The Great Hinckley Firestorm and the Killer of John Wilkes Booth

Prelude to Disaster

The 1800’s was a time of great invention, westward migration, the American Civil War, industrial expansion and it also was a time of recklessness which all too often led to catastrophe. Such was the case in Hinckley Minnesota in the year 1894.

Pine County Minnesota was going through a tremendous drought in 1894. In fact, it hadn’t rained for months and compounding the extreme dryness were soaring temperatures. People of the area hadn’t remembered a time that it was so dry. Summer fires in the forests were nothing that uncommon.

horse drawn fire wagon

1800's Horse Drawn Fire Wagon

Somewhat common were small fires set off from the sparks of passing locomotives and there was an abundance of locomotives in the late 1800’s. Railroads stretched throughout the state. Hinckley was fortunate enough to be the crossroads to several rail lines. The main line ran south from Duluth to St. Paul. Plenty of passengers were heading in both directions. Hinckley was a town where many people were traveling to.

The logging industry in and around Hinckley meant everything to the economy. The pine forests of Minnesota were a bonanza for the logging industry after many of the eastern forests were depleted. The logging industry kept heading west. Sawmills in the area were operating at full capacity and the jobs were plentiful for immigrants arriving in America looking for a fresh start. Hinckley, although small, was a classic example of a town created from one burgeoning industry. During all of this building and the subsequent increase in population the one thing that may not have been addressed was the real possibility of fire a devastating fire.

Everything looked good for Hinckley Minnesota. The population was growing, people were building houses and the jobs were plentiful. What happened to Hinckley happened to other towns and cities who were in an around about way a victim of what was endemic during the latter 1800’s in absence of federal regulation and oversight.

hinckley firestorm

Hinckley Minnesota after the Great Fire Storm

While the trees were felled at a dizzying pace forest management practices were nonexistent. Limbs, sawdust and a combination of wooded debris was simply left on the forest floor. The loggers were after the big trees not the small stuff. Trees that were cut down were quickly hauled to the nearest stream and floated down river to the sawmills. Cleaning up after the cutting was never a thought. When trees were felled and there was still daylight, you simply moved on to the next stand. Forest management, while being discussed and debated both here and in Europe, was just that…a debate, although several European countries were starting to practice wise forest management.

Like most disasters, there usually are several contributing causes and sometimes the added danger of a sheer lack of disaster preparedness. One cause alone usually isn’t enough. In Hinckley’s case, the summer of 1894 was a time that would bring together all the necessary elements to form a catastrophic firestorm.

The Disaster Unfolds

While the summer of 1894 was a particularly brutal one for Hinckley Minnesota, the extent of the problem really was not fully understood. Disaster preparedness probably wasn’t on the top of peoples minds. The possibility of a firestorm, let alone the understanding of what a fire storm was, didn’t seem to rattle the populace. The weather service of the U.S. government was in it’s infancy. Weather forecasting in 1894 was essentially a telegraph message of what conditions were like at some point further west or southwest. You could call a forecast in 1894 purely conjecture however most believed it to be better than no forecast at all. What was on peoples minds in Hinckley was the need for rain, not really a fear of a firestorm. Why there wasn’t some type of evacuation under way before the conflagration occurred will never be known. After all, fire as a disaster was nothing new. It happened years earlier in Peshtigo Wisconsin. The Peshtigo fire occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire in 1871.

Two additional articles on our Western Trips site you’ll find interesting are the Great Fire of 1910 and the Beginnning of the Forest Service and the Smokejumpers.

An Unusually Hot and Dry Summer

pine county minnesota map

Pine County Minnesota

As the dry and hot summer progressed in Pine County Minnesota, what became apparent was that the debris on the forest floors would dry out to such an extent that it would actually smolder. The forest floors would begin smoking as a result of extreme dryness coming in contact with hundred degree temperatures. In a way it’s almost like a ticking time bomb which only an adequate rainstorm could stop. Certainly there was concern but probably what wasn’t realized at the time were the consequences. This was all a prelude to the Hinckley fire.

Finally. on September 1st 1894, after months of no rain, the conflagration began. The forests erupted in flames from several directions at once. To the people in Hinckley it was a smoldering fire which had covered the town with smoke and a haze for days that suddenly erupted into spontaneous combustion, almost like an explosion. It was spontaneous combustion in several places at once. There were efforts to fight the flames and try to save town structures however it soon became apparent that it was a losing battle. This of course was before smokejumpers, water tanker aircraft and hot shot crews. The town of Hinckley had a fire wagon loaded with water along with shovels and pick axes to try to dig fire breaks…all quite inadequate to fight this type fire. It was a firestorm, not a mere fire. It had a mind of it’s own. The Hinckley fire was beyond anyone’s control.

