‘Voices from Lambton’s Past’: Part one of the story of two storms

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Along this southern shore of Lake Huron, we have experienced many vicious storms over the last two centuries, including the hurricane in May of 1953 and the great storm of November 1913. What might it have been like to live through either one or both of those storms?

Perhaps we can get some idea of the ferocity of Mother Nature along the Great Lakes by visiting with one Sarnia family.

Story of Two Storms – Part One

21 May 1953 – Sarnia, Ontario

“Grandma, Is it over yet? It’s so dark. Why are the lights out? Has the rain and wind stopped yet? When will momma and daddy be home?”

“Hush now, child. It’s almost over. It was just a bad old wind that must have gone loco. It was just a child of the thunderstorm we had last night, acting up to get more attention. But that bad old wind has gone on to somewhere else now.

“If we just wait a bit more, then the rain will taper off. Don’t you worry, child. Our family has lived through worse storms than this one.

“Now, you just stay here in my lap and listen as I tell you about a bigger and badder storm than this one, a storm that your great-grandfather lived through, a storm that sunk so many ships out in Lake Huron and claimed the lives of so many sailors.”

Penney Eggerton, just six years of age, was being held in the arms of her grandmother, Sara Widdowson, who was looking after her while her parents were in London, where they had gone early this morning by train for a few days of holiday.

The young girl lifted her head. It had been buried in the shoulder of her grandmother as she had clung tightly for what seemed like an eternity, so frightened by the loud sounds of a violent storm and the heavy rain cascading like a waterfall off the roof of their home.

It had been more than just another storm. Warm air from the south had advanced and mixed with the cooler air coming down from Canada. When the two of them met, it led to severe thunderstorms which had run unabated for several hours until the storm crossed the St. Clair River, sucking up great quantities of river water, resulting in a severe updraft that spawned a tornado.

The full force of the winds caused the growing tornado to swirl to more than nine hundred metres in height, sucking up even more water as it struck a path north-east, ravaging the city of Sarnia as it passed through, causing great destruction to both homes and businesses.

When totalled a few days later, the damage would be estimated at more than fifteen million dollars, with four deaths, forty injuries and more than five hundred people homeless.

But now, the tornado had passed on and was heading away from Sarnia. It seemed so much quieter. Just moments before, the young girl had said to her grandmother that it sounded like a steam engine pulling a long train had roared by their house.

It was but a few minutes since the full force of the tornado had hit. The grandmother still held the young girl, rocking her gently as she spoke in a soft, soothing voice.

“Do not worry, Penney, my dear, we are safe now. Just stay here on my lap while I tell you a story told to me many times while I was a young girl, a story of an adventure lived by my grandfather, Sydney Putnam. He would be your great-great-grandfather?

“You never knew him, Penney and that’s a shame. Oh, my dear, you would have loved him so but unfortunately he went to be with Our Lord the year before you were born.

“He was one of the men who survived what all who lived through it have always called the ‘Big Blow of ’13’

“I was only a child at the time of that great storm, a child about the same age as you are now when it happened.

“I remember so well the bad weather we were having. It was a day of a terrible storm, just like today, but a day in the fall rather than in the spring.”

– – – – – – – – –

Sydney’s Story begins

9 November 1914 – Sarnia, Ontario

“Poppy, Nana sent me to find out if you are alright. She said she is worried about you standing here by yourself just looking out the window. Is something wrong, Poppy?”

“No, lass,” he answered as he gazed off to the north-east toward Lake Huron. It was a while before he spoke again.

“I was just remembering back to one year ago today, the day our ship was caught out there in Lake Huron in that terrible storm. I was never so afraid in all my life as I was at the beginning of that day. It has been such a wonderful day today, not like last year. Come sit with me, Lass and I will tell you about the bad weather we had that day, the day of what we now calls the Big Blow of ’13.”

Within a few minutes, her grandfather, Sydney Putnam, was settled in his favourite chair facing out the window so that he could see the river. His granddaughter, Sara was also in her favourite place, her grandfather’s lap.

