History

The GREAT LAKES STORM OF 1913: A REMEMBRANCE IN 2013

The last weeks of November, and throughout December, 1913, were bleak and dreary days along Ontario’s West Coast. Citizens in every community, and farmers all along the windswept shores of Lake Huron, were involved in recovery operations following an unrivaled storm that included extremely violent winds and almost two feet of snow. The horrors of the worst maritime disaster on the Great Lakes had become a harsh reality as the flotsam, the jetsam, and dozens of bodies from eight ships totally lost and another 11 broken up and cast ashore – on Lake Huron alone – were recovered.

                                                   weather map                                            storm map

 Not unlike the recent Hurricane Sandy, the Great Storm, often called the “White Hurricane of 1913”, resulted from the collision of two massive storm systems: one raging northward from the south, and the second pushing southward from the cold arctic regions of northern Canada. The only difference between Sandy and the 1913 Great Storm was that the earlier southern hurricane originated on the Gulf side of Florida, not on the Atlantic. (Courtesy Huron County Museum & Historic Gaol.)

In the words of Robert J. Hemming, in his book Ships Gone Missing, in just the first week alone: “They came draped over life preservers, they came draped in each other’s arms, they came frozen together in clusters. All week long they came, to be collected by area farmers who sometimes had to dig half-buried bodies out of the sand that was trying to cover them.”

bodies on the beach

Bodies along the Beach, south of Goderich, wearing WEXFORD life jackets. (Courtesy Historical Collection of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio, U.S.A., as used in The WEXFORD: Elusive Shipwreck of the Great Storm, 1913; Paul Carroll.)

And they were laid out in temporary morgues in Bayfield and Zurich and Grand Bend. Or, taken to Goderich for identification and return to bereaved families for burial…. And they continued to wash up over the next full year. Many were recovered and buried; the bodies of many more lost sailors were never seen again.

 It was a sombre, if not direful time for so many families with maritime connections all along the shores; & in inland communities through to Georgian Bay. In the final count, 256 “official” deaths were acknowledged, with some quarters reporting even more.

wexford

The WEXFORD, well-known in the Port of Goderich from her frequent visits, tried to enter Goderich Harbour during the raging storm. Efforts to launch the rescue boats from the shore-based life station failed. She eventually foundered, and was lost with all hands. She lay hidden from all seekers until the year 2000 when she was found, unexpectedly by an angler, Don Chalmers, while a professional survey crew, under David l. Trotter, sponsored by the Goderich Marine Heritage Committee, worked just a few miles away. (Courtesy of Paul Carroll.)

In the final storm report of the Lake Carriers Association, it read: “No Lake Master can recall in all his experience a storm of such unprecedented violence with such rapid changes in the direction of the wind and its gusts of such fearful speed! Storms ordinarily of that velocity do not last over 4 or 5 hours, but this storm raged for 16 hours continuously at an average velocity of 60 miles per hour, with frequent spurts of 70 and over…. the waves were at least 35 feet high and followed each other in quick succession, three waves ordinarily coming one right after the other. They were considerably shorter than the waves that are formed by an ordinary gale. Being of such height and hurled with such force and rapid succession, the ships must have been subjected to incredible punishment.”

The storm that began to rage late November 08, did not finally subside until sometime on November 10, on the third day thereafter. That tragic maritime event occurred 100 years ago this year.

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A decades-old snapshot from the collection of the late Ron Pennington, whom, along with the late John Doherty, ensured that an annual commemoration of the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 was honoured with a remembrance service held at the tomb of the unknown sailors laid to rest at the Maitland Cemetery, Goderich.   The bodies of other ‘un-named’ sailors are perished are buried at unmarked locations  along the Lake Huron shore, and in unmarked locations in cemeteries, such as the one at Kintail and also at Grand Bend.