When fires of the size Pine County experienced grew, they spawned their own weather. This happened during the Great Hinckley Fire of 1894.

great chicago fire

This drawing of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 shows the winds generated by a firestorm

The fire became a firestorm with vortexes and actual tornadoes forming from the high winds created by the fire itself. The science of the firestorm is fully understood today, but in the 1890’s it was not. Escaping a firestorm like this was extremely difficult. The fire storm created updrafts which caused strong gusts of wind which only increased the flames and made the conflagration spread at an enormous speed. Again, there were attempts to fight the flames that tore into the wooden structures. Wooden structures in a town like Hinckley were the norm. After all, wood was plentiful in Hinckley. The flames simply overwhelmed the fire crews and the only option was to try to escape. That was not easy. Many fled to the train depot to try to hop a train. Others ran to the river and attempted to hide underwater  frequently coming up for air. Some others put their worldly belongings on wagons and tried to get out of town. The Hinckley evacuation was essentially mass hysteria. Even the train was caught in the flames and many didn’t make it out by that means. According to news stories of the time, people looked for shelter everywhere including wells and a railroad gravel pit. For many, evacuation simply was impossible.

According to the Minnesota Historical Society records, the fire raced across 480 square miles and burned 350,000 acres. An enormous area to be burned in only a matter of hours. The death toll was estimated at 400.

boston corbett

Boston Corbett

The Story of Boston Corbett

Who would have thought that Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett would end up in Minnesota? This is the Boston Corbett who in 1865, some twenty-nine years before the Great Hinckley Firestorm, was a soldier in the Union Army.

Corbett was with a cavalry group hot on the trail after John Wilkes Booth, just days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Booth had fled with a companion through the southern Maryland swamps and across the Potomac River into Virginia. Boston Corbettt was a member of the 16th New York Cavalry Regiment.

This regiment was dispatched to locate and arrest John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Lincoln. Booth was at large but the noose was tightening. On April 26th, the regiment which was transported down into Virginia by steamer surrounded Booth and his accomplice, David Herold, in a barn at Garrett’s Farm just south of Port Royale Virginia. Herold surrendered and left the barn. Booth remained inside. After Booth refused to surrender the barn was set on fire. The intent was to force Booth out, not kill him. Boston Corbett was standing near a large crack in the barn wall. Corbett saw Booth through the crack, aimed his Colt revolver and shot him. The shooting by Corbett was strictly against orders. Secretary of War Stanton had wanted Booth taken alive. As a result, the commander of the regiment placed Corbett under arrest.

john wilkes booth wanted posterBooth died hours after the shooting and his body, along with the cavalry regiment, was transported back to Washington D.C. via steamer. Incredibly, and aside from the fact that Corbett disobeyed direct orders, he was awarded a handsome bonus for his action of over $1,600. This apparently was his share of the total reward money.

Years of Running

Corbett left the military later in 1865 and worked as a hatter in the northeast. Eventually, Corbett moved to Kansas and his behavior became quite odd and at times violent. Was this the “mad hatter” syndrome where mercury used in felt hats caused insanity? This indeed was what many thought during the 1800’s. We do know that mercury poisoning can be fatal. As far as whether or not it can lead to insanity, no research I have seen either proves or disproves it.

While working as a doorman at the Kansas State Assembly, Boston Corbett pulled out a pistol and threatened people. This got him a one way ticket to an insane asylum. He escaped from the asylum and at first was planning on fleeing to Mexico but changed his mind. Instead, he ended up living in a cabin in the woods outside of Hinckley Minnesota. This was during the years of 1888-89, just in time to settle in a growing lumber town far away from big cities.

Engulfed By Two Fatal Events

While precise records concerning Corbett’s movements in those years is a bit sketchy, what is known is that he was living outside Hinckley, in the forest, when the firestorm occurred. After the Great Fire Corbett was gone, never to be seen or heard from again. What apparently remained at the site where the cabin was located was simply a dug out hole.

Based on this and the massive loss of life during the Great Fire of Hinckley, it was presumed that Boston Corbett fell victim to the catastrophe. Thomas P. “Boston” Corbett ironically came to be a well known individual as a direct result of one of the most infamous events during the 19th century, the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It’s believed he left this world during another catastrophic 19th century event, the Great Hinckley Firestorm. At the time of his presumed death, Boston Corbett would have been 62 years old.

Fire Museums in Hinckley and Peshtigo

Today there are two fire museums which chronicle the devastating firestorms in both Hinckley and Peshtigo Minnesota. The Hinckley Fire Museum is located at 106 Old Highway 61 Hinckley, MN. The Hinckley museum tells the story of what happened and the stories of the survivors and those who didn’t survive this epic firestorm. The Peshtigo Fire Museum is located at 400 Oconto Avenue, Peshtigo, WI.

