Lake Michigan can be a treacherous lake for mariners, especially in the month of November. Over half the shipwrecks in the twentieth century occurred during that month. On Nov. 18, 1958, the lake claimed another victim in the Carl D. Bradley.
Fire and Ice: Shipwreck on Lake Michigan, by Don Davenport, is actually half of an unusually bound volume. The other half is the excellent Fire and Ice: Fire at Peshtigo, by Robert Wells, a gripping account of the great Peshtigo fire of 1871.
The Bradley, a 638-foot-long ore carrier, plied the waters between ore ports on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes to unload at ports all around the Great Lakes. This particular load was delivered to Buffington, a town a few miles from the steel mills of Gary, Indiana. Limestone was used as a flux to carry away impurities from molten steel.
November presents an ideal set of circumstances for major storms to develop on Lake Michigan. It is a transitional time, when cold air from Canada hits warmer air hanging over the Great Lakes. The temperature difference spawns severe storms. On November 14, a front moved in, arcing from Nevada to Nebraska to western Lake Superior. This mix of bitterly cold air from Alaska hitting warm Mexican air currents over Lake Michigan spawned 25-foot-plus waves and gale force winds. A nice recipe for a rousing storm, or for disaster.
So the ship sailed north from Buffington with an empty cargo hold, but with her ballast tanks filled with water for stability. She planned to pick up another load of ore. At this point, the Chicago Forecast Center issued a special lake warning for Lake Michigan. It said: “Change to whole gale warnings at 8:00 pm. EST Monday. Southerly winds increasing to 50 to 65 mph tonight and shifting to southwest to west late tonight and Tuesday. Showers and thunderstorms tonight. Showers Tuesday.”
Note the part where it gives gale force winds of 50-65 mph.
This warning was marked for immediate broadcast, and was repeated at regular intervals on Coast Guard radio stations over the next five hours. It would have been prudent if more ships had acted like the Robert C. Stanley and the Sylvania, who decided to park themselves in the nearest safe harbor.
The reason that storms can be more lethal on a Great Lake than in the open ocean is that salt water and fresh water behave differently. Salt water produces long rolling waves that allow a ship to recover between buffets. But fresh water waves are choppy, inducing seasickness even in salt-water veterans. And when the Lakes kick up a major storm, it is a bit like a boxer pummeling the living daylights out of a hapless chump.
The ocean also allows you room enough to run from a storm, while the Lakes give you few options on routes to your destination. The Great Lakes, big as they are, are basically teacups that multiply the effect of waves.
The author, Davenport, clearly understands the hazards of working on the Great Lakes, and lives of those who make their living on her waters. Kudos on a job well done.
And a tip of the hat to all who have gone down to a watery grave in the line of duty.
Fire and Ice: Shipwreck on Lake Michigan, Don Davenport, Northword, 1983, 177 pages. ISBN 0942802047