As the genealogist in the family, the small ad in the local newspaper, caught my eye. A woman was looking for descendants of The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 for a book she was writing commemorating the one hundredth anniversary. The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 was a hurricane-like gale which raged over five days, Nov 7-11 in 1913. The weather had been unseasonably warm for early November, but two major storm fronts converging over the warm lake water (also known as a November Witch), suddenly brewed up the storm of the century. This perfect storm was actually a combination of two of the worst meteorological phenomena, a blizzard and a hurricane, or what is known as a white hurricane or an extratropical cyclone. The gale-force winds, massive 40 foot waves and whiteout conditions resulted in the sinking of 19 ice-laden ships, the stranding of another 19, and sent over 250 sailors to an early grave. (For those unfamiliar, the Great Lakes comprise five interconnected lakes on the border between Canada and the US, famous for being the biggest fresh water lakes in the world and important then and now as a commercial shipping route. Even today, the big freighters ply the waters, although with the milder winters now, shipping season extends later in the year. Last year they went very late, and the coast guard cutter trying to plow a route through the ice for one straggler, did some significant damage to docks on the Canadian side, a legal nightmare still being sorted out).
So, I emailed her that my great-uncle Joe had die in the storm, he had been a boatswain on the Henry B. Smith. He was my dad’s maternal uncle, and it was a bit of folklore passed down in the family history, that the captain had been drunk and should never have gone out. (The ship had been in port in Marquette Michigan on Lake Superior, from Nov 6 to 9th, taking on a load of iron ore, so it wasn’t caught out in the storm like the rest of the boats which sank on the lakes). Here’s more (Wikipedia) info on the sinking of the Henry B Smith. As it turned out, her great uncle, was “Dancing Jimmy/James Owen”, the captain, of the Henry B. Smith. Oops. She was gracious about it, having heard the rumors herself over the years. He sounded like quite a character, known for visiting dance halls in every port and laughing in the face of danger. Although an experienced and valued captain, he had experienced many delays on his last voyage of the season, and was under considerable pressure from head office to meet the schedule or be fired. He was an invincible soul, who like many captains back then, felt no fear – any captain who couldn’t sail in a storm wasn’t worth his salt. There had also been a lull in the northern part of the storm, before the southern part converged. Most likely, it was a combination of all these factors. At any rate, it was a reckless decision which took 25 men to their deaths, and which had far-reaching impact on many lives. Poor Captain Owen realized his mistake not many miles out and tried to change course, but by then it was too late, the ship had disappeared into a crashing snow squall and was never seen again, although several oars and one or two bodies eventually found drifted ashore. The ship was officially declared missing on Nov 14 1913.
She felt it was important to honor the stories of those mariners who had gone down with their ships, so we ended up corresponding over the next year, and she put a short chapter on my ancestor in her book of personal stories. When I say short, I really did not have much information to give her and none of it a first hand account, but she did a great job considering. She later invited me to attend her town’s memorial services but as my mother was having hip surgery that November I was unable to attend any services, either there or here.
My dad’s mother was one of nine children, six girls and three boys, one of which was Uncle Joe. The other two brothers were Bernard and Leo. Here’s a picture of my great-grandmother Jane with some of the family, except for Joe who was deceased by then. Jane lived well into her 90’s and my dad recalled her babysitting him while his parents went to the dance pavilion across the river – he remembered hearing the music floating over the water, (the end of the Roaring 20’s?), as their family homestead was close to the river, and also her cookies. As a family, they were very involved in the local church which was right down the street and it was the job of one of the boys to ring the church bell on Sundays. My paternal grandparents died before my parents were married, so the only ones I knew when I was a child were Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Leo, who was as deaf as a doorknob. Uncle Leo gave up the boats and became a house painter, but he still rang the church bell on Sundays. (My grandmother is the one with the child on her lap).
Jane’s husband had been a cobbler, (I have his business card), but died young, leaving her a widow with nine children, ages 1 to 19 yrs. The girls went to work as maids in the big hotels, or as a seamstress (my grandmother), and the three boys sailed on the boats. They were river rats.
