by Alan MacEachern.
On this day of Remembrance, take a minute, too, to remember the Big Blow, the deadliest natural disaster to ever hit the Great Lakes. On 11 November 1913, people were coming to realize just how devastating the previous weekend’s weather had been, when two storm systems had met in the lakes, producing hurricane-force winds and heavy snowfall. Wreckage from ships – including one that had gone down five years earlier – were scattered around the lakes, in particular Lake Huron. A lifeboat containing thirteen crew members washed up near Goderich, Ontario, all wearing life preservers, all frozen. The body of the Charles S. Price’s engineer was found wearing a life belt from the Regina. Newspapers were soon printing descriptions of bodies pulled ashore: “A man heavier than the others … wearing a blue suit of good material and tan button shoes. No letters were found, but photos of two young ladies were carried in his pocket. …This description is much like that of Malcolm McDonald, a passenger from Goderich.” In all, 19 ships went down in the Big Blow, and about 250 people were killed.
For the Meteorological Service of Canada, the disaster was clear evidence that colloquial meteorological knowledge must give way to modern science and technology. As Director R.F. Stupart wrote the supervising engineer of the Sault Ste. Marie Canals, “We are told …that vessel Captains can tell from their own initiative coming weather conditions. How can this be possible? A ship’s Captain’s view of the horizon is at best quite limited, whereas the Weather Bureau’s is thousands of miles in every direction. In fact nowadays, it is the whole Northern Hemisphere.”
Not one to let a crisis go to waste, Stupart wrote the Toronto Globe that his office had given the ships plenty of warning: Beginning at 11am on Friday the 7th, all its stations along the lakes had hoisted the “Number Four” flags, signaling heavy gales. Men would be alive if they had listened to the weatherman. Captain James Foote of the Toronto Insurance and Vessel Agency admitted to the Globe that Stupart was probably right: “Yet, I can quite understand why the captains apparently ignored the signals, or why they went out in spite of them. They felt they were in strong, well-found vessels that could stand a blow and a big sea.” But Foote respected the Meteorological Office’s reports. “The weather man is all right.”
Thank you to Environment Canada’s Downsview office for making available the records used in this post, including those in the accompanying photos: scrapbook clippings about the Big Blow, and the official daily meteorological observations for Goderich during the storm.