When the big lake becomes the big ice cube

Echoes of our past
William & Joy Wangemann • for The Review

Lake Michigan, the third largest of the Great Lakes and the sixth largest fresh water lake in the world, is one of America’s greatest natural wonders.

The huge lake is 307 miles long and 118 miles wide, with a surface area of 22,300 square miles, and contains 1,180 cubic miles of fresh water.

At times the lake is placid and serene and at others she can be a raging giant destroying every thing in its path.

But it is during the winter months on Lake Michigan that fisherman and sailors are given their greatest challenge

At times bitter cold artic winds sweep down from the north and collide with the moist warm air flowing northward from the Mississippi River valley, producing violent storms.

Just such circumstances occurred to produce the infamous Armistice Day storm of November 11, 1940. By the time this deadly tempest was over close to 90 people were dead in Wisconsin and Minnesota, several ships sunk and many others damaged as well as property damage that ran in the millions.

Here in Sheboygan wires were down, store windows were blown in and a brick garage was blown down by the force of the near hurricane force winds. Road were clogged with gigantic snow drifts that took days to clear.

But one of the biggest problems mariners and fishermen on the lakes can encounter is ice.

Several times, over the years, it has been reported that Lake Michigan has been completely frozen over, a very rare phenomenon. When this occurs all lake commerce grinds to a halt.

The Muskegon News, on March 4, 1875, reported that the surface of Lake Michigan, from Chicago to Traverse City Michigan, was one solid sheet of unbroken ice.

The paper further reported that ice banks on the beach had built up 20 to 30 feet high. Bitter cold subzero weather had gripped the Great Lakes area for over 3 weeks bringing all commerce to a halt.

Again, in 1904, Sheboygan papers stated that Lake Michigan was frozen over shore to shore. Ice conditions in some areas were reported to be 3 to 4 feet thick which keep fishermen in port, and even prevented large ships from bucking the ice.

With fishermen unable to supply fresh fish, due to the ice on the lake, the supply of fish nearly disappeared. Soon the price of fish began to escalate and reached the unheard of price of .18 per pound!

Again, in February of 1936 a great cold wave descended on the Great Lakes area. Cities on both sides of the lake reported their harbors were ice bound with shipping and fishermen being unable to move.

For days on end the temperature never managed to rise above zero. It was again reported that the Lake was frozen from shore to shore, this time by the U.S. Coast Guard ice breaker, Escanaba.

It was on February 18th of 1936 that the Coast Guard received a desperate call for help from the small community of about 50 persons living on South Manitou Island.

The islanders reported they were running out of food and, due to the heavy ice conditions, they were unable to procure more. The temperature at the time stood at -24 degrees. Fresh meat and other provisions were loaded aboard the Escanaba at Frankfort Michigan for the ice bound islanders. After many hours of battering through ice, reported at times to be 3 and 4 feet thick, the powerful ice breaker made it to a point just off-shore of the island. Islanders then came out to the ship with sleighs and hauled the much-needed provisions ashore.

But February of 1936 was not only cold it was windy. Strong winds piled up snow into huge drifts, isolated small communities for weeks, stopped trains and disrupted telephone and electric service.

Winter in Wisconsin can be one of the most beautiful times of the year, or one of the most difficult.

Today’s tidbit: During the great Armistice Day storm of November 11, 1940 the temperature dropped nearly 30 degrees in a matter of hours, and struck with hurricane force winds.

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