(Photos and images from the public domain)

Wellington Washington Avalanche 1910

Who Would Have Thought?

Everyone has heard of avalanches and how dangerous they are. Avalanche disasters have taken place in the Alps and other very high mountain chains for centuries. Several years ago when I first read about a catastrophic event that occurred in 1910, I was quite surprised that such an avalanche disaster could occur involving a passenger train. Who would have thought that the most deadly avalanche in United States history would involve a passenger train? Who would have thought it would have happened in the 20th century?

wellington washington

Wellington Washington prior to the avalanche

It was a well known fact that mountain snow drifts and potential avalanches were a problem for the railroads. The Great Northern trains and their mountainous northwestern route was no excepetion. The subject really came front and center as early as the late 1860’s while the nation was completing the transcontinental railroad. The toughest segment of that line was the route over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Donner Pass being constructed by the Central Pacific Railroad. During that time, the Central Pacific’s chief survey engineer, Theodore Judah, was the man tasked with the problem. Judah devised a series of tunnels which cut through various mountain sides. In addition to those, Judah had constructed a series of snow sheds. The snow sheds, while not really being constructed due to potential avalanches as such, were built to keep the snow from drifting over the rail tracks at certain points. The snow drifts in the Sierra Nevada range in the vicinity of Donner Pass were legendary. If the Central Pacific was to offer reliable service, the snow drift problem had to be solved. The tunnels and snow sheds seemed to be the solution.

The tunnels and snow sheds, while rebuilt, are still in use today on this major rail line. Today, this route is traversed by Amtrak’s California Zephyr which runs on a daily basis between Chicago Illinois and Emeryville California, just across the bay from San Francisco.

great northern railway

Great Northern Railway, 1914

The Magnificent Route of the Great Northern Railway

The Great Northern Railway was a transcontinental route that was built out from the twin Cities of Minnesota all the way westward to Seattle Washington. Needless to say, this route was quite scenic. One of it’s most scenic areas was just to the south of Glacier National Park. In fact, the Great Northern Railway marketed this National Park on posters, newspaper advertisements, etc. Glacier National Park was a tourist draw and it brought many passengers to the Great Northern trains. The Great Northern Railway promoted Glacier National Park much the way the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe promoted the southwest, the Grand Canyon and the Harvey Houses. During the days before the automobile, the train was the way for curious travelers to see the wonders of the west. Western states saw a big boom in travel just after the turn of the century. People who could afford it took the train.

Rail Lines Through the Mountains

The Great Northern Railway overcame the mountain difficulties much the same way as the Central Pacific. They built a lot of tunnels. The Cascade Mountains of Washington state could dump a lot of snow. Avalanches were a real threat in the Cascades and they stopped traffic along the line many times. Avalanches are somewhat hard to predict. Snow can be sent sliding down a mountain side by a sound.

wellington washington avalanche

Wellington Washington Avalanche debris

A train whistle, a gun shot, thunder, all can start the snow moving. The winter of 1910 was a heavy snow season and the Great Northern trains had to contend with several severe avalanches.

February 1910

February 1910 was a month of heavy snowfall in the Cascades. For nine continuous days in late February, the small railroad town of Wellington Washington received very heavy snows. Often it was blizzard conditions. The work crews at Wellington worked hard just to keep the tracks open. Extra crews were added. Reports were that about a foot of snow was falling every day and on one day alone, an enormous eleven feet. Interestingly enough, the railway used snow plows to try to clear the tracks. The snow plows were essentially locomotives with a fan blade on the front end to clear away snow. While these snow blowers as such could be quite effective, the amounts falling in the Cascade Mountains in late February 1910 were often too much for even these powerful engines. The snow plows would become stuck. Their blades clogged with snow. The snow was piling up that high and that fast. The snow plows effectiveness did have it’s limits.

March 1, 1910

Like most historic disasters, what occurred in Wellington Washington on March 1, 1910 was a combination of events that ended in disaster. If just one circumstance may have been different, the end result probably would have been much less deadly.

Due to avalanches along the area near Stevens Pass, just to the west of Wellington, train traffic was at a standstill. Two trains, a passenger train and a fast mail train running from Spokane to Seattle, were both stopped at Wellington. They could go no further west due to track blockage. To give you some perspective of the blizzard, the passenger train had been in Wellington for about a week. That train had been backed up into the Cascade Tunnel which was just east of Wellington.

