White Hurricane : A Great Lakes November Gale and America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster by David G. Brown

This was the story of the tremendous storm that raged over the Great Lakes in November, 1913. The storm began to be felt in small ways on Friday, Nov. 7th and from Saturday, the 8th, through Monday, Nov. 10th, 12 of the huge freighters were sunk and 31 more were run aground. 253 sailors were lost. But these figures are not the total because in 1913 no single body was responsible for keeping track of ships and lives lost. It also did not take into account fishermen or casual boaters out on the lakes or people who died on land. The storm was called the ‘white’ hurricane because it was accompanied by snow and ice which ravaged the ships and brought the towns along the Lakes to a standstill. Cleveland had over 21 inches of snow fall. Waves were 35′ high. Downed telephone and telegraph lines ashore hampered getting information to life-saving stations.  Brown describes the effect of the storm on the cities, especially Cleveland, and it is quite harrowing.

As with all disasters, press and politicians are desperate to point the finger of blame and the Weather Bureau took most of the blame. Brown points out, in all fairness, that in 1913 the methods of forecasting were very basic as was the current knowledge of what made weather patterns. The Gulf Stream was unknown, for example. Fingers were also pointed at the ship owners who pressed their captains to get in as many trips as possible. In fairness to the captains, if they had forecasts that really indicated how bad the storm was many of them might not have sailed.

The storm, which was actually two storms that immediately followed one another, was unprecedented when it occurred and there has not been a storm to match it since.

The story was engrossing, but I found it difficult to follow the timeline as Brown shifts from one ship, in one Lake to another ship in a different Lake and it would be much later when he came back to the original ship.  Not a terrible thing, the book still keeps your attention, but it was frustrating at times.

I found the title of the book, ‘America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster’, a bit confusing.  Perhaps it was the deadliest disaster caused by weather; it certainly was not America’s deadliest. The SS Sultana was near Memphis TN on April 27, 1865 when three of her boilers exploded and she sank with the loss of 1800 lives.  It never received much publicity as it occurred the day following the shooting of John Wilkes Booth, so perhaps the author can be forgiven his extravagance.  Sometime in the next year I hope to read about the Sultana’s sinking.  Perhaps there is a technical difference between a disaster on the Great Lakes and one on the Mississippi, that makes one a ‘maritime’ disaster and the other not, or perhaps it is because the 253 lives lost were crewmen and the Sultana’s loss of life was concerned with passengers? I wouldn’t question that it might have been the, or one of the, costliest.  It might also qualify,  if you consider the loss of a ship a ‘death’, with 12 freighters going down.

But, in the end, I think the title is just the author’s, or his editor’s, hyperbole.

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