2013-02-28 / Life in Leelanau

The perfect storm 100 years ago

By Jim Brinkman for the Enterprise


THE LIONEL PARSONS survived the Great Storm to sail again. Built as the Howard M. Hanna, Jr., the 5-year-old, 500-foot vessel went aground at Port Austin, and was considered a constructive total loss. Nevertheless, it was repaired and returned to service in 1915. 
Jim Brinkman Photo THE LIONEL PARSONS survived the Great Storm to sail again. Built as the Howard M. Hanna, Jr., the 5-year-old, 500-foot vessel went aground at Port Austin, and was considered a constructive total loss. Nevertheless, it was repaired and returned to service in 1915. Jim Brinkman Photo It was the “Perfect Storm.”

And it took place one hundred years ago.

It was the Edmund Fitzgerald tragedy multiplied tenfold ... and then some.

Early in the morning on Saturday, Nov. 8, 1913, the steamer Illinois departed Northport for Chicago.

It arrived there three days late.

But it arrived.

Elsewhere on the Great Lakes, pure bedlam had prevailed, and only Lake Ontario was largely unaffected by the colossal storm, which paralyzed major regional cities, such as Cleveland.

Two storm fronts had converged over the relatively warm lake waters, generating hurricane force winds and 35-foot waves (mariners who survived the storm claimed some were at least twice that high).


THE S.S. ILLINOIS, often referred to as the “Chicago boat,” was a frequent caller at Leelanau ports a century ago. It survived the Great Storm by extraordinary action on the part of its captain. THE S.S. ILLINOIS, often referred to as the “Chicago boat,” was a frequent caller at Leelanau ports a century ago. It survived the Great Storm by extraordinary action on the part of its captain. Thirteen vessels, operating late in the shipping season, were overwhelmed and sank, taking their entire crews with them. Most of the losses occurred on Lake Huron.

On Lake Erie, Lightship No. 82 was torn from its mooring and all in its crew of 12 were lost. Typically, the crews on the freighters were twice as large.

Strandings and groundings of other vessels were widespread and a number of these ships were declared total loses.

All told, at least 251 sailors lost their lives.

And even today, after the passage of 100 years, a few of the lost ships have yet to be found.

“Gradually, scuba divers are discovering the wrecks,” says marine historian Steve Harold, author of Shipwrecks of the Sleeping Bear, “but we can only guess where the ships may have gone down. Clues, such as wreckage washed ashore after the storm, weren’t strong ones. Searches by divers may be hit or miss.”

Illinois leaves port

The Illinois, which had been calling at ports as far north as Mackinac Island and was returning to the southern end of the lake, was on a “freight only,” late season trip.

It departed Northport at 3 a.m., and although the lake was roiled up, conditions were not extraordinary for that time of year.

“We stood the rising gale and sea quite well for an hour,” Captain John Stufflebeam later recalled. “Then it began to snow and the storm broke all around us.”

The captain then headed for South Manitou, where, to his chagrin, he found no place to dock or anchor safely.

“I saw only one safe solution,” Stufflebeam said. “We drove right into the land and forced the nose of the vessel up the beach. I kept the engine going for 50 hours.” This action “helped us ride the seas continually smashing against us.”

At the end of 50 hours the crew was able to secure a line on a large tree and the engine could be stopped. After another 24 hours had elapsed, the Illinois could finally proceed.

It backed off the beach and continued on its way to Chicago.

Author Frank Barcus, whose book, Freshwater Fury, chronicles the Great Storm, was very impressed with this incident.

Almost 50 years after the storm he wrote: “This is an astonishing marine story, and as far as we know, it’s unmatched in the history of steam navigation on the Lakes.”

But it was matched, as we shall see later!

First casualties

The earliest casualties of the Great Storm took place across Lake Michigan from Leelanau, where the steamer Louisiana was driven aground at Washington Island. The barges Halstead and Plymouth, in the same vicinity, were also victims of the storm, and the lastnamed vessel was lost with its entire crew.

These ships were older, more vulnerable wooden vessels, but the case would prove to be different on other lakes.

Freighters lost on lakes Superior and Huron were new, staunch vessels of considerable size. Only two vessels, built originally for saltwater service, were older than the “Fitz” was at the time of its loss on Nov. 10, 1975.

