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

By | August 15, 2022

test article image
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.

test article image
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.