The Long Blue Line: Buffalo’s “White Hurricane” and the final hours of Light Vessel 82

LV-82, the most modern lightship of its time in the U.S. Lighthouse Service fleet, disappeared during the “White Hurricane” storm in the Great Lakes in 1913. A year later, the body of Chief Engineer Charles Butler floated to the surface, but the bodies of other crew members were never found.

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

Lt. j.g. Daniel C. Banke, U.S. Coast Guard

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

Stationed at the Lighthouse Service base in Buffalo, the Lighthouse Tender Crocus searched for LV-82 the day after it was lost. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Stationed at the Lighthouse Service base in Buffalo, the Lighthouse Tender Crocus searched for LV-82 the day after it 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 it. 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.

Headstone of Chief Engineer Charles Butler whose remains washed ashore a year after the loss of LV-82 to the “White Hurricane.” (Find-a-Grave)
Headstone of Chief Engineer Charles Butler whose remains washed ashore a year after the loss of LV-82 to the “White Hurricane.” (Find-a-Grave)

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 its 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)
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 long forgotten by the mariners they vowed to protect and serve. Please pause to remember these brave men:

Memorial marker erected by a group of Canadian citizens and members of the U.S. Lightship Sailors Association in 2012. (U.S. Lightship Sailors Association)
Memorial marker erected by a group of Canadian citizens and members of the U.S. Lightship Sailors Association in 2012. (U.S. Lightship Sailors Association)

Hugh M. Williams, Captain, of Manistee, Michigan
Charles W. Butler, Chief Engineer, of Buffalo, New York
Andrew Leahy, Mate, of Elyria, Ohio
Cornelius Leahy, Assistant Engineer, of Elyria, Ohio
William Jensen, Seaman, of Muskegon, Michigan
Peter Mackey, Cook, of Buffalo, New York

5 comments on “The Long Blue Line: Buffalo’s “White Hurricane” and the final hours of Light Vessel 82”

  1. in 1913 my grandfather “Cap” Brown was in Port Stanley with his brothers building tug boats – The Brown brother–…..someone in Port Stanley has written a book about the Brown Brothers an shipbuilding there in the area…

  2. May God bless those that perished and heal the broken chain of family ties when someone dies before their time.

Leave a Reply