The world’s worst-tempered lake

The world’s worst-tempered lake

Booby-trapped with reefs, wild and unpredictable, shallow Erie is a commercial bonanza but a mariner's nightmare. On one sandspit a hundred ships and a thousand men have perished. No wonder they call it

Duncan McLeod October 27 1956
The world’s worst-tempered lake

The world’s worst-tempered lake

Booby-trapped with reefs, wild and unpredictable, shallow Erie is a commercial bonanza but a mariner's nightmare. On one sandspit a hundred ships and a thousand men have perished. No wonder they call it

Duncan McLeod October 27 1956

The world’s worst-tempered lake

Booby-trapped with reefs, wild and unpredictable, shallow Erie is a commercial bonanza but a mariner's nightmare. On one sandspit a hundred ships and a thousand men have perished. No wonder they call it

Duncan McLeod

On a placid day in 1670 two Sulpician missionaries. François Dollier de Casson and René de Bréhaut de Galinée. paddled their canoe along the shores of the large and littleknown lake to the south of familiar Lake Ontario. while casting cautious glances at sky and water. For they remembered the day a storm had struck with so little warning and so quickly whipped the water into raging waves that it could be the work only of their enemy, the Devil. Ever since, sailors have cast uneasy glances at the 9,940 temperamental square miles of Lake Erie. Today, however, they know that Nature rather than the Devil is responsible for Erie's terrible tantrums and that in this shallowest of the Great Lakes she has fashioned one of the most violent death traps in North America.

Paradoxically, Lake Erie doesn’t look dangerous. A narrow, elongated body, it stretches 240 miles northeastward from the Detroit River to the Niagara River, with a maximum width of fifty-seven miles. Its coastline is fairly regular, with the exception of pyramid-shaped Point Pelee near its western end and the sandy spit of Long Point at its eastern end. which jut respectively ten and twenty miles into the Canadian side of the lake. At its western end is a cluster of low' islands, the largest of which is also named Pelee, and which is Canada’s much boasted "most southerly territory—on a line with northern California.”

But in spite of Erie's unspectacular coastline practically every mile of shore has been littered with the debris of sailing barques, brigs, schooners, steamers, freighters, fishing vessels and the bodies of drowned, frozen and burned men, women and children. One twenty-mile zone is known as the Graveyard of Lake Erie from the number of ships that have foundered on its reefs and shallows; another eighty-mile stretch conceals so many hulks of sunken ships that it is a peril to navigation. No one knows how many ships and lives Erie has claimed since white men first sailed her deceptive waiters, but out of the forty-three shipwrecks that have taken the heaviest toll of life on the Great Lakes since 1850, nineteen have been on Lake Erie, w'ith a death toll of 773. compared w'ith 2.076 lives lost on the other Great Lakes combined. In addition there have been hundreds of other dis-

asters caused by Erie's moods—despite the fact that bitter experience has made sailors extremely wary about venturing on Lake Erie.

But Lake Erie's fearful reputation is balanced by its good points. Commercially it is the heart of the Great Lakes, the world's largest and busiest inland waterway. On its south shore Lake Erie has spawned gigantic industrial cities— Buffalo, Toledo and Cleveland—where iron ore meets coal to become steel.

Vital to Canada as a link in Great Lakes navigation, the northern shore of Lake Erie is not heavily industrialized. On the other hand Canadians take full advantage of the lake's wealth of fish—Erie is the richest fresh-water fishery in the world—and numerous fishing towns and villages dot the coast, places with such names as Port Dover, Erieau, Port Talbot, Nanticoke and Kingsville. Behind Lake Erie's shores are prosperous farms that grow such semitropical crops as tobacco, peaches and strawberries, as well as many other types of vegetables and fruits. These can be grown there because Lake Erie is the Deep South of Canada—and the lake assists by acting as a thermostatic control to prevent radical changes in temperature, particularly in spring and fall when frost could destroy delicate plants.