And the lightship lost on Lake Erie was scarcely a year old.

Following the storm, a ship was found floating upside down at the southern end of Lake Huron. Trapped air held the forward part of the ship above the water. For a while, the newspapers called it the “Mystery Ship,” since there were at least several possibilities.

Before it sank, a diver was able to descend and read its name.

It was the 524 foot Charles S. Price, built only three years earlier.

Unprecedented construction had recently taken place, reflecting the growth of the country at large. Two hundred steel steamships were built on the Great Lakes between 1900-1910.

In addition to ships sunk outright, numerous strandings and groundings took place throughout the length of the lakes. In such cases, crewmen on these vessels generally survived, but often endured great hardship until rescued.

In 1913, most lake ships did not have wireless, so distress messages were not sent.

Interestingly enough, however, the Leelanau Enterprise reported, in 1901, that the Ann Arbor Railroad, which operated a fleet of railroad ferries out of Frankfort, had contracted for the just developed wireless “Marconi System” to maintain contact with its ships. This appears, however, to have been more for dispatch of freight movements instead of for safety purposes.

The first marine telegrapher “Lost at Sea” drowned in Lake Michigan in September, 1910, two years before the Titanic went down in the North Atlantic. Mate Esten Bahle, of Suttons Bay, nearly lost his life in the incident that claimed the carferry Pere Marquette No. 18 and half of those aboard the hapless vessel. This vessel was based at Ludington and Bahle advanced in rank until he was ultimately named Fleet Captain.

Nineteen years later, the Big Lake claimed another carferry, the Milwaukee, and all on board. This ship was originally built for the Northport-Manistique route, which was much shorter-lived than the railroad that it brought into existence.

Remarkably, at this relatively late date (October, 1929) the Milwaukee carried no wireless, with which help might have been summoned and received.

In 1913, however, given the extremist of conditions, it is doubtful that wireless, had the ships been so equipped, would have helped any of the ships caught on the open lakes.

Survivors of storm

A few ships unable to reach shelter survived, although they took a terrific battering.

One such vessel was the Hawgood steamer Edwin F. Holmes, built in 1904. This ship, renamed J.B. Ford, served for decades as a cement carrier based at Alpena. It was later used as a floating cement storage unit. At present, it is docked at Superior, Wis., awaiting an uncertain future.

A number of the ships grounded in the storm were repaired and returned to service. At Port Austin, Michigan, the Howard M. Hannah was driven on the rocks and considered a total loss. Legendary salvager Tom Reid, however, was able to re-float the vessel and it was returned to service. It served the Algoma Central Railroad as the S.S. Agawa for decades before it was retired to serve as a grain storage vessel at Goderich, Ontario.

Round two

Twenty seven years would elapse before anything even somewhat comparable to the Great Storm would again occur. Frank Barcus devoted a chapter of his book to it and titled it “Return Bout.” He sought to demonstrate that man was now better able to cope with whatever nature chose to throw at him because of advances in navigation and weather forecasting.

This more recent event took place on Nov. 11, 1940, and is known as the “Armistice Day Storm.”

Down the Lake Michigan shore, in the teeth of a fierce southwesterly wind, three ships were lost; the William B. Davock, Anna C. Minch and Novadoc. All hands were lost with the first two ships, but plucky commercial fishermen rescued all but two crewmen from the Novadoc.

Further north up the lakeshore, the officers of the carferry Ann Arbor No. 6, returning from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, knew they could not safely enter their homeport of Frankfort.

They changed course for South Manitou Island.

“While pounding northward, sea tossed and storm driven… the wind blew so hard that it seemed to fairly lift the tops from the roaring, foaming seas, as they madly raced along, at times almost submerging her sides, and spray it in all directions at once,” wrote the late marine historian Arthur C. Frederickson.

It was the first (and perhaps only) time that the ship’s motion in a seaway allowed the steel floor plates in the engine room to lift and slide around.

As in the case of the Illinois years before, the No. 6 headed right for the beach at South Manitou Harbor, although no tree was utilized this time. The ship’s two engines sufficed to hold it in place.

Early in the morning of the 13th, conditions had sufficiently abated so that the officers decided to head for home.

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