It was a storm to remember – right here in Buffalo.
During the ferocious spell of bad weather that ravaged the Great Lakes for several days in November 1913 – combining terrific winds with heavy snow and freezing temperatures – a lightship on Lake Erie near Buffalo was one of a number of vessels that sank with crew on board.
“There was a significant loss in Buffalo,” said Michael Schumacher.
“They lost their lightship, which was really a tragic story.”
Schumacher, a writer from Wisconsin, has a new book, “November’s Fury,” about the storm of 1913. The book came out this month from University of Minnesota Press.
The period between Nov. 7 and Nov. 10, 1913, is worth remembering, Schumacher said. And the book’s subtitle, “The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913,” gets at what Schumacher said is a perhaps little-known fact about the century-old event:
It was a hurricane, right here on the Great Lakes.
“It is not an overstatement at all,” said Schumacher, 63, a resident of Kenosha who has written numerous other books on historical topics. “It qualified as a hurricane in every way.”
Schumacher said the storm was the worst weather event in historical record on the Great Lakes. The storm sank numerous ships, hitting them with 30- to 40-foot waves in some cases, and covered cities such as Cleveland in snow, according to Schumacher’s book.
Some 250 people died on the water in the four-day period of bad weather, Schumacher writes in his book.
“There’s never been a storm like this before or since,” said Schumacher, who also has researched and written about the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
The storm started as a single bad weather event, the author said.
“It started in the Upper Lakes,” said Schumacher. “It was a terrific storm.”
“It sank a couple of boats, absolutely carved up the shoreline … and then it seemed to have blown itself out.”
But that storm met up with another weather front, Schumacher said, and that combination of events resulted in the hurricane sort of “perfect storm” situation that resulted.
Winds gusted powerfully for days on end, which combined with snow and ice to make navigation on the Lakes difficult and dangerous, Schumacher said.
“It buried Cleveland, among other cities,” Schumacher said. “These captains talk about it – they couldn’t even see the end of their boats.”
People in some cities along Lake Erie, including Buffalo, in some cases rode out the storm better than other places on the Lakes, Schumacher said. That’s because they got word of the storm in time and had time to prepare, he said.
“Everybody stayed in,” Schumacher said.
But one touching story of the 1913 storm is that of the Buffalo lightship, Lightship 82, which went down during the storm with six men on board, as Schumacher’s book relates.
“They couldn’t come in,” Schumacher said, of Lightship 82. “The storm blows in, rips the boat completely from its moorings. It sank the boat – it took them a while to even find it.”
“It was lost with all hands.”
That Buffalo story has a poignant – or eerie – twist. Schumacher said that when pieces of debris were recovered after the storm, a door that some speculated was from the doomed Lightship 82 was among them.
On the door was a hand-scrawled note with a signature, apparently from the captain of the ship to his wife, Mary: “Goodbye Nellie, ship is breaking up fast. Williams.”
“It was one of the mysteries,” said Schumacher. “He referred to his wife as ‘Nellie,’ but his wife was not Nellie.”
“No one was sure about this. To this day, they’re not sure,” he said.