The Great Lakes are among the most dangerous waters in the world. Powerful gales churn the waters, especially in late autumn, and the Lakes freeze in winter. Experienced captains understand and respect the limits of the shipping season. Still, sudden changes in the weather have brought many ships and crews to grief.
As commerce expanded after the mid-1800s, growing numbers of mariners faced the dangers of the Lakes. A four-day gale in 1869 wrecked 97 ships, and in 1871 there were 591 sinkings, collisions, groundings, and explosions—one for every four boats on the Lakes. Between 1878 and 1897, the Lakes claimed almost 6,000 ships.
Ice covering the bow of a Lakes freighter, 1930s
During frigid Great Lakes winters, strong winds whipped up spray that coated ships in ice. The ice could overload a ship and often contributed to sinkings in violent weather.
Photograph by A. E. Young, courtesy of the Dana Thomas Bowen Collection, Great Lakes Historical Society