Great Northern snowplow locomotive

The tunnel provided some relief from the elements. After several more snow slides occurred, many of the passengers demanded that the train be brought back out of the tunnel for fear of being trapped inside if a snow slide should cover the tunnel entrance. The passengers were panicking. This the railroad did although they originally backed into the tunnel to avoid avalanches in the first place.

After the train emerged from the safety of the tunnel, it could go no further than the depot at Wellington. There it stayed behind the mail train. The passenger coaches were now below a mountain ridge on one side and the Tye Creek on the other. The avalanche that ended up sweeping both the Spokane Express and the Fast Mail train down a 150 foot ravine happened in the middle of the night of March 1st. What caused this massive Wellington avalanche that destroyed two trains is not entirely certain. Weather in the high Cascades can be tricky. Along with the snowfall was a lightening storm. Most believe today that either the thunder or lightening or both was the cause of the snow slide. Along with the trains, a portion of Wellington itself was thrown down the mountain side. It was later estimated that a ten foot high and half a mile wide snow drift slid through the town and pushed the two trains down the ravine.

The Next Day

The mail train did not carry passengers and not all passengers were on the Spokane Express train when the great avalanche struck. Some had gone into Wellington for food and a degree of relaxation. How many days can one be stuck in a train car? Unfortunately, being off the train didn’t prevent some casualties. It was thought that at the time of the avalanche, 40 passengers were on the train in addition to 30 railroad workmen who had been sleeping in some of the coach cars. The other fatalities would have been people, both passengers and workmen, on the ground in Wellington.

Relief trains had a difficult time trying to reach Wellington disaster site because of blocked tracks. The rescue effort had to be carried on by foot. The official death toll was put at 96. There was speculation that the death toll may have been higher due to extra railroad workmen being involved.

cascade railroad tunnel

New Cascade Tunnel built of concrete, 1929

There were a great many additional people around Wellington at that time working to clear the tracks.

Who Was to Blame?

Railway history was changed forever after March 1910. When this tragedy was investigated, there were many questions to answer. What could the Great Northern Railway have done to prevent what occurred? Was it unavoidable or was it just a random act of nature?

There was no doubt that the Great Northern took precautionary measures by backing the passenger train into the Cascade Tunnel. This was done to try to avoid what actually did happen. The passengers were also correct in being concerned that the tunnel entrances themselves might be sealed by an avalanche. Their begging that the train be moved forward out of the tunnel was not unreasonable. The fact that the passenger train could not have moved more forward because of the stuck mail train in front of it was nobody’s fault. It was just a fact of the situation. The Great Northern could have evacuated the train completely and had all passengers lodged in the town. This may have been impracticable due to available accommodations and as we later saw, the small town of Wellington was largely swept away as well. In hindsight, over one hundred years later, it seems that the best route of action would have been for the passenger train to have remained in the Cascade Tunnel. There would have been casualties from anyone staying in the town, but the disaster probably would have been much less fatal. By the same token, the passenger’s concern of being trapped in the tunnel was also rational. The Wellington Washington avalanche disaster of March 1, 1910 appears to have been an unfortunate chain of events that put many people in harms way simply because the options were few and the anxiety was great.

The very last of the bodies were not retrieved until some five months later. The Great Northern Railway began building several concrete snow shelters in October of that year. Ironically, the summer of 1910, after a rough snowy winter, also saw one of the worst forest fires in United States history. The areas of Montana, northern Wyoming, Idaho and British Columbia were devastated during what was called the Great Fires of 1910. It was also referred to as the Big Blowup or the Big Burn. That fire destroyed about three million acres and killed 87 people. The fire didn’t end until a cold front finally brought in steady rains.

Wellington Washington Today

The Great Northern Railway renamed the town to “Tye” not long after the tragedy. Tye is the name of the nearby creek. Today, there is no town or settlement at the site. A new tunnel was constructed in 1929 on another grade that is still in use today. The grade of the old route of the Great Northern Railway has been turned into a day use hiking trail. The “Iron Goat Trail”, was named after the logo of a goat used by the old Great Northern Railway. The trail is closed to bicycles, stock animals and motor vehicles. You can reach the trail head off the Old Cascade Highway at it’s intersection with the USFS Road 050. Turn right on the USFS road and drive forward to the trail head parking lot. The three mile long lower grade between Scenic and Martin Creek is free of barriers and wheelchair-accessible.Much more information is on the trail’s web site The trail obviously goes through some very scenic country and is a popular route for hikers.

(Photos from the public domain)

The General Slocum / Little Germany

There is a memorial in Tompkins Park in Manhattan Island, New York City, which is there as a reminder of what was, prior to September 11, 2001, the worst disaster in terms of loss of life in New York. The disaster was the burning of the General Slocum steamboat on the East River of New York City. The boat fire disaster occurred in the year 1904 and there are reasons why this event somehow was shadowed by other events which may have contributed to the fading of it’s memory.

