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Weather Bomb 1913 offers unique glimpse into storm that rocked Great Lakes

By Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network

The SS Charles Price, lost with all her crew in the great storm of November 1913. (File photo)

The SS Charles Price, lost with all her crew in the great storm of November 1913. (File photo)

It was over 100 years ago in November of 1913 that one of the most devastating storms to ever hit the Great Lakes destroyed over a dozen freshwater ships, killing more than 250 people. The white hurricane turned a source of life into a place of death, leaving its mark in the memories of those who lived on the Great Lakes’ shorelines.

 

Bruce Kemp, a former Sarnia resident now based in Merrickville, ON, said the storm was something people often spoke of, a piece of history unforgotten. It was in 1977, when Kemp began scuba diving, that his fascination with the storm peaked.

 

He visited the site of the shipwrecked SS Charles S. Price in Lake Huron, one of the many casualties from the 1913 natural disaster. As a journalist at the Sarnia Observer, the experience inspired him to put pen to paper. Kemp said he wanted to write a magazine article, and he began collecting pieces of information.

 

Kemp’s magazine articles won him both national and international awards. But it was never enough; Kemp wanted to do the story justice, getting as many facts as he could gather. And so, 40 years later, he released his book, Weather Bomb 1913: Life and Death on the Great Lakes.

 

“Most of the story had been told by divers who got all excited, but had no training and research,” Kemp said. “This was too good, and I started applying thorough journalistic principles to it.”

 

Kemp said diving into his research led to him finding more and more, but he said he never felt he had quite enough to justify publishing. The more he uncovered, the more fascinated he became.

 

In the 1980s, he visited some of the ship wrecks that had been found. The SS Regina, another casualty of the storm, wasn’t located until 1986 in Lake Huron, between Lexington and Port Sanilac. Kemp said this was quite a find – on board and still intact were tens of thousands of artifacts, including bottles of scotch and champagne.

 

He also took the time to visit people in both Michigan and Ontario who had been alive during the great storm to learn about their experiences. Kemp said he put letters in 26 different newspapers, and the response was incredible.

 

“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who carry this story, it’s part of their personal mythology,” he said.

 

One of those people was a 93-year-old man named Austin Schwalm, who recalled being just six years old, skipping school to help the men recover bodies after the storm.

 

“As a farm kid, he helped with slaughtering animals in the fall, so death was no stranger to him,” Kemp said. “More than anything it was a big adventure.”

 

Kemp also spoke with Aileen Reeves, whose father, Captain McConkey, had perished in the storm. She read her older sisters memoir, who had recalled the days following the storm, waiting for their father to return to their Barrie home.

 

“It was like watching an Ingmar Bergman film…she talked about what it was like the day of the storm and waiting for the telephone call to say that dad was safe,” he said. “That call never came.”

 

Kemp said for those living along the Great Lakes, big ships are integral to the culture, so the storm of 1913 is an important event to remember that impacted a number of communities, even over a century later.

 

He said he wanted to write a book that was not just informative, but readable for a wide range of people, even those who may not be nautical fanatics. He blended both fiction and nonfiction, with a hint of personal story telling.

 

“This is part of our cultural heritage, as people who live along the lakes,” Kemp said. “I wanted to let humanity bring colour to the story, [not] try to create something out of nothing.”

 

Kempe will be in Petrolia in February to discuss his book. A local resident has lent a barometer with a paper chart that has the reading from when the 1913 Weather Bomb hit. It will be on display during Kemp’s book signing and lecture.

 

IF YOU GO:

When: Feb. 13, 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.

Where: Petrolia Library

Cost: FREE

 

mschilz@postmedia.com