Canadian Steamer James Carruthers Lost on November 9, 1913 in the White Hurricane
After posting this I’ve come to realize that this writing is too broad and doesn’t address the topic in any meaningful way. For that reason there will be additional posts and I will probably add to what’s written here as well.
There are several names for this tragedy, The Big Blow, Freshwater Fury, The White Hurricane, to name a few of the more popular ones. The White Hurricane is perhaps the most accurate in terms of describing the prevailing conditions on 4 of the 5 Great Lakes. Had this storm occurred over the Gulf of Mexico it would have been a category 3 hurricane, but here in the upper mid-west we don’t, by definition, have hurricanes.
According to the NOAA in their The “White Hurricane” Storm of November 1913 A Numerical Model Retrospective (here); the storm was actually two storms. A Pre-storm, and the White Hurricane, that second storm was the result of two powerful low pressure systems phasing over northern Virginia, which in turn resulted in a “meteorological bomb”; also called a weather bomb, aka explosive cyclogenesis, according to Keith Heidorn, PhD Weather Almanac. 0.72 inches Hg or more over a 24 hour time span is the criteria for said weather bomb. Back in 1913 the term weather bomb wasn’t in fashion. The following was taken from a slide used in the Numerical Model Retrospective
Great Storm of 1913
A Numerical Model Retrospective
The Great Storm of 1913 is really a tale of two storms.
• The first, called the “Pre-Storm” for the purposes of this presentation, impacted primarily Lake
Superior and Lake Michigan on November 7 th and 8 th .
• The “Pre-Storm” was formidable in its own right – with storm force winds, heavy snow, lake
effect snow squalls, freezing spray and high seas. Several large ships were severely damaged
and run-aground across the breadth of the lake.
• The second storm, called the “White Hurricane”, occurred on November 9 th -11 th and was the result
of an unusual “atmospheric phasing” of the “Pre-Storm” to the north and a developing storm over
the southeast United States.
• The resultant “meteorological bomb” over the eastern Great Lakes would produce prolonged
hurricane force winds, blinding snow squalls, freezing spray, and massive wave trains over the
• The “White Hurricane” was the deadliest and most intense phase of the Great Storm of 1913 –
and is the focus of this Numerical Model Retrospective.
The Storm contributed to the loss of 250 lives, 12 boat sank, one of which was so new that it had only completed two deliveries and was in process of making its third. The James Carruthers had been launched on May 22, 1913 and underwent sea trials for most of that shipping season. While chatting with another lake captain before her final voyage William H. Wright the skipper of the Carruthers, told captain S. A. Lyons that the boys in the foc’sle were complaining that the paint in their cabin was still sticky. He also stated that “we have yet to learn all her tricks”. The Carruthers was the largest ship built in the Collingwood Shipyards in Collingwood Ontario. She was also the most staunch of all ships plying the lakes at that time.
She was lost on Lake Huron on the night of November 9th or very early morning on the following morning. The whereabouts are still unknown. She was 550ft over all length with a beam of 58ft and a molded depth of 27ft (depth of the cargo hold). She sported a double bottom hull and extra steel to further strengthen her hull. So much steel was used to make this boat staunch that she couldn’t load as much cargo as ships of similar dimensions. Top side she had 38 hatches spaced on 24ft centers; after her loss, her sistership would shave that number in half. Each hatch represented one chance a weakness in structure but also a means of water to infiltrate the cargo hold. It was then, as it is now common knowledge that without watertight compartments in the holds, and straight deck freighters like the Carruthers had none. Boat like this would fill quickly with water and sinks in a few minutes time. One architect back in the day when speaking of the great loss of boats on the Lakes described their design as being similar to a shoe box with a pointed end.
Of the all the boats destroyed (sunk) at least 19 more were driven ashore, and at least 3 were considered a total constructive loss, all but the Carruthers, and the Leafield, and a barge the Plymouth are unaccounted for. It’s been my deeply held wish that the final resting places of these boats is discovered soon. Perhaps a forth coming post will be dedicated to the topic of lost and found.
Prior to his deadly storm the year 1913 was shaping up to be one of the safest ever! According to the Annual Lake Carriers Association‘s publication for the year 1913 about 27 people lost their lives, without counting the 250 or more lives lost in this one storm. At least three died in a boiler explosion, another was scalded to death, probably the same accident. Several were washed overboard or fell of the dock and were drowned. At least four men fell to their deaths into the cargo holds of their respective boats, two fell from ladders and at least two were struck by machinery. Drownings and errant steps seem to be the biggest reason for loss of life, the figures are based on the cases where the LCA paid out a death benefit so there may have been a few unaccounted for deaths nevertheless, I counted 27 deaths on or around the Lakes.
Estimates, and that’s all they really are vary from a low of 235 and a high of 273 perhaps more men and women drowned in this storm. The lion’s share of those deaths occurred on Lake Huron with the loss of 8 boats. The steamers lost on Lake Huron are John A. McGean, The Argus, and its sister ship the Hydrus, the Isaac M. Scott and her sister ship the Charles S. Price, The Canadian super ship James Carruthers, and two package freighters the Wexford, built in Scotland, and the Regina, built in England.
Lake Superior took down two boats, the Henry B. Smith which was recently discovered in 535 feet of water, the same depth as another famous shipwreck, (Edmund Fitzgerald) and the Leafield, another small package freighter whose whereabouts are still unknown but thought to have foundered off of Angus Island in very deep water–150 fathoms 900ft. Attempts to locate her have come up with nothing and she might have not have actually wrecked on that island. It’s a long story and I will post it here at some point in the future.
Lake Michigan was the scene of the first loss, the Louisiana, a wooden steamship built shortly after the Civil War was upbound light with water for ballast. She was swept from the lake by wind and waves and burned to the water line after catching fire. The source of the fire isn’t known but a wooden steam ship with coal fired boilers it doesn’t take much imagination. Though she was lost there was no loss of life in her wrecking. The barge Plymouth was lost with all hands. She was being towed by a tug boat that had seen her better days. The tug lacked the power to tow the barge in all but the best of weather. The tug dropped the tow line after reaching the lee of Gull Island, and scampered off to nearly sinking herself. She returned to pick up the barge after the storm blew itself out but the Plymouth was not to be found. Lake Erie took the Lightship LV82 and all of her crew.
In time I will write a little more about each. I am in process of writing what will hopefully become a self-published book on the topic.
There are several great books on the subject of the White Hurricane, starting the David G. Brown’s book of the same name White Hurricane: The Great Lakes Storm of 1913
Also the The Last Laker: Finding a Wreck Lost in the Great Lakes’ Deadliest Storm
An old staple: Freshwater Fury: Yarns and Reminiscences of the Greatest Storm in Inland Navigation By Frank Barcus.
Ships Gone Missing by Robert J. Hemming.
November’s Fury by Michael Schumacher.