There has been a lot written about steamboat safety in general, particularly during the mid 1800’s. Because steam power was the power of choice, it was employed extensively. Steamboats plied rivers all over the country including even in the far west. Knowledge of the technology of steam power was another matter.

steamboat general slocum

Steamboat General Slocum

Steamboat boiler explosions were happening much too often and in some cases with hundreds of fatalities. The most deadly steamboat boiler explosion recognized by many historians was the Sultana explosion in April 1865 just north of Memphis Tennessee on the Mississippi River. The Sultana was packed, even overly packed, with Union soldiers heading back to the north at the end of the American Civil War. In the book Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History, author Alan Huffman describes how the steamboat operators were paid by head count thus encouraging them to grossly overload many vessels. The boat was so overloaded that it was difficult to even find room to lay down.

The sidewheel steamboat General Slocum, launched in 1891, was named after Henry Warner Slocum, a Civil War General of some fame who was also a congressman from the state of New York. The vessel was owned and operated by the Knickerbocker Steamship Company and generally worked carrying passengers around the New York City waterways. The boat was captained by William H. Van Schaik who was 68 years of age.

The Disaster

It so happened that the General Slocum was chartered by a Lutheran Church in New York, St. Marks Evangelical Lutheran Church, to take a group of St Marks New York church members on a picnic to Eatons Neck Long Island. The vessel was chartered for a cost of $350 for the date of June 15, 1904. Most of those who be making the trip were women and children. As the church band played while the General Slocum departed at 9:30 am everyone onboard was looking ahead for a fine ride and a day away from the big bustling city. Trouble started relatively soon on the voyage. About forty minutes after pulling away from the dock and heading north on the East River a fire erupted onboard the boat.

burned wreckage of steamboat general slocum

Burned wreckage of the General Slocum

Afterwards, some would say the fire started in the Lamp Room and some others would point to a storage room. Some would also go on to say that the boat fire was caused, whether in either room, by a carelessly discarded cigarette. Many eyewitnesses even claimed the fire started in several different locations. Nevertheless, the blaze spread very rapidly.

Upon learning of the fire, Captain Schaik, with 1,358 passengers from St. Marks Church, headed for land at full steam. He was steering for Randalls Island but the blaze was engulfing the entire vessel aided by a strong breeze and the wind caused by the boat moving at full power. Heading at full steam to Randalls Island would later be a major criticism of Schaik’s handling of the emergency. It was suggested that he would have been wiser just heading to a nearby landing or just grounding the vessel. His speeding of the boat was felt to have added to the fires rapid spread. The vessel eventually beached at North brother Island.

The Aftermath

As with many large disasters and especially one that occurred around the beginning of the 20th century, statistics differ slightly. Officially, it was thought that 1,021 people were lost.  The cause was either burning in the fire or drowning in the river. In the book, Ship Ablaze: The Tragedy of the Steamboat General Slocum, author Edward T. O’Donnell points out that there were not many among the church group who were experienced swimmers. The trip was to be a short hop and the fact that most people couldn’t swim didn’t seem to matter. Obviously, this was an enormous loss of life. For comparison, the much publicized Triangle Shirtwaist Building fire of 1911 in New York City claimed 146 mostly young immigrant women.

Investigations after the General Slocum burning turned up a host of safety violations. The violations were so serious that one might wonder why a vessel in this condition was carrying paid passengers in the first place. Among the safety violations were rotting fire hoses incapable of holding any water pressure, oily rags and straw on the floor of several rooms and inferior life preservers that some reports stated were manufactured incorrectly. Also, the boat fire extinguishers were inoperable. All of this combined to cause New York City’s second most deadly disaster.

The public outrage was predictable. A Federal Grand Jury indicted eight individuals. In addition to Captain Schaik, two safety inspectors and officers of the Knickerbocker Steamship Company were indicted.

triangle shirtwaist fire

Fire crews racing to the Triangle Fire in 1911

The only one convicted was Captain Schaik of the charges of criminal negligence, failure to conduct fire drills and not maintaining workable fire extinguishers. Incredibly, the steamship company received rather modest fines regarding the altering of inspection reports. Schaik’s sentence was ten years at Sing Sing Prison but Schaik was paroled after just three and one-half years. Just as with the exploding boiler problems on steamboats, after the General Slocum disaster, the federal government passed many new regulations regarding passenger ship emergency equipment.

