Late-October/early-November super storms are not unusual in the eastern United States, and at least 25 of these killer storms have raged across the Great Lakes since 1847.
Often called “Big Blows,” these storms occur when two storm tracks converge over the Great Lakes to create the November gale or witch. Waves of up to 50 feet on the Great Lakes have been reported during these events.
A November 1975 gale claimed the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior. But it is the Big Blow of 1913 that is recalled as the most destructive in terms of lives and property on the Great Lakes.
The storm moved down from Lake Superior beginning Nov. 6 and hammered the Great Lakes through Nov. 11. By then, snow drifts of up to 6 feet stood in Cleveland, which was cut off from the outside world.
The morning of Nov. 9, 1913, the temperature in Ashtabula fell to 27 degrees and the rain turned to a “heavy, sticky snow.” The gusts and heavy snow toppled telephone and telegraph lines all along the railroad and electric trolley lines that connected the city to the outside world.
“At noon (Nov. 10) it was possible to get through to Madison, but beyond there the situation is said to be hopeless,” noted the Ashtabula Beacon Record.
On the Nickel Plate Railroad line between Painesville and Cleveland, only 25 communications poles remained standing. In one section of the utility lines east of Ashtabula, 25 telephone poles were broken off.
At Ashtabula Harbor, a rare phenomenon occurred as the strong seas forced the river to flow backward. Within two minutes, the river rose as many feet.
“... and the seas in the river, up as far as the bridge, became so high that all small harbor craft, including the fish launch Hazel H., were insecure at their regular moorings and had to be moved up the river above the bridge” the newspaper reported.
The storm caused extensive losses on all the lakes except Ontario, where sailors had enough advance notice to get to safety. Lake masters reported waves of at least 35 feet and a strange phenomenon of the waves rolling in a direction opposite of the wind above them.
Eight ships and 199 lives were lost on Lake Huron, the deadliest of the lakes during the storm. On Lake Erie, the only casualty was a lightship at Buffalo. Six human lives were lost. All told, 12 ships were lost on the Great Lakes during the Big Blow of 1913.
Nearly three years later, Lake Erie had its turn. Black Friday, as Oct. 20, 1916, became known, claimed the lives of 49 Lake Erie sailors. Vessels lost included a wooden schooner, wooden lumber carrier and the James B. Colgate, which had but one survivor, Capt. Walter J. Grashaw.
The replacement for the Marquette & Bessemer No. 2, a car ferry that ran between Conneaut and Ontario ports, rescued Grashaw after he had spent two days clinging to a raft in the bone-chilling water.