Here are the girls, displaying a bit of ankle…..what would they think of the fashions today?
And here are the boys. Joe is the oldest, sitting in the chair,
and here he is later in life, quite a dapper young man. I am not hundred percent certain this is him as opposed to one of his brothers, (Leo the middle one and Bernard the youngest), but was given the photo by my 97 year old great-aunt Dorothy, (Bernard’s daughter), who was born in 1917 and so never met him, although she was of course familiar with his tragic end. Cameras were still rarities at the time, so I have very few photos from either grandparents side.
Later on, his brother Bernard captained his own small boat, and made trips up and down the river to Detroit. Perhaps he no longer wanted to be at the mercy of someone else’s orders like his brother had been. Here’s a picture of some of his family eating watermelon on board his boat. From the middy blouses and big hair bows, it is probably dated around 1920?
According to the 1911 census, Joe made $500 on an oil barge, while his two brothers Leo and Bernard, worked on steamers, making $450 for a 36 week season.
Joe is on the far right in this picture of the crew relaxing on deck.
Here is a photo of the ship leaving Cleveland on it’s last voyage, taken through a glass display case so it is hard to see, but you can just make out the Henry Smith name down in the lower right corner. I wonder if Joe is in the picture and who are the women on deck saying goodbye?
Below are a couple of descriptions of the boat leaving port in the late afternoon on the day of the storm.
And another writeup……
What were Joe’s thoughts on that fateful day? Were they of his family and his fiancé/sweetheart? He was supposedly engaged to be married to my dad’s paternal aunt Annie. Here’s Annie in the middle of the back row, photo taken around 1911.
How awful it must have been for her and for the families waiting at home for word which never came. I remember sitting in the genealogy library, back in 2003, reading all the newspaper coverage of the storm on microfilm, and the reports of bodies being washed up on the shore near our area of the lake. He was 30, and she was 29, and the last of the girls left on the farm. Options were few for women back then, and after her mother died in 1917 and her brother, (my grandfather) wanted to marry and start a family of his own, she ended up marrying someone else and moved to Seattle where one of her other brothers lived. They adopted a child, as she was older then and couldn’t have any of her own. When that child, now in his 70’s, returned for a visit to the homeplace in the 1990’s, intent on researching his family roots, he did not seem to be aware that he was adopted and no one let on.
The following gives a bit of credence to the family folklore.
While there was certainly a significant financial loss to the storm, most ships were insured, and the owners of the Henry Smith ended up with an insurance payout of $335,000. Total losses from the storm, for lost and damaged ships, were almost 4 million, with another million for lost cargo. A compensation fund for the families of $18,245, shared by the 250 sailors lost, meant each received $73, (about $1700 in today’s money). The life of a sailor was cheap. One good thing to come out of this marine disaster was an improvement in weather forecasting and faster responses to storm warnings as well as stronger construction of ships.
Could they have survived had all the hatches been closed before they left port, and if the waterproof tarps had been placed over them to protect them from flying apart from the force of the pounding waves, a time consuming procedure the captain had not deemed necessary. There were two theories, the most likely that she took on too much water in the hold and rolled, pouring out the ore through the hatches as she sank, the second that the excess water caused the steel to fracture. As only two bodies, both wearing life preservers, drifted ashore, it is probable there was little warning and the rest went down with the ship. But it was not just the wind and the waves which caused havoc in the storm for the temperature had dropped enough to create a full-blown blizzard, reducing visibility so that the ship could not see the shore, and significant icing from the freezing spray weighed it down to the point that they could not even navigate, so the odds were slim, but some ships did make it through, (any port in a storm), although they were badly damaged and encrusted with ice. Could Joe and his fellow crew members have said no, when the whistle had blown and the boat was already streaming away – not likely they even had a chance. While working conditions have certainly improved in the past century, are workers today, still being asked to perform reckless duties and actions in the names of corporate profit/greed? In some jobs cutting corners might mean lives lost, maybe not yours, but someone else’s. Something to think about if you’re the boss….or a worker being asked to do unsafe tasks.