There are several opinions why a disaster of this magnitude did not really receive it’s deserved place in history. The sheer number of fatalities in a single tragedy guaranteed worldwide shock. The question that remains is why was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, with many less deaths, perceived as the worst disaster in New York at the beginning of the 20th century? By the 1920s the Triangle disaster stayed more strongly in the public consciousness. What was remembered of the General Slocum fire was a small, annual commemoration at the Lutheran cemetery in Queens. One theory is that the Slocum fire involved German immigrants. There was quite a bit of German hostility leading up to, through and after World War One causing the public legacy of the tragedy to fade from memory. There was simply less sympathy for Germans as opposed to the young immigrants killed in the Triangle Fire. Also, with the Triangle Fire it came to be found that the factory owners had purposely locked the exits as a matter of policy to keep the workers at their sewing machines. While many of the General Slocum Fire deaths resulted from the failure to maintain safety devices like boat fire extinguishers and life jackets, there wasn’t perceived criminal action by the owners which could still certainly be debated.

Two additional stories we have on Trips Into History which you will find interesting are the Explosion of the Steamboat Pennsylvania and the Storms of Lake Michigan and the sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley.

The General Slocum Fire spelled the beginning of the end for the closely knit “Little Germany” section of Manhattan’s lower east side. St Marks New York eventually was sold and became a synagogue. While the disaster claimed only about one percent of the city’s German population, the continual immigration of people from other European countries, mainly eastern Europe, splintered the population more and Little Germany residents scattered to other New York City locales.

(All photos are from the public domain)




Deadliest Storm on the Great Lakes / The 1913 Storm and the Loss of the SS Wexford

The Great Lakes have always been treacherous to navigate on during the fall period. Many ships have been lost both in the 1800’s as well as the 1900’s. The storm that hit the entire Great Lakes basin in the year 1913 was unlike any other storm in it’s destructive fury. The storm has been given many different names including being called the “Big Blow“. All in all, more than 250 people lost their lives and some 19 ships were lost. The estimated loss of ship value alone was some $5 million dollars in 1913 money. A particularly peculiar facet of the 1913 storm was that it lasted some sixteen hours where most Great Lakes storms tend to last about four hours. No doubt that this added to the death total and loss of vessels. The storm was most powerful on November 9, 1913 with waves battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes. Lake Huron appeared to be the hardest hit..

cleveland 1913 storm

Cleveland Ohio during the November 1913 Great Lakes Storm

The Great lakes region often has a confluence of different weather fronts meeting together and as a result has some unpredictable and fierce storms. Most come during the months of October through December. It’s a well known fact that that Great Lakes seamen have long felt that the storms and wave action are equal to or can surpass anything experienced on the oceans. Lake Michigan as an example can be quite dangerous. Most shipping travels on a north to south direction and storms coming from the west, which is more common, hit the vessel with waves from the side. Lake Michigan, especially on it’s southern half, offer few harbors or bays to take refuge. The modern day breakup and sinking of the Carl D. Bradley was just one example. Anyone living in the Great Lakes Region for an extended period of time can become all too familiar with the tremendous storms, or low pressure areas, that can settle over the Great Lakes Region in the fall. In short, as Polar outbreaks become more regular and intense, surging south into the Great Lakes area, they meet up with the warmer, moisture laden air from the Gulf of Mexico.

The story of the SS Wexford and it’s fatal demise on Lake Huron in 1913 exemplifies the dangers. Remember, that in 1913 maritime weather forecasting and warnings were not as sophisticated as what we now have in the 21st century. According to records from NOAA, the November 1913 weather map pattern of storm development was  not unlike the storm development of another more recent monster low pressure system that formed during the period of January 25-27th, 1978. Both systems involved an Arctic shot of cold air moving south across the Lakes area, while at the same time, an intensifying low pressure area took shape over the southern Appalachians. The 1913 great storm produced 90 mph winds, waves over 35 feet, and whiteout snow squalls.

ss wexford

SS Wexford

The SS Wexford was a steel hulled, propeller driven bulk freighter that was built in Great Britain in 1883. She was 250 feet long and 40 feet wide. At the time the SS Wexford went down on November 10, 1913, she was hauling a load of steel rails and was owned at the time by the Western Steamship Company of Totonto.  According to NOAA, eight out of eighteen ships that battled the 1913 storm on Lake Huron were lost. In the  book, The Wexford: Elusive Shipwreck of the Great Storm, 1913, author Paul Carroll points out that there was a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that the SS Wexford had actually traveled further north heading up Lake Huron than where she eventually sank. The speculation is that the ship was pushed far southward by the fierce northerly winds before she went down. All 22 of her crew were lost in the sinking. Bodies, life jackets and debris washed up on the shores of Ontario for some time afterwards. Another vessel, the 524-foot steamer, the Charles S. Price was found floating upside-down off Port Huron Michigan. Some artifacts of the SS Wexford were actually discovered along the Canadian shoreline some years later. Another good book regarding this storm is White Hurricane by author David G. Brown.

detroit news 1913 great lakes storm headline

Detroit News headline, Nov. 1913

The story of what exactly occurred with the eight lost vessels on Lake Huron will never be completely known since there was not one survivor from any of them.

