The Big Blow: The Great Lakes Blizzard of 1913
If you make a habit of leaving your snow shovel packed away until December, you might want to think twice. While the heaviest snow tends to fall in February each year, November blizzards aren’t unheard of. In fact, some historic November storms are frequently cited on lists of America’s most memorable blizzards.
One of those, the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, is perhaps the earliest storm, seasonally speaking, to rank among America’s beastliest blizzards. Known by a number of nicknames, including, “the Big Blow,” “the Freshwater Fury,” and “the White Hurricane,” the blizzard of 1913 battered the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada from November 7 through November 10, 1913.
Technically a hurricane, the storm was triggered in part by a regular phenomenon known as a November gale, or “November witch,” when cold air coming down from Canada meets warmer air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico over the vast expanse of the Great Lakes. Unusually cold temperatures turned this violent convergence into snow, causing whiteout conditions as more than two feet of lake-effect snow pounded a huge area of the U.S. and Canada.
For days, streets were impassable, streetcars were stranded, stores were closed, and telegraph and power lines were downed by the brutal winds. The storm caused hundreds of thousands of dollars of infrastructure damage (millions in today’s currency) and left drifts up to six feet deep in some areas.
More devastating, however, was the storm’s effect on ships attempting to navigate the lakes. In what has been described as the worst shipping disaster on the Great Lakes, 12 ships sank and 19 others were stranded on four of the five lakes. More than 250 people died, and more $5 million in ships and cargo was lost (about $100 million in today’s currency). Five of the sunken ships were never found.
Compounding the severity of the storm was the fact that weather forecasters of the time misread the signs and predicted much less severe conditions. The Detroit News, for instance, called only for “moderate to brisk” winds on the Great Lakes, with occasional rain for the upper lakes, and unsettled conditions for the lower lakes. As the storm worsened, forecasters upgraded the storm to “severe” on November 7th, and shipping traffic on the lakes was brought to a halt. A lull in the storm, known colloquially as a “sucker hole,” on the 8th allowed things to get moving again, just in time for another peak in intensity to hit, with hurricane force winds, a day later.
November 9th was the deadliest day of the storm. By the 10th, the system had moved into mainland Canada, where it abruptly lost steam and petered out. At the end of it all, the people of the Midwestern U.S. and Ontario were left with a huge mess to clean up from a storm people would still talk about nearly 100 years later.