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Buffalo’s “White Hurricane” and the Final Hours of Light Vessel 82

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Light Vessel 82 in Buffalo Harbor not long after she was raised to the surface in September 1915. (U.S. Coast Guard)

By U.S. Coast Guard News 01-17-2020 03:41:00

[By Lt. j.g. Daniel C. Banke]

Goodbye Nellie. Ship is breaking up fast. Williams. -Capt. Hugh Williams, hatch cover of Light Vessel 82, November 10, 1913

In mid-November 1913, not long after a deadly storm struck Lake Erie, a fisherman came across a wooden hatch cover that drifted ashore near Buffalo. Inscribed on the hatch was the message quoted above–the last words of a dead man. 

Built in 1912, in Muskegon, Michigan, LV-82 was the most modern lightship in the United States Lighthouse Service fleet. She was a 95-foot steel-hulled vessel, equipped with state-of-the-art light lenses, modern power-plant and latest creature comforts. The vessel was stationed in the rocky shallows off of Canada’s Point Abino on Lake Erie 13 miles from Buffalo Harbor.

Photograph of the newly-built Light Vessel 82 not long after her assignment to the rocky shallows at Point Abino. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Over 100 years ago, Point Abino was a remote area and the Canadian Government had little interest in financing a lighthouse there. Point Abino’s shoals were of great concern to American mariners navigating the approaches to Buffalo, so the U.S. Lighthouse Service authorized a light vessel to mark that dangerous location.

Known as the “White Hurricane,” the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 developed in Lake Superior in early November 1913. It was the deadliest and most destructive storm in Great Lakes history and grew to hurricane strength as it rolled east across the Lakes. By Saturday, November 8, the storm was described as “severe,” with white-out snow conditions whipping Lake Erie into a maelstrom of heavy seas. On November 9, wave heights reached nearly 40 feet with winds of up to 80 miles per hour. By the time the storm subsided, 250 souls were lost, 12 ships had disappeared, and many more vessels were stranded or damaged.

The Lighthouse Tender Crocus searched for LV-82 the day after she was lost. (U.S. Coast Guard)

On Tuesday, November 11, the headlines of the Buffalo Evening News read, “Scores lost in terrific gale, Buffalo Lightship goes down and crew of six are drowned!” Earlier that morning, pieces of LV-82 had washed ashore at the foot of Michigan Street in Buffalo. With Lake Erie’s waters still roiling, Lighthouse Tender Crocus quickly deployed to search for the lightship, but there were no signs of her. LV-82’s battered lifeboat drifted into Buffalo harbor and newspapers reported that an oar was fitted in the lifeboat’s oarlock indicating that the crew attempted an escape during the storm. 

Experts surmised that LV-82 went down on November 10, when the storm reached its zenith. No whistles or flares, or any other signs of distress were observed from the direction of the vessel. A year later, the body of Chief Engineer Charles Butler floated to the surface, but the bodies of other crew members were never found. In 1914, LV-96 took over the Point Abino station. Finally, in May of that year, divers located the wreck of LV-82 two miles off station in 63 feet of water.

After several failed attempts to salvage LV-82, the lightship was raised to the surface on September 16, 1915, and brought back to Buffalo. The vessel was refurbished and reassigned elsewhere in the Great Lakes, including Eleven Foot Shoal in Lake Huron. LV-82 continued to serve the Lighthouse Service until decommissioned in the mid-1930s. It is unclear what happened to the lightship after her career ended. In 1918, the construction of a lighthouse on Point Abino eliminated the need for a lightship.

The Canadian lighthouse built in 1918 to mark the rocky shallows at Point Abino. (Photo by Vicki McKay)

When asked if LV-82’s captain, Hugh Williams, could have raised anchor and sought shelter from the storm, his wife, Ann Marie Williams, replied “Certainly not! Captain Williams and his crew were guardians and they would remain at their station until blown away or ordered to move. I know this because I know the caliber of my husband and the men who served him on the lightship.”

In 2012, a group of Canadian citizens and the Lightship Sailor’s Association cooperated to erect a marker on Point Abino memorializing LV-82’s lost crew. This monument and a marker on the grounds of the Coast Guard’s Sector Buffalo base are all that recognizes the sacrifices of LV-82’s crew.

Over 100 years ago, the men of LV-82 served in harm’s way to ensure the safety of mariners navigating the Great Lakes during the treacherous winter months. They are among the many heroic members of the long blue line.

This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.