Very interesting is that the wreck of the SS Wexford was actually discovered in the year 2000, 8.6 miles NNE of Grand Bend Ontario Canada. The ship was lying upright in 75 feet of water. Of the eight ships lost on Lake Huron to the November storm of 1913, the Wexford is the only ship sitting fully upright. It sits on the bottom of Lake Huron in a north/south orientation. The wreck is being explored today by divers although I have read of a few prosecutions made for removing artifacts from the wreck. At the relatively shallow depth that the SS Wexford lies, it affords a excellent experience for skilled divers.

The Great Storm of 1913 not only devastated Great Lakes shipping but rained havoc on Great Lake communities as shown on the photo on top of Cleveland Ohio which had a 22 inch snowfall. Power was out in vast areas of Michigan and Ontario. In regards to lake Erie shipping during the brutal storm, Buffalo New York on the east end of Lake Erie offered shelter and an end to Lake Erie’s constant, brutal wave action.

You will want to read two additional articles relating to Great Lakes shipping disasters. The sinking of the Carl D. Bradley in Lake Michigan and the G.P. Griffith tragedy on lake Erie.

Michigan is a vacation wonderland during the summer and there are several Great Lakes museums that offer a lot of information about the history of this shipping region. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point on the very southeastern part of Lake Superior on Michigan’s upper peninsula. Another is the  Steamship William G. Mather Maritime Museum in Cleveland Ohio. The museum is located just north of the Great Lakes Science Center at Dock 32. Detroit Michigan offers the Dossin Great Lakes Museum  located on at Belle Isle which is in the middle of the Detroit River.

(Photos are from the public domain)




The G.P. Griffith / The Great Lakes Second Worst Passenger Steamer Disaster

The Great Lakes have produced some of the most severe storms and waves on the surface of the earth. In this unpredictable environment was the burgeoning Great Lakes shipping industry. The toll on lives and vessels traversing the Great Lakes since the earliest times has largely been lost to history. Shipwrecks on the Great Lakes have been around as long as man has been sailing on them.

Beginning in the 1840s, lumber, coal, iron and agricultural products were hauled by boats over the Great Lakes. As an example, iron ore from the upper lakes region was carried east on ships that returned filled with coal from Pennsylvania. The early ships that traveled the lakes helped build the great cities of Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit among others. The lake boats were the economic catalyst of the entire Great Lakes region.

On the Great Lakes During the Mid 1800’s

The year of 1850 proved to be the most deadly of any Great Lakes shipping season up to that date. The Great Lakes truly do have a shipping season since the winter months largely ice over all of the lakes. The season generally runs March through November although November has always been a question mark. The storms of November are infamous for taking down many vessels, large and small.

steamboat explosion

Steamboat boiler explosion

The loss of lives and ships during 1850 however didn’t seem to need much help from mother nature. If you were to name the biggest danger to ship, crew and passengers during this mid 1800’s time, aside from mother nature and storms, you would probably point to boiler explosions. In fact, steamboat boiler explosions raised havoc all throughout the eastern U.S. waterways. The boiler explosions of 1850 were not the first and they certainly weren’t the last. Most historians might say that the second culprit was fire. Fire not related to boiler explosions would be combustibles in the boats cargo hold. There was even a Great Lakes steamboat fire started by someone tamping out his smoking pipe on the wood deck. This was an era of wooden steamboats. Whether it by explosion or by fire, a wooden vessel would go up in flames many times faster than someone could leap overboard or put on a life jacket. Add to this the absence of any meaningful safety regulations and a culture among captains and crews of racing and you have the proverbial “accident waiting to happen”.

In this atmosphere was a country growing immensely. The mid 1800’s was an era of massive immigration. The Great Lakes served as a highway to the frontier because in 1850 the western frontier would have been roughly anything from Chicago westward. The forests of the upper Great Lakes would go on to provide needed lumber and would supplant the eastern forests which were essentially decimated. The Great Lakes was the often used route for immigrants from Europe who came to the U.S. with their life savings for the purchase of land.