With the exception of the fishing communities, the Canadian coast is a desolate expanse of windscalloped dunes, sandy spits, wide beaches and low-lying marshes. But its picturesqueness and balmy climate make Lake Erie's Canadian shores a popular summer playground. In autumn its shallow marshes—particularly at Long Point —attract hordes of migrating ducks and geese which are eagerly hunted by sportsmen. The peculiar lonely charm of Lake Erie has been described by Pauline Johnson, the Canadian poetess, as:

A dash of yellow sand.

Wind-scattered and sun-tanned;

Some waves that curl and cream along the margin of the strand;

And. creeping close to these.

Long shores that lounge at ease,

Old Erie rocks and ripples to a fresh sou’western breeze.

It is because Lake Erie “rocks and ripples to a sou'western breeze” that it is dangerous. For it is just a gigantic puddle, with an average depth of fifty-eight feet. Even a light breeze disturbs it into restless ehoppiness, which makes it a miserable lake for those prone to sea-siekness, as discovered by Charles Dickens, who sidled on the lake in 1842 and wrote: "Lake Erie won’t do for persons who are liable to seasickness . . . It is almost as bad in that

continued on next page

respect as the Atlantic.”

Dickens never encountered a gale on Lake Erie, or he would have used stronger words. For heavy winds vex its waters into waves often up to eighteen feet high. Because of the lake's shallowness these come with a machine-gun rapidity and battering-ram force. Moreover Lake Erie lies directly in the path of violent sou’western storms spawned in spring and autumn by the meeting of cold-air masses from northern Canada and warm-air masses from the Caribbean. I be marriage of these hurricanevelocity storms, plus the lake’s shallowness, make Fake Erie’s moods not only extremely dangerous but entirely unpredictable.

For instance, in 1764 a British Army expedition, sent from Fort Niagara to relieve Fort Detroit besieged by the Indian chief Pontiac, was surprised at night encampment on Lake Erie’s shores by a storm. They lost boats, baggage and ammunition and had to walk ignominiously back to Fort Niagara through the wilderness.

In addition, the northeast lie of Lake Erie enables these sou'western storms to act upon its shallow waters with full force for the lake’s entire length, so that sometimes water is piled tip at its eastern limits as much as eight feet above normal—and lowered a corresponding amount in the west. This occasionally catises a rare phenomenon. When the heaped-up water is accelerated in its How back to the depressed area by a sudden shift in the wind or a lowering of the atmospheric pressure, a giant wave is created, known as a seiche. Old-time sailors were puzzled by this phenomenon and had no name for it. When American scientists discovered the reason they used the word the Swiss had given to a similar phenomenon that occurs on Fake Geneva.

In 1817 a Captain James Sloan had a strange experience with a seiche. He was sailing out of a Canadian harbor when he felt his ship strike bottom. When he looked over the side he saw the water rushing away. In a few minutes the water was all gone and the captain climbed off his stranded schooner and walked about it in bewilderment. On Aug. 8, 1926. the wave of a seiche struck the U. S. shore and drowned eleven bathers. Seiches may explain why ships have disappeared on Lake Erie as mysteriously as if a giant hand had pulled them under.

Before channels were dredged into harbors, captains caught in one of Lake Erie’s storms found themselves trapped with little chance of escape. I here are no real natural harbors on Lake Erie. Its beaches are shallow and booby-trapped with reefs and shoals. When ships were unable to make headway against the combined force of wind and waves they went aground so far out it was impossible for the crew or passengers to reach the shore through the powerful undertow. As the ships sank, their only chance for life was to climb into the rigging or up the mast and hope the storm would cease before they died of exposure or became exhausted and fell into the lake.

Even when channels were dug, ships met disaster on the treacherous coast whenever blinding snow, fog or rain prevented them from finding the harbor’s entrance. Today all lake freighters are equipped with radar that enables them to find their way into man-made harbors in storms, but the coast is still dangerous.

When ships are caught in a storm they try to reach Long Point Bay on the Canadian side, the only natural haven on the lake. But to reach the bay, ships must skirt Long Point’s twenty-mile sandy spit which juts diagonally almost halfway across the hike. Until recently, an occasional ship running before a sou’wester, instead of rounding the point, would find itself off its western banks. For magnetic compasses react strangely in this area, veering several degrees to the northward. Even today this magnetic deviation, caused, captains believe, by iron-ore bodies beneath the lake, is not mentioned on navigation charts.

