Surviving The Great Storm Of 1913


By James Donahue


It is still remembered as The Great Storm of 1913 because it took 10 good ships to the bottom, mostly of Lake Huron, grounded and damaged an untold number of other vessels and claimed the lives of 235 sailors.


Weather men say that two storms pounded the lakes on Nov. 9, creating hurricane force winds and seas that pounded the vessels from two different directions at times.


Of a line of vessels that passed the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, on their way down Lake Huron toward the St. Clair River at Port Huron on Nov. 8, only one of them, the J. H. Sheadle, with Capt. S. A. Lyons at the helm, survived the storm.


Lyons story of that trip, and the tactics he used to keep his vessel afloat during what was recorded as the worst storm ever to hit the Great Lakes, was told in his report to his employers at the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company.


That report was later turned over by the Lyons family to the Wakefield Museum of the Great Lakes Historical Society, Vermillion, Ohio. It has since appeared in various publications in both book and on the Internet. The following excerpts are taken from this report.


Lyons said the Sheadle loaded grain at Fort William, at the north end of Lake Superior, and steamed out of that port at 8 p.m. on the night of Nov. 6, three days before the storm. He wrote that the skipper of the ill-fated freighter James Carruthers was in the shipping office at the same time Lyons was and that the two captains talked about traveling in convoy, a common practice among lake vessels in those days.


He said there was already a heavy sea running from the southwest by the time the Sheadle entered Lake Superior so he turned and anchored to the lea of Pie Island for the night. When the wind shifted at about 3:30 a.m., Lyons said he gave orders to proceed on into White Fish Bay.


A thick fog caused Lyons to drop anchor once again in the bay. The Sheadle remained there until about 8 a.m. on Nov. 8. When the fog lifted, he said he saw a number of other steamers anchored farther down the bay. Among them, the Carruthers and the Hydrus. Both  of these boats were lost somewhere in Lake Huron after working through the locks just ahead and behind the Sheadle.


While still in the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Lyons said it started snowing. “I wired the office I would not leave but . . . it cleared up” and he decided to proceed down the Saint Mary River, entering Lake Huron just before 2 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 9. At that time the wind was blowing light out of the north northeast. 


Lyons said he saw the James Carruthers once again that day when the two boats stopped at the Pickands, Mather & Co. dock to take on fuel. The Carruthers steamed out into Lake Huron ahead of the Sheadle and was not seen again.


Within about an hour and a half after passing Thunder Bay Island, Lyons said he was keeping an eye on the barometer, which was dropping fast, and on the sky. He said there was a strong wind now blowing from the north northeast and it was starting to snow. “The sea kept on increasing, and the wind changed to due north blowing a gale.”


Lyon said he ordered a course change to south by east, one-half east to “bring the ship more before the sea.” But the wind and seas continued to shift, causing him to keep making course changes. After a while he said the Sheadle was running “practically dead before” the seas as he battled to keep the vessel from rolling and the seas from breaking over the decks.    

By taking regular soundings of the lake depth, Lyon said he kept his bearings in spite of the blinding storm and high seas. He said they passed Pointe aux Barques in a blizzard, and continued on until he knew he was abreast of Harbor Beach by 4:50 p.m.

“At this time the wind was due north and at Harbor Beach we changed our course to due south, running dead before the sea and wind,” he wrote.

The crew was having a difficult time maintaining routine jobs that day as the vessel rolled and took a constant pounding in the storm. Lyons told how the cook and mess crew prepared supper and had the tables set “when a gigantic sea mounted our stern, flooding the fantail, sending torrents of water through the passageways on each side of the cabin.”

The galley in freighters of that era was usually always located near the stern, as were the cabins of the sailors that worked in the engine room.

He said that sea broke the windows in the after cabin, washed the food out of the refrigerator and destroyed the other food stocks, “leaving us with one ham and a few potatoes. We had no tea or coffee. Our flour was turned into dough. The supper was swept off the tables and all the dishes smashed.”

