“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” vaulted to No. 2 on the Billboard pop charts in 1976, scoring a blockbuster hit for Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. He’d written the ballad as a tribute to the 29 merchant mariners who died when the bulk carrier Edmund Fitzgerald sank Nov. 10, 1975, in a fierce gale on Lake Superior.
The song ends with a haunting line: “ ‘ Superior,’ they said, ‘never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early.’ ” The lyrics reflect a harsh reality. Late-autumn storms can be treacherous on the Great Lakes. Sometimes they kill.
In 1913 an unprecedented early November storm pummeled the region. Winds gusted to hurricane force. Waves reached heights of 35 feet or more. Blowing snow dropped visibility to zero. Twelve vessels sank with all hands, with at least 235 sailors dead. Dozens of ships ran aground, and many were destroyed.
Variously called the White Hurricane, the Freshwater Fury, the Big Blow and the Great Storm of 1913, the gale caused more death and destruction than any other in Great Lakes history. Newspaper stories and letters from survivors reveal just how bad it was.
A deceptive lull
Assistant engineer Earl Rattray struggled to keep his footing in the engine room of the 454-foot ore carrier Cornell. Stokers shoveled coal into the furnaces beneath the boilers, and oilers checked for overheated bearings. Out of necessity, the captain drove the ship hard. It was up to Rattray and his crew to keep the engine running. Without power, the Cornell would slide her beam to the waves and capsize.
A storm had blown up on the Great Lakes, ushering in strong southwesterly winds early on Saturday, Nov. 8, that shifted to the northwest as the day progressed. The temperature plummeted, and the wind increased. The man in the pilothouse at Cornell’s helm could see nothing through the swirling snow. Ice coated the windows on the bridge. Green water surged across the decks, threatening to rip open the hatches.
Far to the east, the 440-foot Edwin F. Holmes was running for Whitefish Bay, Mich. Waves were high enough to dislodge the canvas tarps secured to the 12 wooden hatches leading to the four cavernous cargo holds below. Capt. C.D. Brown wasn’t worried — he’d seen nasty weather on Lake Superior before — but he and the crew were glad when they reached Whitefish Bay late in the afternoon and dropped anchor.
The Soo Locks that led to Lake Huron were closed because of the storm, backing up traffic. The anchorage was crowded with bulk carriers, their distinctive pilothouses rising high atop the bows like lighthouses. They all had the traditional long expanse of open deck in the middle, and smokestacks jutted from the tops of the aft superstructures, which housed the galleys and crew berths. While waiting for the locks to reopen, the crew of the Edwin F. Holmes secured the hatches, making them as watertight as possible. The exercise might just have saved all of their lives.
On Lake Huron, the 504-foot bulk carrier Charles S. Price continued heading eastward through alpine seas. Seven other cargo ships were also offshore, including Argus, James Carruthers, Hydrus and Isaac M. Scott, all of which were more than 400 feet and built within the last decade. None would survive the storm.
The wind eased off enough for the lock keepers to open the Soo early Sunday morning. About 20 ships locked through and ventured out onto the open waters of Lake Huron, the skippers convinced that the gale had blown itself out. Edwin F. Holmes was one of them.
The quick and the dead
Waves crashed over the steamer L.C. Waldo as the hull slowly tore to pieces on Gull Rock off Michigan’s Manitou Island on Lake Superior early Sunday morning, many hours after the ship had run aground in zero visibility. The hold was flooded. Deckhouses were stove in. The crewmen found what shelter they could and prayed that rescuers would arrive before the ship sank.
The crew of the 225-foot lumber barge Plymouth was in similar peril on Lake Michigan. The old scow had been built in 1854 and could not stand up to the storm. Just before she sank, Capt. Chris Keenan dictated a letter to his family, which a member of the crew put in a bottle. The bottle was found 11 days after the storm. “Dear wife and children. … We lost one man yesterday. We have been out in the storm for forty hours. Goodbye dear ones. I might see you in Heaven. Pray for me. / Chris K. / P.S. I felt so bad I had another man write for me. Goodbye forever.”
Aboard Cornell, Earl Rattray and his men fought for survival. “We’re nearly broke in two, anchors gone, windlass a wreck. Houses stove in, furniture wrecked and just a cripple from stem to stern,” Rattray wrote in a letter to his mother Nov. 24.
Ships were going down throughout the Great Lakes. Off Buffalo, N.Y., on Lake Erie, Lightship 82 foundered with a crew of six aboard. On Lake Huron, eight freighters sank. News of an overturned steamer reached Port Huron, Mich., on Monday afternoon, when the tug Sarnia City made it back to port after remaining on station near the wreck all night in hopes of picking up survivors. There were none. “The fact that the huge vessel is lying bottom up eight miles out in the storm-swept lake has convinced local mariners that the crew had practically no chance to escape,” the Port Huron Times-Herald reported on Nov. 11. The capsized bulk carrier was later identified as Charles S. Price.
The Edwin F. Holmes limped into port, its pilothouse severely damaged. The Cornell continued to battle the storm on Monday, running off toward Whitefish Bay. “The house went in, and Jack Kittel, the first assistant, said, ‘Goodbye, kiddies’ — he has a boy 10 and girl 6 — and he was thinking of them. We all thought she was foundering,” Rattray wrote.
By Monday, the crew of the L.C. Waldo, grounded on Gull Rock, had given up hope. The decks were awash, and all 22 sailors had lashed themselves to the rigging. Snow and ice covered their bodies. Night passed, and the storm began to ease. At dawn on Tuesday, Nov. 11, some of the men spotted a lifeboat. Their account of the rescue appeared in the annual report of the Life Saving Service.
“They beheld in the early morning light of the 11th a grotesque, ghostly shape top a wave, poise on its crest for a moment, then sink out of sight as the wave slipped from under it and went racing on. The next time the shape came into view, the Waldo inmates recognized it as an ice-covered boat. One of them spotted the Life Saving emblem on its side. They were saved. … There was no hope for the L.C. Waldo. The mangled steamer was left to the mercy of Lake Superior.”
The corpses of sailors began washing ashore Tuesday, although only 56 bodies were recovered from Lake Huron, the scene of the worst carnage. The rest found graves in the depths. The Detroit News reported: “A special from London, Ont., states that five bodies were washed ashore this afternoon … on the Canadian shore of Lake Huron. Four had on life belts marked ‘Wexford,’ and the other wore a belt marked ‘London.’ It is thought they might have been victims of the overturned freighter disaster.”
Wreckage from Lightship 82 washed ashore in Buffalo. The lifeboat was found capsized off the Buffalo breakwater. A broken oar in one of the oarlocks indicated that the crew had abandoned ship.
Cornell made it to Whitefish Bay at 1 a.m. Tuesday, its crew exhausted but safe. The ship then steamed to a yard in Toledo, Ohio, for extensive repairs. “We’ve got our smokestack yet, but that’s about all there was left on deck, and there certainly was no boat any nearer gone than we are and came through,” Rattray wrote.
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November 2013 issue