By Glen Willis, PABLS Member
All of the five Great Lakes experience adverse weather conditions from time to time. A lakefront resident will tell you that it gets "windy" perhaps a dozen times a year. Small craft warnings are posted as regional conditions occur, and storm warnings may be set on the lakes two or three times a year. The average weather event has a life of 24 to 36 hours. History tells us that occasionally, perhaps once or twice a century, a storm will result in weather that has a materially adverse effect on commercial shipping and on the property of shorefront entities. Most historians agree that the most significant and most dreadful of these events occurred on Lake Huron over the weekend of November 8th, 9th and 10th, 1913. It alone is known by all marine men as "The Storm."
The Pointe aux Barques lighthouse and lifesaving station were perfectly positioned to witness all that occurred on Lake Huron. The storm was first noted up on the western end of Lake Superior on Thursday, November 6th and progressed rapidly to northern Lake Michigan. By 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning, the weather bureau had posted storm warnings for all of the Great Lakes. By Saturday afternoon, a cold front had pushed its way past Pointe aux Barques, down Lake Huron and through Detroit. What had been unusually warm weather for that time of year rapidly became more seasonal.
At the Soo Locks, ships that had weathered the storm on Lake Superior were now entering the St. Mary's river downbound and to Lake Huron enroute to ports further south. Most were loaded with grain from the summer harvest or with premium iron ore. At the south end of Lake Huron, ships were passing upbound from the St. Clair River with cargoes of coal.
At Pointe aux Barques, as the temperature dropped, it began to rain. As the wind picked up the rain turned to sleet. The sleet began to ice up everything it touched. The waves offshore quickly reached 10 to 12 feet and then more. Then the snow came, thick and wind driven.
Shipmasters out on the lake were finding sailing conditions that were unlike any they had seen before. The sleet that had coated their vessels turned the pilothouse windows opaque. It sealed and froze the doorways. To step outside a cabin meant that the skin would be painfully pelted by frozen bits of sleet and snow.
Early Sunday morning, the freighters Matoa, John A. McGean and Howard M. Hanna, Jr. were upbound on Lake Huron, each loaded with coal. Following them came another longboat, the Charles Price, also loaded with coal, then the Regina, a Canadian-flagged ship its cargo hold filled with bailed hay and canned goods while its weather deck was stacked with heavy iron pipe. Finally, the Argus with 24 crew and a load of coal bound for Lake Superior.
From the north, downbound on Lake Huron was the James Carruthers, Canada's newest and finest lakeboat, 529 feet long and filled with grain. Following was the Hydrus filled with iron ore. In the same area was another smaller Canadian, the Wexford. Though it was but 270 feet long and 40 foot beam, it was heavily loaded with steel rail.
By midday Sunday at Pointe aux Barques, the snow was so thick and so heavily driven by the wind that vessels out on the lake could not see the rays of the light. At nearby Harbor Beach, waves had already destroyed some lakefront buildings and had run the 552-foot D.O. Mills ashore. At mid-lake, the wheelsman on the 500 foot Howard M. Hanna, Jr. found that the forward motion of the ship had ceased and that the bow had fallen off into the trough of the waves. Without enough power, the ship was at the mercy of the elements. Waves were higher than the ship is tall, and as they crashed down upon the ship, the windows and the cabins were stove in. The ship was not under command, and as it drifted into Saginaw Bay the master could see the flash of the Port Austin Reef Light. He then knew that his ship would not be saved.
Earlier, the 524-foot coal-filled Isaac M. Scott had passed the mouth of Saginaw Bay, northbound, and it too struggled to keep its bow into the waves. It succeeded until it was off Alpena but there the rudder gave in to the strain and was torn from the ship. The Scott slipped into the troughs and was unmanageable. As the ship overturned, its cargo spilled onto and breached the hatch covers. The inverted ship and all its 28-man crew fell to the muddy bottom of Lake Huron.
