Wednesday, June 2, 2010
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee."
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
when the "Gales of November" came early.
-- Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
When I set out to write my new novel, Passage to November, all I had to work with was a kernel of an idea: a shipwreck. I wasn’t sure where to place the shipwreck, or even who my characters were yet, but in my mind I saw sheer devastation: smashed bottles and oars coming ashore… hunks of wrecked ships… bodies frozen in the pained contortions of their last moments of life.
Yeah, there’s a good idea for a romance novel. Let’s just say I can be a little… dark… sometimes.
I started to flesh out my characters a little more, knowing that the story would take place in the early twentieth century. Originally I’d thought to set the story in Maine or Nova Scotia—anything to give me the excuse to go someplace nice for a vacation and say it was for “research.” But the more I researched the era, the clearer my setting became—and to my surprise, I ended up setting the novel right where I was born and raised: the Great Lakes. Okay, I’m from Chicago—to me, the Great Lakes pretty much encompassed the tiny little tip of Lake Michigan known as the Oak Street Beach, a clean and fun place where you can jog and play volleyball in the summer. The truth was that life on the Great Lakes was a harsh, sometimes dire existence—a world of rough men, nasty women, and at times, poverty and desperation. If I was going to write a novel that had any sort of historical veracity, I knew I was going to have to do some heavy research.
Even growing up in the largest of the lake cities, I was not aware of the dangers of sailing on the lakes, especially at certain times of the year. I’d forgotten Gordon Lightfoot’s classic song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and the warnings of boater friends who have stated unequivocally that they would never sail the lakes again after encountering a light summer squall. Certainly I had no idea that somewhere between six and ten thousand ships found their way to the muddy bottom of the Inland Seas, or that even Herman Melville wrote of them with fearful reverence in “Moby Dick”:
“Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan — possess an ocean-like expansiveness, with many of the ocean's noblest traits... they are swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as direful as any that lash the salted wave; they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew.”
Apparently, shipwrecks were such a part of life on the lakes that sailors typically expected to experience a wreck or two during their careers: one grizzled old deckhand insisted that anyone who said they never had a shipwreck was “just too damn drunk to remember.” (More on the character of lake sailors next month.)
Storms can crop up at any time on the Lakes, but there is something that happens in the autumn, something so terrifying that even the most seasoned sailors grow quiet and pale in remembrance of them. The garden-variety gale, frightful enough on its own, pushes cold Canadian air over waters still warm from the summer and produces winds and seas so tremendous as to rival any hurricane on the salt seas. But every now and then, that gale turns into a monster. Lake sailors called it “The Witch.”
In early November 1913, the year in which my novel is set, a storm of unprecedented violence swept the Great Lakes. What started as a tiny puff of cold air over the northern Rockies swept southeast, to Lake Superior first, where it fed off the warm lake water and blew into what most of the sailors at first believed was the usual fall storm, something that would kick up a fuss and then blow itself out in a few hours.
There was no such thing as radar in those days, and although the Titanic tragedy of the previous year had brought sweeping changes to the maritime industry—such as mandating telegraph equipment on all ships—the changes generally only applied to ocean-going vessels. On the Great Lakes, only the newest freighters carried communications equipment. Not that it did them much good, once the telegraph lines went down in Cleveland and Detroit…
To make matters worse, the meteorological sciences were in their infancy: no one knew or understood the concept of the jet stream, or the ways in which it steered storms. The weather service in Washington D.C. posted weather reports every eight to twelve hours; by the time news of an impending gale reached the Lakes and the various local weather stations raised their storm pennants, it was already too late. Most lake captains, who understood that a boat in port never made anyone any money, viewed the weather service with contempt, believing the weathermen to be wrong more often than not. They knew their boats as well as they knew their wives, and they relied on their own instincts, positive that they could punch their way out of any storm. They had no idea that a warm burst of low pressure from the Gulf of Mexico was about to meet the northwesterly gale over Lake Huron and make their weekend a nightmare.
To this day, the storm is called the “White Hurricane.” Modern meteorologists call it a “weather bomb.” Sailors trapped in it called it “The Witch”—or more likely a word that rhymed with it. Cyclonic winds raged at a sustained seventy-five to ninety miles per hour for sixteen straight hours, and blew freighters filled with cargo onto rocky shorelines . Snow, thick and wet, made visibility impossible. The choppy, forty-foot waves—different from the rolling swells of the ocean—chewed even the most modern steel freighters to pieces. The SS James Carruthers, a 529-foot bulk freighter just launched in the spring of 1913 and boasting state-of-the-art technology, foundered and sank in the storm, taking all twenty-two crewmen with her. Like many other ships lost that terrible weekend in November, she has never been found.
In the end, nineteen boats went down with all hands. Twenty more were run aground or heavily damaged. Because of the relaxed standards when it came to maintaining passenger lists—and even more lax hiring procedures in those days (usually a call out in a waterfront saloon for deckhands), no one is entirely sure how many men and women perished in the storm—some reports number as high as three hundred. The city of Cleveland, once a rival to Chicago in terms of sophistication and the home port of much of the American lake fleet, was nearly destroyed. Those who survived the storm never forgot it as long as they lived. The Great Storm of 1913 became the standard by which all other gales would be measured. So far, none have been its equal.
This is where I set my story. And it’s how I came to love and appreciate the Great Lakes… and the men and women who sailed them.