For most ships this is no longer a danger, since they are equipped with nonmagnetic gyrocompasses. However in the day of the sailing ships it led many to their doom. When captains found themselves off Long Point’s western shore they had to turn broadside to the wind and waves and beat up the coast to try to round the point. This was not only an exceedingly difficult manoeuvre, but an extremely dangerous one, for it exposed the length of the ship to the full fury of the storm. The great numbers of vessels that did not escape gave the west shore of Long Point its name of the Graveyard of Lake Erie. Dr. J. A. Bannister, a retired teacher of Port Dover near Long Point and historian of Lake Erie’s shipwrecks, estimates that a hundred or more schooners, brigs, barques and freighters, with such names as the Arctic, Stampede and Annie Hanson, have crashed against Long Point, with the loss of over a thousand lives. Mute testimony to its tragic past are skeletons of ships on its desolate shores and lonely graves of unknown sailors among its dunes.

A hall for the heroine

One memorable wreck was that of the schooner Conductor, in November 1854. It struck only a couple of hundred feet from the beach and the seven frightened crew members and the captain climbed into the rigging to escape the heavy seas. On shore, Abigail Becker, the young wife of a trapper, saw their plight and lit bonfires to encourage them to swim to the beach. The crew, suffering horribly from icy spray dashing over their perch, east themselves one after the other into the waves. As they were carried half-drowned and numbed by the icy water toward shore the brave woman waded out and helped them. All but the cook took the desperate gamble. He couldn’t swim and remained till night on the swaying mast. In the morning the storm ceased and the crew built a raft and brought him ashore. The grateful merchants of Buffalo who owned the Conductor held a gala ball in Mrs. Becker's honor and gave her six hundred dollars and a gold medal. Queen Victoria sent her a letter of congratulation.

A close rival to Long Point as a killer of ships and men is the western extremity of the lake. A cluster of islands there blocks two thirds of the lake’s width and forces ships to follow a channel eighty miles long from the Detroit River to beyond Southeast Shoal, off Point Pelee. In storms there was the constant danger the ship might be tossed off course and thrown against the shallow, reefstrewn coast, and this eighty-mile stretch is littered with sunken hulks. Today they are such a menace to navigation that captains are agitating to have them removed.

The safety of ships has been increased by the division of the channel into two "lanes” for vessels going in opposite directions, but lake captains still proceed cautiously in case a salt-water captain, unfamiliar with the danger of the channel. takes a short cut and appears suddenly before their bows.

In all the Great Lakes the danger of fog—particularly in early spring and late autumn—is great, but in Lake Erie it is especially so. In some years as many as 332 hours of fog have been registered on Lake Erie in the eight-month navigation season. In addition a phenomenon peculiar to Lake Erie is summer haze, a mist that rises from the lake on hot summer days and lowers visibility to two miles or less.

Although today Lake Erie is the busiest link in the Great Lakes, it was also the biggest problem that Canada had to overcome to make the Great Lakes an interconnecting waterway for vessels. For Lake Erie sits in its shallow bowl—-created by a glacier which scooped out an ancient river valley thousands of years ago—326 feet above Lake Ontario, imprisoned by the solid granite formation of the Niagara Escarpment which rises sharply a few miles from the southern shores of Lake Ontario. Only at its eastern end has Lake Erie broken through this formidable barrier—and in so doing given birth to Niagara Falls, an impassable barrier for ships. For about one hundred and fifty years the only way the French and English could carry goods from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie was by portaging around Niagara Falls, an expensive and time-consuming task.

Lake Erie’s strategic and economic importance was realized at an early date. After the War of 1812 the United States, confronted with the fact that Canada was to remain British, saw that the country to the north had the huge advantage of the St. Lawrence River which provided a cheap water route for goods into the interior of North America via the Great Lakes, and that unless something was done much of the trade with the interior would float down the St. Lawrence to Montreal.

