November’s Fury

A retro review from exactly three years ago.

Review: November’s Fury: The Deadly Great Lakes Hurricane of 1913, Michael Schumacher, 2013.novembers-fury

One hundred years ago as I write this, the most destructive storm in Great Lakes’ history began its attack on the area.

It was hardly the first or most famous storm to wrack the area. Explorer Rene-Robert Sieur de LaSalle constructed the first European boat to sail Lake Huron and lost it in a storm the same year. And, of course, singer Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the November storm that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald (subject of another Schumacher book). The 1913 storm blasted the Great Lakes from November 7th through November 10th of 1913, killing over two hundred people on land and water.

The center of Schumacher’s book is a chronological account of the storm as it swept west to east, two storm centers meeting to become a “white hurricane”. He follows the fate of several ships, survivors and the doomed. Sticking to that chronology accounts for the book’s only weakness. Sometimes hopping from ship to ship gets a bit confusing.

It is not just a story of sailors, though. There are the families who had to travel from morgue to morgue to identify the dead and the storm’s assault on Cleveland. There are mysteries: a long sunk ship pulled up from the bottom by the storm, an unknown capsized ship, a dead seaman wearing the life preserver of a ship sunk miles away from his own. There are poignant messages scrawled by men about to die (or maybe the notes are just cruel hoaxes). A man attends, while living, his own wake. The bodies of the dead wash ashore and are looted.

Schumacher frames his story by summarizing the state of Great Lakes nautical commerce in 1913. Radios were available but largely unused – ship captains regarded them as tools for owners to interfere with their command. He also makes a brief detour to talk about another deadly November storm, the one of 1905. It was the one that produced the famous wreck of the Mataafa in Duluth Harbor, nine men dying of exposure 700 feet from shore while 10,000 watched. The story doesn’t really end until 2000 when one of the ships lost in the storm is finally found.

Schumacher throws in plenty of extras: a glossary of nautical terms, an appendix of boats lost or stranded in the storm, and maps of the Great Lakes.

The bibliography would suggest there is little new here in basic information. However, I doubt many books on Great Lakes storms and wrecks have been so lavishly illustrated with photos and the occasional sunken wreck painting. And these are not just file photos of the ships before the storm. There are photos taken during and after the storm as well.

The combination of clear writing and plentiful pictures makes this a worthy introduction to this bit of history, and I suspect even long time students of the event will appreciate this book too.

 

More reviews of non-fiction books are indexed here.

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