Little Bits of History

November Witch

Posted in History by patriciahysell on November 9, 2014
Storm on the Great Lakes

Storm on the Great Lakes

November 9, 1913: A storm hits the Great Lakes. It is sometimes called the Big Blow, Freshwater Fury, or White Hurricane and was a blizzard with hurricane-force winds which affected the Great Lakes Basin and the Canadian province of Ontario. The storm formed on November 6,1913 and finally dissipated on November 11 with this day being the day with the strongest winds. Ships were overturned in four of the five Great Lakes with Lake Huron suffering the most sinkings. More than 250 people were killed and 19 ships were destroyed with another 19 stranded. The financial loss of the vessels alone (with their cargo) was almost $5 million (about $119 million today).

The extratropical cyclone was the perfect storm. Two major storm fronts along with the relatively warm waters of the lakes themselves, produced what was called a November gale or November witch. Winds gusted up to 90 mph and there were waves over 35 feet high. Whiteout snowsqualls completed the dangerous conditions resulting in so much devastation and loss. The storm was first noticed on November 6 on the western side of Lake Superior and was moving rapidly toward Lake Michigan. Rather than the “brisk winds” called for in the weather reports, a sudden northerly gale hit around midnight. The next day, Friday, November 7, the storm was intensifying and flags were raised to convey the information of storm warning with northwesterly winds. By Saturday, the storm was being called “severe” and covered the entire lake basin.

At the time, weather conditions were gathered just twice each day and information sent to Washington, D.C. where maps were compiled. By noon on Sunday, barometric pressures on Lake Huron were close to normal for a November gale. It was hoped the storm would end soon. Unfortunately, a second low pressure area was moving toward the lakes from the opposite direction. This caused an intense counterclockwise rotation of the air and changing winds. The rotating continued and strengthened throughout the day. Between 8 PM and midnight, a condition modern meteorologists call a “weather bomb” took place. The movement of the winds is different from what is expected in a tropical cyclone.

As the storm dissipated, it brought blizzard conditions farther east. Cleveland, Ohio had an additional 17 inches of snow and six foot tall drifts filled the streets, stranding streetcar operators. As the storm raged into Canada, it lost power and finally ran out of steam. November gales have been problematic for the Great Lakes and all who sail there with several killer storms recorded. A storm like this was responsible for the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. The 1913 storm did have a greater impact. Analysis led to better land management and because of the lag times involved, better reporting and forecasting of storms was made possible to forestall the dangers from future storms. Although we are better prepared today, Mother Nature still has the upper hand.

If you want to see the sunshine, you have to weather the storm. – Frank Lane

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm. – Willa Cather

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore. – Vincent Van Gogh

In retrospect there were failures enough to go around. There were failures before the storm and failures after the storm. – Jeff Sessions

Also on this day: Kristallnacht – in 1939, Nazi Germany began the systematic elimination of the Jews.
Damrell’s Fire – In 1872, the Great Boston Fire took place.
IE Look Out – In 2004, Firefox 1.0 was released.
Papa Was a Rolling Stone – In 1967, Rolling Stone magazine’s first issue was on the stands.

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2 Responses

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  1. Sherry said, on November 13, 2014 at 12:21 pm

    I grew up on the west coast of Michigan, right on the Lake Michigan at it’s confluence with the Grand River. I remember some bad winters (1976-77 in particular), but nothing like what is described in the article, of course! I can only imagine how tough digging out of that storm must have been without all the mechanization, technology, and modern conveniences we have now. It seems that everyday people at the time of “The Big Blow” were more resilient and accustomed to physical labor, too.

    • patriciahysell said, on November 13, 2014 at 12:45 pm

      They may have been more resilient and accustomed to physical labor or they may have just been stuck with all the snow and no other way to get rid of it except to manually dig themselves out. I remember shoveling snow, too. There were no snowblowers and we had to get the snow moved. I much preferred a machine to do the work and even better was moving south where it doesn’t snow. 🙂


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