In 1817 the United States began to build its answer—the 363-mile-long Erie Barge Canal from the eastern tip of Lake Erie across New York State to Albany. on the Hudson River. In 1825 the canal was completed, assuring the future greatness of New York City and ending the dominance of Montreal, for Ameri-

cans could now undersell the Canadians who were hampered by expensive portages in the St. Lawrence Rapids and the Niagara Peninsula. In 1825 however Canada began to construct her answer to the Erie Canal. This was the first Welland Canal across the Niagara Peninsula to by-pass Niagara Falls. It was promoted as a private enterprise by William Hamilton Merritt, a former cavalry captain in the War of 1812. who was to become president of Canada's preConfederation Executive Council.

The first Welland Canal was completed in 1829. Merritt also promoted the first canals to by-pass the rapids in the St. Lawrence River, thus enabling ships to sail from the Atlantic to the Upper Great Lakes.

“Men became beasts”

With the completion of these two canals Lake Eric’s age-old isolation was broken, and its career of prosperity— and tragedy—began. Immigrants began to pour through the canals into the new lands of the northwest, and. to carry them, towns began to build luxuriously fitted steamers.

One of these was the G. P. Griffiths. On the night of June 17, 1850, she left Buffalo with 326 passengers, mostly immigrants. At three in the morning the mate noticed smoke pouring from the hold. He notified Captain C. C. Roby who ordered the ship headed for shore, only five miles distant. But when the flaming ship was half a mile from shore it struck a reef.

Captain Roby knew his ship was doomed. He gathered together his wife, two small children and his mother, kissed them farewell with tears streaming down his cheeks, threw them into the water, and jumped in after them. All were drowned. The Buffalo Commercial Advertiser said:

Men became beasts and fought back women and children. Frenzied mothers leaped overboard with their babes in their arms. Scorched by flames, their faces blackened, their eyes bulging, and even their garments on fire, over three hundred people fought for their lives. Men seized their wives and flung them overboard, leaping after them to destruction. Human beings fought like demons for possession of chairs, boards, or any objects that might support them in the water. Others, crazed by the terrible scenes about them, dashed into the roaring flames, their dying shrieks mingling with the hopeless cries of those who still struggled for life. When the final death roll was called it was found 287 had perished in that frightful hour of fire.

An even worse disaster involving an immigrant steamer took place in 1852 when the vessel Atlantic in a summer haze collided with the Ogdensburg off Long Point. The Atlantic churned on believing no damage had been done, but then began to sink. Her passengers were awakened and ordered to abandon ship. Three hundred panicked, jumped into the water and were drowned. T wo hundred and fifty were rescued by the Ogdensburg whose crew heard their terrified screams and returned. The Atlantic sunk with sixty thousand dollars in gold, being shipped by the Adams Express Company. The treasure still awaits finding and salvage, and at today's value is estimated to be worth two hundred thousand dollars.

Then came lake freighters

As towns and villages began to spring up around Lake Erie’s shores, businessmen began to build sailing brigs, barques and even three-masted schooners for a profitable coastal trade. Lake Erie weather was hard on these sailing ships, but their final destruction was caused by railroads, which began to be built in 1850. and in a short time monopolized the coastal trade. By 1890 only a handful of sailing vessels still remained on the Great Lakes.

After the sailing ships had gone a new type of ship made its appearance on Lake Erie. This was the bulk freighter, which carried iron ore and grain from Lake Superior to the industrial cities of the east. One of these was the Idaho, two hundred and twenty feet long, a propeller-driven steamer with a towering foremast one hundred feet high. On Nov. 5. 1894, she left Buffalo in good weather, but off Long Point ran into a sizzling sou'wester. The waves increased to such fury that the ship was unable to makeheadway. The pounding opened her seams and water poured into the hold. Soon the boilers were drowned. Captain Alexander Gillies lowered anchors but the pounding only opened the seams more. Suddenly the Idaho lurched and slid under the waves, taking nineteen of her twenty-one-man crew with her.

