November is a stormy month on Lake Ontario. Historically at least a half dozen fatal gales swept its surface in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Last week storm warnings were posted ( a storm is defined by winds of at least 48 knots) and I saw the NOAA buoy anchored in mid lake was registering twenty foot waves.
Last week we joined other weather watchers at the West Barrier Bar to view the big waves rolling down the channel. I saw four to five foot breakers crashing over the inner harbor bar just west of the channel inside the bay-even allowing for the higher than normal water levels these were far bigger than any I’d seen here before. Storm waves like that move tons of sediment and beach material in just a few hours.
On Lake Erie a ten foot storm surge was forecast and it plus the winds that created it roared up the Niagara River to move a steel dump scow that had been perched on the rocks above Horseshoe Falls for a century. The scow didn’t go over the falls, but it was the first time anyone living could remember it shifting in a storm.
Buffalo at Lake Erie’s east end is prone to these wind related surges and abrupt rises in lake levels. Dubbed Meterotsunami’s by researchers, these storm surges are funneled and concentrated by the narrowing east end of the lake, so Buffalo has had some memorable ones- in 1844 a storm surge swept canal boats and schooners up into the city and left them high and dry on streets even as it killed at least fifty people
Wikipedia lists some historic gales on the upper Great Lakes including the killer storm of 1905. At least 36 crew members were killed in that event where 29 vessels were either damaged or destroyed. By this time, many of the steam ships operating on the lake were steel hulled. Most of the wrecks occurred after ships were driven ashore but a couple of them “foundered” sinking in deep water after being overwhelmed by twenty to thirty foot short steep breaking waves.
As I’ve written before, Great Lakes seas are particularly hard on ships because of the relatively short wave length that prevails during storms. There’s little time for a vessel to rise and clear her decks of water before the next sea smashes into her. And they do smash. It was a November storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald back in 1975. In November 1880 two deadly storms sank a half dozen schooners and steamers on Lake Ontario. One of those that foundered was the steamer Zealand.
From a Nov. 19 Newspaper comes this story about two weeks after the first storm: "I enclose you a one dollar bill and a piece of paper with propeller "Zealand" marked upon it. On Sunday afternoon little George Sherwood and young Snider were driving across the beach when they discovered some bills near the shore. They got out and picked up some $12 or $15; and last night and today there have been lots of people on the beach looking for money and other valuables. So far they have found some $40. I got this bill from George Sherwood. The Milligans have been taking a horse and rake out in the water today, and raking the moss and stuff ashore, then with pitchforks they examine it for money. The general supposition is that the "Zealand" must have gone down about abreast of the bluff…
Possibly the best documented victim of that storm was the schooner "Belle Sheridan", wrecked on the south shores of Prince Edward County near the settlement of Consecon. Hundreds of people watched the wooden schooner break up and were helpless to assist. Adding to the tragedy was the schooner’s status as a family ship, manned by her owner as Captain and his four sons plus two other men.
After being damaged by the storm during the night on the open lake, she managed to make her way into the lee of Presquile Point at dawn. But then, a few hours later, she dragged anchor onto the shore a few hundred feet from safety. Local fishermen made repeated attempts to reach the schooner with their fishboat, but each time the lake beat them back. Only one man was saved.
As C.H.J. Snider’s Schooner Days of January 1933 recalls: “They shouted to the farmers Who had gathered on the shore, To save their lives the farmers tried To reach them o'er and o'er. The captain died while standing up Where he was lashed to stay, And in a moment after The youngest passed away. "There's the oldest and the youngest gone," The other brothers cried; Then one secured a loosened plank And for the lifeboat tried. He was picked up by the lifeboat And carried to the shore, Where for many hours unconscious Inside the farmhouse door. His three remaining brothers, With the first and second mate, Saw their saddest hour approaching fast, And death their only fate. The ship then went to pieces, Three of the crew were found, While the others sleep in Weller's Bay, In the cold, cold ground.”