The White Hurricane: The United States's Largest Inland Maritime Disaster

Wave breaking on the shore of Lake Michigan by Lincoln Park while a man watches from High Bridge. (Chicago Daily News/Wikimedia Commons)

We're used to hearing about hurricanes hitting places like Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, but a 1913 event called the White Hurricane took place far away from those oceanside states. The White Hurricane struck the Great Lakes region over a three-day period in November, resulting in more than a dozen shipwrecks and 250 deaths. More than a century later, the White Hurricane is still the biggest inland maritime disaster in American history.

Great Lakes Storm Of 1913

On November 6, 1913, forecasters noted a storm forming in Lake Superior and moving rapidly toward Lake Michigan. This wasn't unusual—the region is prone to fierce storms that pick up moisture and intensity as they cross the Great Lakes. They predicted "moderate to brisk" winds, but the storm became much stronger much faster than anticipated, since weather forecasting back then wasn't as speedy or accurate as it is today. In the early morning hours of November 7, a steamer on Lake Superior encountered gale force winds that forced the ship to run aground within 48 hours.

Photo of downed power lines taken on November 11. (Cleveland Plain Dealer/Wikimedia Commons)

The White Hurricane

The storm collided with a second storm that formed over North and South Carolina, and fueled by the warmer and wetter air, this system pushed through the Ohio Valley and into Lake Huron to devastating results. Between November 7 and 10, the storm produced hurricane-force winds on four of the five Great Lakes, mostly severely on Lake Huron, where waves between 35 and 50 feet high tossed ships and battered coastal communities. Moisture from the lakes picked up by the storms was then dumped back down in the form of snow, resulting in total white-out conditions on the Great Lakes and surrounding regions.

The Detroit News storm headlines, November 13, 1913. (The Detroit News/Wikimedia Commons)

The Impact Of The White Hurricane

The White Hurricane was devastating to the region and its shipping industry. In all, 19 ships were sunk or destroyed, another 19 ran aground, and more than $1 million of cargo sank to the bottom of the lakes. The hurricane's death toll stands at just over 250 people, the majority of them sailors, and cities along the Great Lakes were paralyzed for weeks while workers cleared the more than two feet of snow that fell and blew into snow drifts as tall as houses. As devastating and destructive as it was, some good did come of the White Hurricane, as the U.S. Weather Bureau and N.O.A.A. have implemented updated systems for storm preparedness, weather forecasting, and shore-to-ship communication. Of course, the forces of nature will always be powerful and unpredictable, but the lessons learned from the White Hurricane will help keep people safer while sailing the Great Lakes.