But William Gill, a deck hand, and Louis La Force, second mate, stood close to the high mast and climbed it as the ship sunk. The mast swung dizzily in circles then steadied as the ship settled on the bottom, leaving the two men twenty-five feet above the waves. That night they clung to the mast, their clothes freezing from spray and sleet. At dawn only a wilderness of stormtossed waves met their eyes. A freighter appeared, but nobody aboard sighted them.

Shortly before noon Gill saw a large freighter bearing down on them. It was the Mariposa, one of the largest ships on the lakes. Captain Frank Root realized there was only one way to save the men

he must manoeuvre his big ship in the howling storm alongside the swaying mast so his crew could lift them aboard. This required seamanship ol the highest skill, for he dared not hit the mast since his ship would snap it oil'. Twice his ship fell away from the mast: on the third attempt his bows gently nudged it and the men were lifted aboard.

Such fierce storms as that which destroyed the Idaho are not uncommon on Lake Erie, but in a separate category are the historic tempests of such violence that few ships can withstand their fury. Usually they strike in early winter, spawned by warring air masses from Canada and the Caribbean. One struck 1 ake Erie on Dec. 9. 1909, and although ships were warned ol its approach, so sudden was its onslaught that three vessels were sent to the bottom with fiftythree sailors.

Lour years later, on Nov. 9. 19 15. another storm warning was given. This time ships on Lake Erie had time to scurry for shelter. Only Lightship No. 82 was torn loose from its moorings oil Point Abino on the Canadian shore, capsized and tossed into Buffalo's harbor, fifteen miles distant. Six men went down with her. But the loss on the other upper lakes was catastrophic. Ten ships were sunk; two hundred and thirty-five sailors drowned: twenty-six vessels

grounded. Among the ships lost were two British ocean tramps, the I.eafield and Wexford, and two six-hundred-foot, nine-thousand-ton lake freighters, the Regina and Charles S. Price.

Storm warnings came too late on Friday. Oct. 20. 1916—a day that stands in the annals ol the Great Lakes as Black Friday. Lour ships were caught on Lake Erie and sunk, drowning fifty-two sailors.

T he worst disaster of recent times was that of the tug Admiral and its barge. the Cleveco. On Dec. 1, 1942, they were caught in a storm only a few miles from Cleveland's harbor. The Admiral headed for Cleveland towing the Cleveco. Suddenly the lookout on the Cleveco discovered a horrifying fact—the towline seemed to be coming from the bottom of the lake. He notified Captain W. H. Smith, who concluded the Admiral must have sunk with its fourteen men.

Without power of its own the C leveco radioed for tugs. I hese were despatched, but were unable to locate the elusive Cleveco in a heavy snowstorm. A sudden change in temperature caused a tog to rise from the lake's surface, and visibility was lowered to zero. In midafternoon the tugs received a radio message from the Cleveco that she was taking water. That w’as her last message. I he Cleveco, with her eighteen men, disappeared.

To prevent another such tragedy, radar was installed on rescue craft and freighters in 1946. Together with direction-finding stations, fog sirens, lighthouses, lightships, ship-to-shore radios, periodic weather bulletins and gyrocompasses, it was thought that everything that man could do to defeat Take Erie’s dangers had been done.

But there is one group of sailors who. from the very nature ot their profession, must gamble on Take Erie's treacherous moods. These are the commercial fishermen. They begin fishing early in March as soon as the ice breaks up and continue until freeze-up at the end of December. to catch the early and late spawning runs. But it is in the early spring and late fall that the danger of storms is greatest. Moreover, to return before dusk the fishermen must leave their harbors around 3 a.m. and receive no weather reports until 6 a.m. when U. S. radio stations broadcast the early forecast for the public. Marine weather bulletins are issued only during the lake navigation season: April 15 to Dec. 15.

Even when the weather is threatening, the fishermen must try to reach their nets, for not only does their living depend on the fish, but the storms tear expensive nets to pieces.