Flash forward to the spring of 2013 and they have found the wreck of the Henry B. Smith in waters not far off Marquette Michigan, almost one hundred years after it sank.
Here’s a link to a newspaper article with a video of the flying bridge. And a more personal account of the dive team. The boat had split in two and was resting on it’s load of iron ore at the bottom. Most of the hatches were open. My author friend emailed me that she had been invited by the dive team to go out on the water for a memorial service the following year. She was excited that the divers had recovered an enamel coffee pot from the bottom of the lake, a poignant piece of memorabilia, and she was picturing the crew members pouring a cup of coffee from it on a cold blustery night, a night fit for no man. I have not talked to her since but in the mariner’s tradition, I hope someone rang a bell on behalf of each of the 25 men lost on the Henry B. Smith. I think Joe would have approved.
PS. The title The Witch of November is taken from Canadian folksinger, Gordon Lightfoot’s, song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a ship which sank in a November 10 1975 gale on Lake Superior with the loss of all men aboard. In that song, “The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they called ‘Gitche Gumee’
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty.
That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early.
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
And a wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too,
T’was the witch of November come stealin’.
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the Gales of November came slashin’.
When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’.
Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.
At Seven P. M. A main hatchway caved in, he said
Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
May have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the Gales of November remembered.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call ‘Gitche Gumee’.
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early!
PS. There are many books available on the Great Storm, most of them self-published by local authors. Here is my Goodreads review of one I read last year, and I also attended a lecture by the author, but it is more focused on the sailing aspects of the disaster, as opposed to the personal stories. The author focused on just a few of the ships and gave a more detailed account. Still, it was a fascinating read, even if you already knew the outcome.
Weather Bomb 1913 Life and Death on the Great Lakes by Bruce Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An excellent read about the big storm of 1913 on the Great Lakes. I had a family interest in the subject as my great uncle died on the Henry Smith, which was recently located a hundred years after it went down, and while his boat wasn’t mentioned much in the book, there was lots of detail and research about other ships. Stayed up late two nights reading, couldn’t put it down, even though I knew the sad outcome. Well done.
PS. While I was preparing this post last week, the Witch of November came calling. On November 9, the exact date of the sinking, we had our first snowfall of the season with blustery north winds….
7 thoughts on “The Witch of November”
Great story and fantastic photos!
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Thank you……I don’t have many old family photos, so I treasure the ones I have!
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Thank you for telling this story. I am sorry I have not commented sooner. I have the page bookmarked and have come back to it several times to read. As you know I have a connection to great lake sailing because my husband worked on the lakes. I also have a second connection – I had a great uncle who sailed ships – although I am sure he was not sailing yet in 1913. After reading this I had to get out the little bit of family history that has been recently passed down. I contains a bit of a journal written by my great grandfather. It says his son Curtis, who was born in 1905, started sailing ships when he got out of high school so I concluded that he would not have been old enough.
How tragic the story is – that so many lives were lost. Technology does make the industry much safer today but as you mentioned captains are under great pressure from companies. Ultimately the captain does make the decisions and is responsible for what happens.
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I enjoyed writing it….they were 3 or 4 days loading the iron ore, because of the cold weather the ore was frozen and they had to chip it out, so if he hadn’t already been behind, and under pressure from head office, I don’t think he would have gone out. The other main factor was a temporary lull in the storm. He might have had a drink to fortify himself, but I am thinking the rumours about him being drunk might have been because he did have a reputation of visiting the dance halls. When I heard Bruce Kemp’s lecture (the author of the book I mentioned at the end, which was only $30 by the way), he stressed that most captains were confident they could get through any storm….but this wasn’t just any storm, it was the storm of the century. After I posted the blog I discovered that Frederick Stonehouse has a new book out called The Last Laker, which is the story of the sinking of the Henry B. Smith and it’s discovery 100 years later. Amazon has it listed for $79 which is a bit too steep for me, so I asked the library to order it in. I’ll let you know if it comes in, they don’t always order every request. It might be something your husband would enjoy if he likes to read?
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What a story! What a history in your family! I enjoyed reading your account and seeing the old photographs. Thank you!
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