott overturned northeast of Thunder Bay Island near Alpena. Built in 1909 at Lorain, Ohio, the boat was a five hundred-footer, one of the largest on the lakes at the time. Further down the lake, the worst loss of life happened in an area called “The Pocket,” off Michigan’s Thumb, where five more ships went down in the blizzard-like conditions. The Regina, a Canadian package freighter capsized off Port Sanilac; Argus foundered near Port Aux Barques and was also found upside-down. Wexford, Hydrus and James Carruthers all sank near the Canadian shoreline. The Carruthers was a brand-new 550-footer just ending its first shipping season.
One of the most terrifying sights was the unidentified capsized hull of a steel freighter off Port Huron, called the “Mystery Ship” in newspaper headlines. How something so large could meet such a sudden end attested to the strength of the storm’s wind and waves. A few days later, when the waters calmed, a diver identified the wreck as the Charles S. Price.
Near Buffalo, New York, Lightship No. 82, stationed at Waverly Shoal, sank with all six crew members on November 10. Hugh M. Williams, the boat’s commanding officer, wrote a quick note on a hatch cover, “Goodbye Nellie, ship is breaking up fast. Williams.” Built only a year earlier at Muskegon by the Racine-Truscott-Shell Lake Boat Company, the new steel craft was unable to withstand the constant pounding of the storm. The upper works were torn off, flooding the interior and sinking the vessel. The following spring, divers located the wreck in sixty-three feet of water, and over the next two years, the boat was raised, reconditioned and returned to service as a relief vessel for other lightships.
After the Storm
In the wake of the storm, vessel owners and operators sought ways to strengthen their ships. Suggestions were made to raise the hatch coamings and to design more durable hatch covers on bulk carriers. As radio communications developed, they were employed to communicate up-to-date weather information.
The Great Lakes still experience major fall storms, but the “1913 Blow” remains the worst weather event for marine casualties in modern Michigan history.