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..
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.
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.
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.
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)