The Great Storm of 1913 and the Last Voyage of the Henry B. Smith

Henry B Smith Great Storm of 1919

Henry B Smith LOC det 4a16048, photo by Detroit Publishing Co. (via Library of Congress)

In November I like to share stories of some of the ships that have been lost in the most dangerous month of shipping on the Great Lakes. November is a month when owners and captains have historically sought to bet the margins in their favor. Sometimes their gamble doesn’t pay off…

The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 is one that caught many ships in the wrong place at the wrong time. More or less via Wikipedia’s page:

The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 is historically referred to as the “Big Blow,” the “Freshwater Fury,” or the “White Hurricane.” It was a blizzard with hurricane-force winds that ravaged Michigan, Ontario and much of the Midwest from November 7-10, 1913. The storm was most powerful on November 9, battering and overturning ships on four of the five Great Lakes, particularly Lake Huron. Deceptive lulls in the storm and the slow pace of weather reports contributed to the storm’s destructiveness.

The deadliest and most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the lakes, the storm killed more than 250 people, destroyed 19 ships, and stranded 19 others. The financial loss in vessels alone was nearly US $5 million (or about $120 million in today’s dollars).

There’s so much more about this storm on the Wikipedia page and definitely check out this Michigan in Pictures post on the unique weather pattern on the Great Storm.

One of the ships lost to the lakes was the Henry B. Smith, a 525′ steel-hulled, propeller-driven lake freighter. Well…

The Smith arrived at Marquette on November 6 to take on iron ore. Over the next two days a southwest gale swept over Lake Superior, dropping the temperature to 24 degrees Fahrenheit. The cold weather caused the ore to freeze inside the hopper cars, requiring men to knock them loose by hand. This resulted in a loading delay for the Smith. Captain James Owen had been plagued by misfortunes all year that had resulted in the Smith being delayed or late for its destinations. Rumors abounded, then and now, that the owners of the boat made it clear to Owen that he better make this last trip on time, or else.

Around 5 p.m. on November 9, the Smith loaded its last car of ore. Since the gale seemed to be in a brief lull, the big freighter immediately backed away from the dock and began to leave. As soon as the Smith left Marquette Harbor, the fierce wind returned and the storm’s lull ended. Witnesses on shore noted that the deckhands were frantically trying to close the Smith‍ ’​s hatches. The freighter had a total of 32 hatches; each hatch required individual attention with locking bars, clamps, and tackle. It was a couple hours’ work for even the most skilled crew. And so it was that Captain James Owen was piloting the Henry B. Smith into one of the worst storms in memory with unsecured hatches.

After about twenty minutes, the full force of the gale hit the Smith as huge waves crashed over her deck, drenching the hapless deckhands who were still struggling to close the hatches. Instead of turning to starboard on the usual course for the Soo Locks, the Smith hauled to port, rolling greatly as she did so. Witnesses on shore concluded that Owen had realized his error and was heading for shelter behind Keweenaw Point to the north. With the encroaching darkness and thick snow squalls, the Smith was then lost from view.

Two days after the storm blew itself out, the beaches along Chocolay Bay, Shot Point, and Laughing Fish Point were littered with debris from the Smith. The wreckage was found high up on the beach, indicating it came ashore at the height of the storm. The body of the second cook, H.R. Haskin, was found floating about fifty miles west of Whitefish Point some days later. Only one other body of the Smith‍ ’​s crew was ever recovered; the skeleton of third engineer John Gallagher was found on Parisian Island in the spring of 1914.

A note in a bottle, allegedly from the Smith, was found in June 1914. In it, the author claimed the ship had broken in two 12 miles east of Marquette. After a long debate, the boat’s owners decided the note was a phony; it was dated 12 November, when the Smith sank either on the 9th or the early morning hours of the 10th.

Read on for more about the Smith. In May of 2013, the wreck of the Henry B. Smith was rediscovered in about 535 feet of water roughly 30 miles north of Marquette. The article is less kind to Captain “Dancing Jimmy” Owen – so named for his habit of frequenting local dance halls – than the Wikipedia version.

View the photo background big at Wikimedia.

More of the Freshwater Fury and more Michigan shipwrecks on Michigan in Pictures.


2 thoughts on “The Great Storm of 1913 and the Last Voyage of the Henry B. Smith

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