He said “volumes of water came down on the engine through the upper skylights, and at times there were from four to six feet of water in the cabin. Considerable damage was done to the interior of the cabin and fixtures. The after steel bulkhead of the cabin was buckled. All of the skylights and windows were broken in. A small working boat on the top of the after cabin, and the Mate’s Chadburn were washed away.”

By now, Lyons said the wind was blowing at about 70 miles per hour, with giant waves following each other so closely that the boat’s could not roll with the waves as they do in ocean storms. The captain said they were unusually spaced even for the Great Lakes and attributed this to the speed at which the wind had increased from 25 to 70 miles an hour.

“Immediately after the first sea swept over our stern, I ordered the boatswain to take sufficient men and shutters to close all windows in the after cabin. The men forced their way aft, braving the wind, sleet and seas, one hand grasping the life rail and the other the shutters.

“Reaching the after cabin in safety they began securing the shutters, (but) another tremendous sea swept over the vessel, carrying away the shutters. The men were forced to cling to whatever was nearest them to keep from being washed overboard. Immediately a third sea, equally as severe, boarded the vessel, flooding the fantail and hurricane deck.

“The men attempted to reach the crew’s dining room but could not make it, and only saved themselves by gripping the nearest object they could reach. Indeed, one of the wheelsmen was only saved from going over by accidentally falling as he endeavored to grope his way to the rail, his foot catching in one of the bulwark braces, preventing him from being swept off. Another monster sea boarded the boat, tearing the man loose from the brace and landing in the after tow line which had been washed from its rack and was fouled on the deck.”

Miraculously, all of the men gained the shelter of the dining room and galley. One of the oilers stood at the dining room door, closing it when the boat shipped a sea and then opening it when the decks were clear, letting the water flow back out.

Lyons said the steward and his wife were standing knee deep in the ice cold water. She was assisted into the engine room to get warm and she remained there all that night, wrapped in a blanket. The steward remained in the dining room, trying to keep the furniture and silverware secure.

Not that the engine room was dry, or comfortable. Lyons said water constantly dropped through the engine room skylight, drenching the two engineers standing at their post by the engines. They couldn’t leave because Lyons needed them there to throttle ahead and back constantly, as the vessel fought the monster seas.

“I do not think it ever happened before when these two men had to stand by these two positions constantly. From 2:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. the engines raced, requiring the greatest care and judgment. At times the ship was so heavily burdened with seas coming over her decks that her revolutions were decreased from 75 to 35 turns per minute.”

When they had a moment, the engineers made their position more comfortable by rigging up a piece of canvass over the engines, thus shielding themselves from the constant onslaught of the water.

Because they were blinded by the storm and could not see the various lights along the shoreline, Lyons relied constantly on soundings of the lake bottom to determine just where he was. He said that from Pointe aux Barques to the foot of Lake Huron the log line iced heavily, “and the seas at times washed brace and dial inboard over the rail, rendering it useless. We were obliged to depend entirely on the deep sea lead, which was in constant use for 17 hours, at half hour and fifteen minute intervals. By the use of the deep sea lead we knew where the ship was at all times. Having the familiar soundings right along through it all was the only thing that kept us from being wrecked.”

Constantly going to the rail to drop the lead weighted lines in the storm was a hardship for the sailors assigned to the task, however. Lyons referred to it as “great punishment,” but necessary.

By about 10 p.m. on the night of Nov. 9, Lyons determined that he was about 10 miles north of Fort Gratiot and getting very close to the south end of Lake Huron. “I called the engineer and told him I was going to turn around head to the sea unless I could locate the land or Ford Gratiot light, and wanted to increase the speed of the ship as to enable me to bring the boat around,” he wrote.

As he turned the boat, he said the vessel rolled heavily but came around all right, with its bow heading north half east, directly into the seas. “I had everything lashed before we turned. No one thought of a life preserver. The way the ship was behaving we had every confidence in her,” he wrote.