A European immigrant might travel from New York City to Buffalo New York where he or she might then board a steamer for points west. Points west would include, among others, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. If the passenger had the funds then he or she might travel in a private cabin. If not, then steerage was the option and steerage accounted for the majority of travelers. Keep in mind, many of these people had already endured a lengthy voyage on the ocean before even arriving in Buffalo. In 1850, steamboat traffic on the Great Lakes was enormous. Today, we look at the Great Lakes as a venue for lake freighters and pleasure craft. In 1850 it represented the equivalence of the Santa Fe Trail, although without Indian attacks, for people wanting to travel to cities like Detroit and Chicago.

The Worst Disaster of 1850

Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes seemed to have been not an uncommon occurrence. During the infamous 1850 Great Lakes shipping season, the largest of all 1850 disasters occurred on June 17th. The burning of the steamer G. P. Griffith about twenty miles east of Cleveland, cost 286 lives to be lost. Some estimates I’ve seen put the total at 326. This was one of the greatest single event loss of life in Great lakes history. This disaster was the second of Lake Erie’s three great passenger steamer tragedies and the worst nautical disaster on the lakes until the SS Eastland capsizing while at port in Chicago in 1915. In that disaster, 844 people lost their lives. What’s incredible is that the worst Great Lakes loss of life occurred while the boat was tied up at a Chicago River dock. You might expect great shipwrecks  to occur during a storm or during an uncontrollable fire, but what happened to the SS Eastland is almost beyond belief.

ss eastland in chicago

SS Eastland docked at Chicago

On the G P Griffith, one woman was the sole survivor and what is so surprising about the Griffith loss was that it occurred just three miles from shore. A fire was reported in the hold at about 4 in the morning. One seaman took the wheel and tried to steer the boat to shore but hit a sandbar reportedly only about 600 feet from shore. The vessel burned all the way to the water line while passengers jumped in the water. Lights could even be seen on shore but with the panic that ensued  the shore could have been 100 miles a way. Burned bodies would have to be buried on the shoreline and there they stayed. The G.P. Griffith disaster was not only a Great Lakes boating disaster but it was a tragedy for the mostly German, Irish, English and Scandanavian immigrants who had traveled so far already just to have their lives snuffed out so close to their intended destinations. Also among the victims were the captain and his family who was traveling with him.

With the lax regulations in place, boats built of wood, steam boilers that were sometimes left unattended and the eagerness to race a break time records, it’s almost amazing that there were not more accidents and lives lost during the mid 1800’s. It’s estimated that the Great Lakes are home to some 8,000 shipwrecks and about 2,000 of them are located in Lake Erie. One-hundred and fifty years ago Lake Erie would have looked like a traffic jammed street. Lake Erie for centuries was a bustling water highway. It’s reported that the majority of the Great lakes shipwrecks have not been discovered even to this day. Each year more wrecks are discovered. Some have been found by fishermen while working with their nets. Diving expeditions, which I hear draw divers from all over the world, are undertaken each year. By inputting as much information that is available, maps of Great Lakes shipwreck locations have been plotted out and these are referred to by divers. Shipwreck maps are often updated when new information is discovered.

eastland capsized in chicago

Effort to right the SS Eastland after the dockside disaster

If you’re somewhat familiar with the Cleveland Ohio area, the area of the sinking, according to a Willowick Ohio web site, is approximately an area north of Lake Shore Blvd. from Cresthaven to East 305th Street.

Today, there is a memorial in place in regards to the G P Griffith tragedy at Lakefront Park in Willowick Ohio, east of Cleveland.

I also have a short article about the devastating steamboat boiler explosion at the docks of Lawrence Kansas. Also an interesting article on the Mosquito Fleet and wrecks on Washington State’s Puget Sound. Another Great Lakes related story which is very interesting concerns the break up and sinking of the lake freighter Carl D. Bradley during a fierce Lake Michigan November storm.

There are several good sites to stop by while vacationing in the Great lakes region. Visiting these sites will give you a lot of the history about the lakes and chances are you’ll be surprised by many of the stories exhibited. One is the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum located at Whitefish Point, 18335 N. Whitefish Point Road, Paradise, Michigan. Another is The Dossin Great Lakes Museum. The museum is located in Detroit Michigan on the shore of Detroit’s historic Belle Isle, one of America’s grandest city parks. In Vermilion Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie. west of Cleveland is the Inland Seas Maritime Museum. The address is 480 main Street, Vermilion Ohio. Add to this list The Chicago Maritime Museum. The address is310 South Racine, Chicago Illinois. The museum celebrates the men and women who built, crewed, loaded and unloaded the ships and later on used Chicago’s waterways for enjoyment and recreation. The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center is a museum operated by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and is located at the entrance to the Duluth-Superior harbor in Duluth Minnesota. The five listed sites are only a few of the total scattered around the Great Lakes. There are many more interesting stops in all states that border the Great Lakes.

(Photos are in the public domain)