The Matoa, just 310 feet long, found itself in the middle of the lake and in the long southwest fetch of Saginaw Bay. Waves crashed against the ship and its structure. The cabins gave way and the hull cracked just forward of the boilerhouse. Drifting along in front of the wind the crew heard the hull scrape along the bottom, then come to a stop. The Pointe aux Barques life-saving crew looked to the northeast and saw the outline of a ship stranded on the reef two miles or more offshore. By quickly repairing some damage to the boatshed and the rails, the lifesavers managed to launch their 32-foot power lifeboat and approach the Matoa. As sorely as the ship's hands wanted to be out of the storm, they wanted nothing to do with the tiny lifeboat. Refusing an opportunity to be saved, the Matoa crew asked only that a tugboat be dispatched to their aid.
A handful of vessels found themselves traveling up then down the length of Lake Huron. Some had managed to keep some kind of steerageway on their ship. Others simply had their boat blown about and found themselves traveling in the opposite direction. But all were blinded by the elements. Electric lighting had failed on both sides of Lake Huron. Radar had not yet been invented. Radio was still new and few shipowners had installed the device. Unable to communicate or see land, each ship was a multi-tonned steel wedge, lost on the lake and a danger to itself and to others on the sea.
The master of the Northern Queen was one of those who found himself on a reciprocal course. He said his ship was turned "end over end" and he found himself headed south when his destination was north. During a brief lull in the snowstorm, he looked out his window and saw the Argus beating into the sea. As he watched, somewhere on the lake the Argus "disintegrated." A wave at its bow and another at its stern raised the ship and left the middle unsupported. It cracked in two and was gone.
As dawn broke on Monday morning, citizens along the Canadian shore began to grasp the extent of the damage and destruction that had occurred on Lake Huron. Flotsam, pieces of cabin work and all sorts of shipwreck debris floated just offshore. Already onshore were the frozen bodies of crewmen, some wearing life vests with the name of their ship stenciled on them. Regina, Wexford, Charles S. Price they read. Some came singly, some in groups. Two men came ashore in a lifeboat, but they had been exposed too long. They would never tell of their experiences.
Shipowners, unknowing of the status of their own vessels, began to telegraph the intended destination ports. If no word had been heard, they began solicitation of any port, all ports along the Huron shore. Shipmasters who had managed to reach harbor were asked, "Do you know of the Hydrus, the Scott, the Carruthers?"
And some had been seen. The Charles Price was reported slogging upbound near Harbor Beach. The Regina was last seen upbound north of Harbor Beach. But on Tuesday morning, a ship entering the St. Clair River reported an overturned hull floating just north of Port Huron and in the usual shipping lanes. It was "a hazard to navigation." It was not until Friday morning that a diver arrived on scene and was able to get deep enough to read the ship's name: Charles S. Price. All its cargo was gone and so were its 28 crewmen. Perhaps the Price and the Regina had collided. Each was seen in near proximity to each other farther up the lake. Lifejacketed crewmen from each ship had floated onto the same Canadian shore intermingled with one another. Further examination of the now sunken Charles S. Price showed no evidence of collision. Its bow and its hull plating were intact and as designed.
The Regina, the smallest of the ships on Lake Huron, went unreported until 1986. Its discovery was serendipitous and was found a few miles off the Michigan shore between Lexington and Port Sanilac. At some point, the ship failed or the crew failed or they just decided to wait it out at anchor. When found, it was at the end of a still taught anchor chain. Her bottom had been holed, her hull was cracked and she was upside down. Later, the John A. McGean was found near Port Hope, Michigan. On the bottom, inverted, its rudder had been torn loose from one pintle and rendered useless.
It is not known exactly what happened to the downbound James Carruthers or the Hydrus. Neither ship reached any port. Twenty-four men went down on each ship. The Wexford, similarly lost for almost 90 years, has only been recently located near the Canadian shore.