 “Now, lass, I used to work on the big lake freighters. Sailed on the Charles J. Pierce for many a year until she went to the bottom of Lake Huron just one year ago today.”

“Poppy, why did you call your ship a girl? Charles is a boy’s name, isn’t it?”

“You are right, lass. But for some reason, all ships are called she. Maybe because they are all so unpredictable.”

“That’s enough of that, Sydney. Just you tell the child about what happened, about how you were saved from a watery death.” It was his wife, Joanna, who had just joined them and set herself down to listen.

“Lass, that was the last ship I ever served on. Listen whiles I tell you about the awful things that happened in that big storm, the worst I ever saw and perhaps the worst ever on the Great Lakes.”

“It was a Sunday, lass. I remember that because we always sailed into the lake with a load of coal from Ashtabula in Ohio each Sunday morning. I thank the Lord I was not on board that day. I had retired from sailing just two weeks before. But I knew all of the men who sailed on her that day.

“The day before, the Saturday, she would have shipped coal, crossed Lake Erie and sailed on up to the St. Clair River. By Sunday morning, the Price would be heading out into Lake Huron. I had hoped to watch her go by. But the weather was so fierce that day.

“Because of that storm, the Great Lakes claimed near forty ships, eight of them lake freighters like my former ship. As they sank to the bottom or beached, they took more than 250 good men with them.

“From what I was told later, it seems that the captain, God rest his soul, must have realized that the Pierce would not be able to handle the fierceness of the storm out in the open waters of Lake Huron. So he must have decided to try to get back into what he thought would be the safer waters of the river. It appears that he swung around his ship and headed back south-east. Then, in danger of running aground, he must have ordered a turn. That was likely when the ship got caught sideways in a deep trough between the waves and rolled right over.

“The upturned hull floated just offshore up near Port Franks for several days while bystanders watched and speculated on the identity of this unknown ship. I went up myself on the Tuesday to take a look. Even though I told others it was the Pierce, no one would believe me until a diver went down the next day and read the name.

“I knew because I recognized her lines. I should have because I had sailed on her for nearly fifteen years.

“The other reason I knew was because I helped to identify some of the bodies that washed up on the shore, bodies of men I had sailed with.

“One of them I identified was the body of a young man, still a teenager. I told them it was Stephen Smith, a sailor from the Pierce.

“Then again, maybe it wasn’t. But that is a story for tomorrow, lass. Time for bed now.”

“Ah, Poppy, please tell me the rest of the story. Nana said you would.”

“Nay, lass. Tomorrow morning. I am expecting a visitor, a young man I would like you to meet. I will continue my story when he arrives.”

HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:   

This great storm of 1913 had been building up over a period of days and hit the lower Lake Huron area on the 9th day of November. Reports in The Port Huron Times-Herald of November 10, 1913 read "Port Huron and Thumb are Swept", and "Light Keeper and His Faithful Wife Work Like Trojans in Gale".

By the next day, the 11th, the impact of the storm had been felt. Some of the headlines now read 10th. The severity of the storm was not yet known, but still the headlines read "Steamer Elphicke Is Pounding to Pieces", "Schooner Sephie Is On Bottom at Cape Smith", "Steamer Mills Is On Her Way to Detroit", "Str Hawgood Is On the Beach Near the Point", "Hanna Pounds To Pieces". The main the headline on the front page of the paper informed its readers that an unknown ship had turned over with greatr loss of life “Str. Turns Turtle In Lake; Unknown Vessel And Crew of 30 Drown.”

On November 12th, The Port Huron Times-Herald printed an EXTRA edition with a headline "10 Bodies Found". The stories would continue for several more days as more bodies swept up along the south shore of Lake Huron and more lost ships were identified. It was the 15th of November before a story identified what had been called for several days “The Mystery Ship”. The headline that day read, "BOAT IS PRICE – DIVER IS BAKER – SECRET KNOWN".

The above story and more notes about the Big Blow of ’13 will continue in the next “Voices from Lambton’s Past”.

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