COLUMN: Waterfront memorial recalls worst Great Lakes disaster

A freighter, believed to be the H.B. Hagwood, sits beached at the Sarnia Riding Club shoreline on Nov. 13, 1913, driven ashore by wind and waves that reached 35 feet in height during the worst storm ever recorded on the Great Lakes. Photo courtesy, Lambton County Archives, Holland Paisley Collection, H116-54.

Port Franks resident Heather Bradley remembers reading a book decades ago called “Yon Sand-beaten Shore.”

The 167-page history of her community contains a haunting description of a truck, laden with the bodies of shipwrecked sailors, travelling from the Lake Huron shore and through the streets of Port Franks to the morgue.

It was November of 1913. In a freakish fit of nature, two monstrous storms had converged to form an extra-tropical cyclone.

The deadly Great Lakes Storm, also remembered today as the White Hurricane, the Big Blow, and the Freshwater Fury, had just unleashed its wrath. Shrieking winds that reached 160 kilometres per hour (100 mph) whipped up waves to 11 metres (36 feet) in blizzard conditions that sank more than a dozen ships and killed 250 sailors.

It remains to this day the most horrific natural disaster ever recorded on the Great Lakes.

Heather Bradley called this writer to ask about the location of the storm’s memorial plaque, which she recalled seeing years ago.

I told Heather I didn’t know, but would find it.

The online chat forum “Point Edward Loud and Proud” contained clues, describing the location variously as The Circle, The Lookout and Echo Point.

Point Edward CAO Jim Burns provided directions – though the location is actually in Sarnia, not Point Edward.

The memorial to the Great Storm of 1913 is in a picturesque setting overlooking both Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. You drive to the north end of Fort Street in Point Edward, then follow a rising pathway that leads up from the parking lot at the end of the street.

The plaque sits atop a wall containing what appears to be a mini-amphitheater. A small, pillbox-like structure in the centre of the circle delivers a perfect echo when you speak from its centre.

Immediately to the north of the Lambton Area Water Supply System (LAWSS) treatment plant, this is private property, referred to as the LAWSS Lookout, according to general manager Clinton Harper.

The attractive site has often been the location of special events, wedding photos and more – although LAWSS should be notified of any such request.

The Great Storm memorial plaque tells the story of the tragedy, and was installed in 1997 by the Waterfront Preservation Association (WPA) with support from Imperial Oil.

According to Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley, the WPA was a group of citizen volunteers who, among other contributions, donated benches at Mike Weir Park. The WPA was active during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Thanks to its efforts a reminder remains of the ferocity of that fearful storm.