Michael Schumacher. November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. xv + 198 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-8719-0; $16.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8166-8720-6.
Reviewed by Gregory J. Dehler (Front Range Community College)
Published on H-SHGAPE (August, 2014)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin
The White Hurricane of 1913
Public discussion on the connection between global climate change and the increased intensity of storms in the last two decades might lead one to suspect that such events as Hurricane Katrina and Super Storm Sandy are strictly recent phenomena. The entire nation collectively experienced these and other traumatic natural events of the last two decades as they unfolded before our eyes on television, the Internet, and social media. But those who lived through the Gilded Age and Progressive Era were no strangers to such epic, definitive natural occurrences. Blizzards in 1886 and 1888, devastating hurricanes such as the one that struck Galveston in 1905, and earthquakes like the one that shook San Francisco the following year are but a few examples. The repercussions of these storms resonated through the sociopolitical landscape, influencing, among other things, the populist agrarian revolt and the nascent environmental movement.
In November’s Fury, Michael Schumacher tells the tale of another natural disaster. Between November 7 and 10, 1913, the “White Hurricane” hammered the Great Lakes. The most disastrous such storm to hit the region, it claimed over 250 lives, destroyed or seriously damaged over forty vessels, and cost almost $5 million in losses. As Schumacher reminds his readers, it is important to note that the damage could have been much worse had not 140 ships heeded the Weather Bureau’s storm warning and remained safely in port.
The “edge-of-the seat” storytelling is the strongest aspect of the book. Schumacher is at his best when relating the harrowing drama of the men and their ships against Mother Nature’s cold fury. Some, like the Cornell, spent hours rocking helplessly in the trough of thirty-foot waves, unable to break free. Others were driven hundreds of miles off course, sometimes backwards, incapable of altering their direction. The force of the storm propelled the ships with such might that anchors could not take hold of the bottom. To make matters worse, freezing rain encrusted the ships in ice, making necessary movement onboard between the fore and aft houses extremely hazardous. Frigid temperatures compounded the misery of the crews when ships lost all power, including heat. The desperate crew of one such ship resorted to burning the walls of the cabins for warmth. Escaping from a ship on water was impossible. Small life boats were death traps on the violent lakes, and the coastal life saving stations were equally powerless, capable only of looking at the struggling crews — which could be as close as fifty yards to shore — with pity. The lucky ships, like the Turret Chief, harmlessly struck ground, allowing the traumatized crew to jump down to safety. Some of these lucky survivors staggered wet and frozen for hours before they chanced upon a farm or lumber camp. Naturally, Schumacher struggles to tell the story of the unlucky ones who perished at sea with the same vividness of his treatment of the survivors, but he provides a chilling speculation of what might have gone through the minds of the doomed men, and how they may have experienced their death.
Landlubbers did not escape the ill effects of the White Hurricane. Schumacher devotes a chapter to describing how twenty-one inches of snow ground Cleveland to a halt and isolated it from the outside world. Much less severe damage occurred in Port Huron, Michigan, and in Chicago, to name a few cities mentioned in the text, but Schumacher does not devote nearly the same level of detail to these cities as he does to Cleveland.
Of course, the finger-pointing started immediately after the winds died down. Some captains blamed the fledgling United States Weather Bureau for failing to raise the proper warning. As Schumacher demonstrates, many of the captains had received the warning, but ignored it anyway. No one expected an unprecedented storm of this magnitude. The weather equipment of the day could predict the storm, but could not estimate its severity. Victims of their own experience, seasoned captains thought they could ride out the bad weather in strategic safe spots on the Lakes or reach safe harbor if the water got too rough, as they had done so many times in the past. They let their hunger for one last payday of the season override whatever caution they should have felt. Others blamed the ship owners for the losses. By driving their crews and overloading their underpowered vessels to increase their profits, the shipping firms greatly increased the risk to their ships and crews during the storm. The poor widows and orphans of the lost gained no satisfaction from the debate over responsibility. Instead, they received a check from the Life Carrier’s Association ranging between $75 and $400, depending on the crewman’s role.
The photographs are also a strength of November’s Fury. By providing a visual representation of the vessels in the text, Schumacher adds another personal dimension to the suffering. His Internet research yielded a treasure trove of images capturing the ships in both their splendor and their ignominious fates, as well as life boats, scenes from Cleveland, weather maps, and bodies washed up on the shore.
The book is not without some flaws, which will grate more on the historian than on the general audience. Although there is a brief acknowledgment and source essay, there are no endnotes or footnotes. Direct quotations are unattributed. It draws heavily, as the author admits, on existing, recently published secondary accounts. There is no conclusion, and no effort to sum up the long-term consequences of those fateful November days on the many maritime communities on the Lakes, the regional economy, shipping, or weather forecasting. An exciting read and an energetic local history, November’s Fury leaves much room for further study of the White Hurricane.
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Gregory J. Dehler. Review of Schumacher, Michael, November's Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913.
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