Saturday, April 13, 2013


            As the seasonal weather patterns of November begin to shape the upper atmosphere over North America, dry cold Arctic air streaming south from northern Canada meets warm moist air traveling up from the Gulf of Mexico.  Every so often, this collision of powerful upper air forces occurs over the vast waters of the Great Lakes, the largest area of fresh surface waters anywhere on this globe we call Earth. Together, the five massive expanses of water cover a surface area of 94,250 square miles and hold 5,439 cubic miles of H2O; 21% of all the earth’s supply.

            These unusual weather phenomena can produce what – for want of a better term – meteorologists call a Super Storm, devastating the open countryside nearby, but churning the broad waters of Lakes Superior, Ontario, Michigan, Huron and Erie with an often deadly combination of cyclonic winds and fifty-foot high waves. Experienced mariners have been heard to say that in these conditions, and with the relative shortness of the resulting wave patterns, navigation on the Great Lakes is more hazardous than riding out a storm at sea.

            It might come as a surprise to a casual researcher to find that there are at least 6,000 charted ship wrecks lying on the bottom of the Great Lakes, with at least 35,000 lost lives attached to that grim statistic. Allowing for incomplete record-keeping, the list may be much longer. Since 1847, there have been at least 25 killer storms that we know of, with the “Big Blow”, or the Great White Hurricane of November, 1913 deserving of more than passing attention.

            As gale force winds funneled down the length of Lake Huron on November 9th and 10th, it rolled over and sent to the bottom the coal carriers Argus, John A. McGeam, Charles S. Price and Isaac M. Scott, the iron carriers Hydrus, Wexford and Regina, as well as the James Carruthers and its $400,000. cargo of grain. Lost with them were all 203 crewmen who had set sail. A similar fate was suffered by two vessels on Lake Superior, and one on Lake Michigan.  On Lake Erie, the beacon atop lightship No. 82 – Buffalo – was still shining reassuringly on the stormy night of November 9th, and it seemed that Captain Hugh McClennan Williams of Manistee, Michigan and his five crewmen were safe. Unlike free-floating vessels however, a lightship is anchored strongly in place; a heaving, rocking “sitting” duck for winds, waves and squalls.  Sadly, the Buffalo and her seasick crew would be the first lightship to succumb on duty. Chief Engineer Charles Butler’s body would come assure one year later, at the foot of Ferry Street on Buffalo’s West side, a short distance from his widow’s residence.

            The same “Great White” storm that sank 19 ships and stranded or overturned 19 others, crippled the city of Cleveland, where newspaper stories of the day picture twelve-foot snow drifts and stalled trolleys in the streets. There was no power for nearly a week and for the first two days, those trolley motormen were confined in their powerless vehicles, fed by nearby residents.

            Another deadly “November Gale” hit again 62 years later, almost to the day.  This time, it was the giant Great Lakes bulk carrier, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald or “Big Fitz” as it was affectionately known to admirers who had been watching her since her launching in 1958. Weighing in at 13,632 gross tons, the 729-foot long “Fitz” had completed 748 round trips by that fateful November day, clocking a distance equivalent to 44 trips around the earth, much of it on “Old Gitchee Gumee”, the Chippewa name for the big waters of Lake Superior.

            With Captain Ernest M. McSorley at the helm and on a heading from “up-lake” to Detroit, the big ship began feeling the effects of a storm moving in from the west, with winds and rough water on the afternoon of November 9th.   By the early morning hours of the 10th, the storm had become intense, and McSorley told the skipper of a nearby ship that he was taking on some water and having difficulty with his radar equipment. By 3:30 PM they were in the midst of a massive winter storm. When contacted again at 7:40 PM, McSorley said . . .”we’re holding our own.”  Moments later, the storm-lashed waters of “Old Gitchee Gumee” swallowed the Edmund Fitzgerald and her 29 crewmen.

            Unlike the thousands of previous November Gale stories associated with America’s “Other Coast”, this one was immortalized by Canadian songwriter/singer Gordon Lightfoot.

Tethered to a huge sunken anchor, the light ship “Buffalo” was unable to maneuver, and                      disappeared from sight in the waters of Lake Erie taking her six man crew with her in "The Great White Storm" of 1913.

Known as “The Titanic of the Great Lakes”, the Ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald remains both a myth and a mystery 36 years after the 1975 sinking. What took the huge ship to the bottom in mere minutes without even a call for help?


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