He said the heavy rolling tore away the binnacle from the top of the pilot house. “After that it was extremely dangerous to be in the house as this heavy object was hurled back and forth across the deck as the ship labored and rolled,” he said.

There were numerous other close calls for the crew members. Lyons said he sent his first mate aft to inspect the wheel chains and quadrant. The mate got there, then used the ship’s telephone to report that everything was all right except that he could not get back to the wheel house. He said “the seas were covering the decks with a solid mass of blue water.” Thus the sailors working aft were forced to stay there, and those working in the forward section of the boat, were trapped there as well.

The captain said he started turning the ship on a zig-zag course, going north for six and a quarter hours, then turning south again. The second turn was more dangerous, Lyons said, with “the ship remaining longer in the trough of the sea.” He said the problem was that the boat was not making much way by running head into the storm. “The rolling was very bad – I was lifted right off my feat. Only by the greatest effort were the second mate and myself able to hold onto the stanchions on the top house, our legs being parallel with the deck most of the time.”

At one point, however, the mate succeeded in making his way forward again, and a wheelsman managed to get aft and secure “a few pieces of bread” for the sailors in the front of the boat.

Now the storm was blowing at its worst. Lyons described the movements of the ship and their effect on the sailors:

“Again and again she plunged forward, only to be baffled in her attempts to run before it, sometimes fetching up standing and trembling from stem to stern. She was buffeted about by the tremendous seas, almost helpless, dipping her hatches in the water on either side, barrels of oil and paint getting adrift and smashing out the sides of the paint locker. The men were tossed around the wheel house at will.

“I feared her steering gear had given way, but fortunately on examination they proved to be all right. She would gain a half point, only to lose it, but finally after a mighty effort she swung around. I never have seen seas form as they did at this time; they were large and seemed to run in series, one mounting the other like a mighty barrier.

Hopes of spotting the Fort Gratiot light and a route to safety from the storm were dashed on the second approach, this achieved within only two hours. So at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 10, Lyons said “I called the engineer and told him I was not satisfied with the soundings we were getting and to be prepared to give me full power to turn the ship again. We could see nothing on account of the heavy fall of snow.”

The sailors got a surprise when Lyons turned the boat to a heading north by west this time. He said the sea was suddenly decreased and the wind was shifted to the northwest. The ship’s close proximity to the west coast of the lake now made easier sailing.

The gale did not diminish until about 2 a.m. the following morning, however. Lyons said the wind blew at 70 miles per hour, with continuous snow for 16 more hours. “We kept our whistle blowing all the time, but at times we (who were) up forward could not hear it ourselves.”

By 8:30 a.m. the storm abated enough that he could see for a distance. “We turned around again heading south one-half west, the wind and sea going down. In 15 minutes we could see the west shore and sighted what I suppose was the wreck of the Price, passing this hull at about a distance of 1,000 feet. We noticed what we thought were oil barrels and wreckage, floating not over a quarter of a mile to the leeward of her.”

The Price continued to float upside down for several days before sinking in the area at the south end of Lake Huron.

As the Sheadle approached the entrance to the St. Clair River Lyons said he spotted the Fort Gratiot lightship, but it was not where it should have been. He said that because of his careful attention to lake bottom soundings, he knew the lightship had drifted at least two or three miles out of position.

“At this time it shut in to snow again, and I backed away from the (lightship) three-quarters of a mile or more, letting go my anchor, and waiting there until it cleared up.”

The snow diminished by noon, and Lyon then ordered the ship to proceed on into the river, passing Detroit at 7 p.m. The crew enjoyed the first meal that evening in the water soaked galley.

Lyons said that other than the possible danger of stranding or collision, he considered the Sheadle seaworthy and safe throughout the storm. “We had only run our ballast pump five hours in the 24 and one-half (hours) they battled the gale. “After covering up the vent pipes on deck leading to the ballast tanks we had very little pumping to do,” he wrote.

More Ship Stories

Return to The Mind of James Donahue

Great And Lost Ships Of The World