Prepare to Be Blown Away

“Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan – possess an ocean-like expansiveness, with many of the ocean’s noblest traits…they are swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as direful as any that lash the salted wave; they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

In Moby Dick, Herman Melville singles out the bitter defeat of sailors by nature and understood the ferocity of the lake’s fury. Singly each lake is an inland sea, larger, more dangerous, and with dirtier weather than many. Their violent winter seas can lift a steel freighter as if she were a canoe and turn her over or set her broken on the shore.

In November of 1913, one of the worst storms in recorded history occurred. Not only was their chaos on the lakes, but communication and travel across seven states and Canadian provinces was disrupted for days. In Cleveland, the city hit hardest of all, commerce, public utilities, and traffic came to a standstill.

The stories from this storm were incredible. The men who lived through it never forgot the force of the wind, the blinding blizzard, the tumult of the seas, the staggering loss of lives and ships. Exactly how many lives lost is unknown – over 235 at sea and on land.

To this day, the secret of why many freighters foundered remains buried at the bottom of the lakes. Two weeks before the navigation season was to close and ships were safe in winter berths, practically without warning, Freshwater Fury sent a score of modern freighters to their doom. Twelve ships disappeared with all hands, leaving nothing to tell of their last battle with the sea. Below is an excerpt from the Lake Carriers Association Annual Report issued in Cleveland, Ohio in 1913:

“There have been many storms in the past supposedly violent, but this one was unprecedented. It raged with uncommon force, especially on Lake Huron, and proved to be the most destructive in the history of the lakes. As nearly as can be traced, 235 sailors lost their lives in this storm, 44 of them on Lake Superior, 7 on Lake Michigan, 6 on Lake Erie, and 178 of them on Lake Huron. The storm threw a great pall over lake shipping and practically demoralized lake trade for the balance of the season.”

The Door County Maritime Museum’s staff and volunteers are finalizing the new exhibit “Freshwater Fury” which tells the amazing tale of the greatest storm ever recorded on the Great Lakes. Many living in the Great Lakes region are all too familiar with the powerful weather we see in fall and winter. While this occurs with some regularity, there are probably a dozen storms noted for their severity, causing extensive losses of life and property.

It is argued as to which is the more powerful or destructive, but is generally agreed the November 7 – 10th storm of 1913 was one of the worst on record – with upwards of 40 shipwrecks, 11 sinking with all hands. Freezing water, 35-foot waves, 75 mph winds, a lack of sophisticated communication and weather forecasting all played a part in the disaster. By presenting historic photographs, newspaper articles, and the personal accounts of lake masters and their crew, we look at the ships and ask why they sank or how they survived. We invite visitors to step onto the deck of a ship about to sink; watch the storm’s fury from a virtual pilothouse; or don a life-vest and telegraph a call in distress in hopes of a returning assurance of help.

Weather forecasters of the time did not have enough data or understanding of atmospheric dynamics to predict the storm’s growth – data collected was already hours behind the actual weather event. With the help of Green Bay’s WLUK meteorologist Tara Hastings, we present a weather model recreating the storm’s development and path as it happened in 1913. We show images along the shore and in Cleveland where blizzards paralyzed the region under snow and ice, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage (1913 dollars). Power was out for days across Michigan, northern Ohio, and Ontario, cutting off telephone and telegraph communications.

From the aftermath we have stories of those sailors who weathered the storm, photographs, newspaper accounts, and personal mementos. We listen to the taped interview of wheelsman Ed Kanaby of the stranded freighter H.A. Hawgood, and actual footage of a life-saving team’s drill of 1914. There were also several long-term consequences of the storm resulting in more accurate weather forecasting and better communication of proper storm warnings.

Even today, as improved as technology has become, storms act with an unpredictable violence on the lakes – and we have the stories and footage of those freighters still fighting the freshwater fury of November’s Great Lakes.

Freshwater Fury opened to the public Saturday, May 24 and will run through January 20, 2009. Museum hours are 9 am – 6 pm. Admission is $7 for adults and $4 for children. The museum’s Sturgeon Bay headquarters is located at 120 N. Madison Ave., Sturgeon Bay and can be reached by phoning 920.743.5958 or via our website at