Paradoxically, Take Erie's villainous shallowness is both the fisherman's worst enemy and best friend. Its shoals and bars make it the most fertile inland marine farm in the world, f hey swarm with marine vegetation and minute plankton which feed ninety-one species of fish, ranging in size from two-hundred-pound sturgeon to the little silver smelt. Commercially the most important Erie fish are ciscoes (herring), whitefish, pickerel, perch and silver bass. Take Erie's average annual fish harvest is more than twenty million pounds, two thirds of the total catch of the Great Takes.

The Erie fisherman gambles not only with storms, but with his luck as a fisherman. He receives no wages, but a share of the catch. Most Erie fishermen average $2.500 a year, but some earn as little as $1.000. Much depends on the captain and his "fish sense." Hence fishermen vie to serve under a good captain.

Erie has evolved its own type of fishing tug. a sturdy, powerful vessel almost totally enclosed against the weather, and with a top speed of twelve miles an hour (the fishermen use no nautical terms and do not . eep a log). Aside from a small magnetic compass the only nautical equipment in the wheelhouse is a shortwave radio. This is regarded as a necessity, since it enables captains throughout the lake to warn others of the approach of Erie’s sudden storms, especially in March and December.

On the morning of March 22. 1955. fishermen were hauling in their nets when their radios blared: “Better head for home. It’s blowing hard up at the western end of the lake!”

Even though fishermen were warned, the storm struck so swiftly up the lake that several boats were caught. At the western end a tug was thrown upon an island, but the three fishermen swam to ils beach. Near Point Pelee, Carl Fraser and Lloyd Malotte had to swim four hundred yards through the icy waves to shore when their launch capsized. Near the centre of the lake a tug was thrown onto a reef, but the five fishermen managed to reach land. At Port Dover, the tug Ciscoe was caught on the lake, unable to find the harbor’s entrance for blinding snow squalls. On board were Captain Harold Young, Gordon Rockefeller, John Siskovitch, Gordon Messecar and John Wilson.

No help could be sent them, for the lake was raging with a fury that would have made any attempt foolhardy. At Port Dover waves crashed over the sea wall and smashed boats, jetties and sheds. So quickly had the storm sent waves roaring over the sea wall that several automobiles were caught and submerged before their owners could move them. At Long Point the causeway was littered with the wreckage of cottages and their furnishings.

Early next morning the Ciscoe was found twenty-five miles down the lake on the western side of Long Point. It was grounded six hundred feet from shore, buffeted mercilessly, its radio antennae smashed. From the wheelhouse figures waved desperately. Rescue was impossible, for furious waves lashed the shore. It was not until late afternoon when the waves had quieted and the Ciscoe had been tossed only two hundred feet from the beach that a lifeboat was able to reach the tug and take off the half-frozen and exhausted crew. Spectators cheered as they were helped ashore, but their happiness died when they saw the stark face of Mrs. Laverne Wilson, whose husband John had been washed overboard the previous night, leaving her a widow with two small children.

Although only one fisherman was a victim of the storm, the loss was heavy. Fishermen estimated their loss at $3,750,()()(). This included $1.440,000 for replacement of one hundred and twenty boats smashed at docks or sunk in the lake; gear valued at $50,000; boat damages of $60,000; and dock destruction. $50.000. Production loss through destruction of nets was set at $2,000,000.

Not only did the storm destroy nearly ten percent of the tugs and launches on the Canadian side of the lake, but it ripped to shreds hundreds of nets. This was a crippling blow, for insurance pre, miums against loss of nets is so high that fishermen seldom are covered.

One of the fishermen practically put out of business by the loss of more than half his nets was Paul Cosley, a slim, tanned fisherman in his late thirties who operates a tug out of Port Dover with his brothers Peter and Stanley as a family venture. But the Cosleys had no thought of quitting, for like most fishermen on Lake Erie, they can’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

A couple of years ago Stanley Cosley became so fed up with the life of a fisherman that he went to work in a factory at Brantford, Ont. Two months later he was back fishing, to the accompaniment of knowing smiles. To the people of Port Dover, Stanley’s return was another case proving the truth of their saying: “An Erie fisherman has as much chance to stop fishing as a fish has to stop swimming.” ★