The Last Laker
Finding a Wreck Lost In The Great Lakes' Deadliest Storm
by Fredrick Stonehouse
published by Lake Superior Port Cities Inc.
216 pages $19.95
In November, 1913, the Great Lakes were hit with the deadliest storm in their recorded history. Now referred to as the "white hurricane" because it generated hurricane force winds and, coming that late in the calendar year, the storm unleashed massive amounts of of snow as well as rain.
Like many epic storms, the one in 1913 was the product of two weather systems meeting, colliding and causing death and destruction to people, cities and ships caught out on the great lakes. One major weather front came up out of the Atlantic and up through the mid-eastern states and met a corresponding front that came down out of Alberta, bringing cold air which crashed into the other front.
The storm began on November 7 and lasted for three days before dying out on November 10. By the time it was over, nineteen ships had been sunk with near total loss of life for those on board (250 sailors lost their lives), and another nineteen ships were grounded or partially damaged. Direct losses accountable to shipping was estimated at $5 million (or $119,310,000 in today's dollars).
There are quite a few books written about this great storm, the ships wrecked and the tremendous loss of life.
Frederick Stonehouse now adds another volume to this "great storm series", focusing on a particular ship, the Henry B. Smith. Of the ships sunk in the great storm, the Henry B. Smith remained one of the the last major lakeboats whose final resting place was unknown.
The ship was built in 1906 at the Lorain, Ohio, yard of the American Ship Building Company. While the ship was huge, she was typical of the lakers built at that time. She was 525 feet long (the length of her deck) , 16 metres wide (her beam) and had a depth of 9 metres. She carried a crew of 25, including a Captain or Master.
Stonehouse provides a great deal of material already covered by other writers. Just a year ago I reviewed Michael Schumacher's November's Fury in this paper. In comparison, November's Fury is a better book - both in the writer's style and the choice of information included.
Stonehouse, a well published historian and teacher of Great Lakes maritime history at Northern Michigan University, is a plodding, stodgy writer. This is a book for classic historians who want facts, details, tonnage, boiler pressure, wind speeds, and forget the purple prose, thank you very much.
We know from the beginning of Storehouse's text that The Henry B. Smith had at last been found, in the summer of 2013, nearly a hundred years after its sinking. But he devotes only one slim, concluding chapter to the actual finding. It's ultimate resting place had defeated many exploration trips set out specifically to find it, including the U.S. Navy.
In the end,it was a small team of three dedicated shipwreck hunters. Ken Merryman, Jerry Eliason and Kraig Smith are a team of Minnesotans who, using equipment mostly self-designed and built, have been remarkably successful in locating shipwrecks. I expected more about them, their techniques and this remarkable discovery than was ultimately provided by Stonehouse.
The book is extensively illustrated with period photographs, weather charts, diagrams and maps.
Michael Sobota is a Thunder Bay-based writer.