The Worst Storm to Ever Strike the Great Lakes

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A Brief History

On November 9, 1913, The Great Lakes Storm of 1913, the most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the North American lakes, destroyed 19 ships and killed more than 250 people.

Digging Deeper

Generally, speaking when we think of cyclonic storms to cause catastrophic damage in North America, we think of hurricanes.  Nevertheless, today marks the 100-year anniversary of an extratropical cyclone, i.e. a cyclonic storm that did not originate in the ocean, but rather from the convergence of two major storm fronts.  Making matter worse, the Great Lakes’ warm waters helped fuel the storm to such a degree that the “Big Blow” produced 90 mph (145 km/h) hurricane-force wind gusts.  The “Freshwater Fury” also generated waves over 35 feet (11 m) high.  Finally, The “White Hurricane” (as you can tell, the storm had many nicknames!) resulted in a blizzard with devastating whiteout snowsqualls.  Some areas had up to two feet of snow!

For nearly five days, the Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada suffered from the storm, which formed on November 6, 1913 and dissipated on November 11, 1913.  Of all the days of the disaster, however, November 9th was particularly infamous for being designated an example of what meteorologists later referred to as a “weather bomb” due to its rapid escalation of severe conditions.  On that day, the powerful storm battered and overturned ships on four out of five Great Lakes.  Only Lake Ontario was spared the devastation experienced by the other four Great Lakes.

No other natural disaster to ever hit the Great Lakes was deadlier or more destructive.  When all was said and done, over 250 people lost their lives, while 19 ships were destroyed with another 19 stranded resulting in a financial loss of almost US $5 million (or about $118,098,000 in today’s dollars).  The shorelines experienced serious problems as well.  Cleveland, Ohio’s damage to everything from street cars to wooden communication polls was unprecedented in the city’s history.  The total cost of the storm to the shoreline is not certain, but was at least in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Oddly enough, it was not the only example of a cyclonic storm to strike the Great Lakes, but more recent examples have been far less serious.  Hopefully, nothing along the lines of what happened 100 years ago today will happen again, at least not any time soon!

Question for students (and subscribers): What is the worst storm you have ever been in?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

Several well-received books have covered this horrible example of Mother Nature at her worst.  They include the following:

Brown, David G.  White Hurricane: A Great Lakes November Gale and America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster.  International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 2004.

Hemming, Robert J.  Ships Gone Missing: The Great Lakes Storm of 1913.  Contemporary Books, 1995.

Schumacher, Michael.  November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913.  Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013.


About Author

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.