Powering future

the day has "Tide" hit chicago

the day has "Tide" hit chicago

“Giant tidal wave hits local town lake.” April Fool’s joke? Probably. “Giant tidal wave hits Chicago”. Joke right? No. This was the headline in the evening edition of the Chicago Daily News on June 26, 1954.

I left the house in my beat-up Chevy around 9:00 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning in June 1954 and drove to Montrose Beach and Harbor on Lake Michigan to meet my father and a few friends at Wilson Rocks Bait Shop, where he hung out with his fellow fishermen. We were going to do some perch fishing……which is a chewy white meat fish that is a taste of heaven when fried and served with lemon, tartar sauce and accordion fries. Getting ready for my senior year in high school, I had been working hard in construction and needed some sun and relaxation. Perch was the answer this Saturday morning, but soon he would find something very different…something he would never forget.

When I pulled into the parking area, I noticed that it was full of water even though it was a sunny day. The lake was unusually choppy. I also noticed people running towards the pier. There was a feeling that something very serious and very bad was going on and I immediately and instinctively headed to the bait shop to connect with my father. He saw me coming and he told me “let’s go to the pier, they need help down there”, and we set off at full speed together with many others. A Seiche (pronounced sayh) had struck Montrose Harbor without warning on this June morning. It was 8 feet high and 25 miles wide and struck the entire shore of Chicago Lake… from Michigan City, Indiana to the North Shore. Eight people were killed, most of whom were fishing right there in the Montrose Harbor, where some 15 to 20 fishermen were washed off the narrow 175-foot concrete pier. And we knew many of them.

When we arrived, bathers and fishermen were running to take refuge. Men, women and children ran and fell. Yachts bobbed widely in the water. The wave at some points had rushed 150 feet towards shore before sinking within a few minutes, which explained why I saw so much water when I pulled into the parking lot. There were rescues, panic, despair and narrow escapes. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to be of any real help and then stood helplessly as rescue teams began the grim job of pulling every body out of the lake. Apparently, the fishermen who had been lying face down, idly guiding the lines in the water, were simply washed off the pier as the water swelled and washed over them. The fishermen at the North Avenue wharf, several miles to the south, were also washed up on the lake, and the same grim work was being done there. Among those thrown into the water was Ted Stempinski, who had been fishing with his 16-year-old son Ralph. Ralph left the scene for a moment just before he hit the wave. When he returned, his father was gone. The same thing happened with John Jaworski who was also fishing with his son. Those tragic events hardly went unnoticed and stayed with me for a long time afterward.

Park police quickly spread word of the approaching wave and removed fishermen from a pier on 61st St. in Jackson Park minutes before water submerged that area. At Loyola Beach, just to the north, waves crashed over a 9-foot boardwalk. All docks at the Belmont Harbor Yacht Basin were flooded when the wave raised the water level by about 6 feet.

Before June 26, no one had heard of the word “Seiche”. After June 26, most of us were experts on the phenomena.
Specifically, “A Seiche has to occur in an enclosed body of water, such as a lake, bay, or gulf. A Seiche, a French word meaning “to sway back and forth,” is a standing wave that oscillates in a lake as a result of seismic or atmospheric disturbances that create enormous fluctuations in water levels at mere moments of activity or enormous tidal forces” (Heidorn 2004; Wittman 2005).

This particular Seiche, which was the most dangerous of the three types, was fed by a severe squall line with strong winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure that pushed down on the lake surface and crossed southern Lake Michigan a few hours earlier, moving from northwest to southeast. It is as if you dropped a stone into the middle of a bucket of water and watched the ripples move from the center. The atmospheric pressure caused by the storm was the stone and the waves were the Seiche. Like water lapping back and forth in a bathtub, fast-moving squall lines with intense atmospheric pressure caused the lake to rock from side to side and caused water levels to rise on the shoreline and harbors by up to 10 feet in a matter of minutes and without warning.

Unlike a tsunami, which can travel across the open ocean at extremely high speeds, a Seiche moves much more slowly. It took the Cuttlefish 80 minutes to travel 40 miles from Michigan City to the Chicago lakefront on North Avenue. That’s around 30 mph. The Seiche lashed the entire Illinois coast with a wave approximately 2 to 4 feet high, but reached a peak height of 10 feet as she neared the North Avenue pier.

As an eyewitness to the immediate aftermath, I was struck by the way Chicago newspapers over-dramatized the tragedy. The now-defunct Chicago Daily News ran headlines reading in two-inch black type: “BIG TSUNAMI HERE! Many swept lake; 10 feared dead. Mother of 11 among victims. 3 divers, boats hunt others. Three drowned and several more feared lost Saturday when a 25-mile-wide tsunami hit the Lake Michigan shoreline here. The freak wave, estimated at 3 to 10 feet high, struck around 9 a.m. From Jackson Park north to Wilmette. An unknown number of people were washed into the lake. Estimates of the death toll were as high as 10….” There had been no “major tsunami”; there had been a monstrous and deadly cuttlefish. Since then, there have been numerous scares and reports of smaller seiches, but none causing similar damage or deaths.

Interestingly, however, one of the largest disasters in the city of Buffalo, in New York’s recorded history, occurred at 11:00 p.m. on October 18, 1844, when a wall of water rapidly inundated residential and commercial districts along the waterfront. The disaster struck without warning, breaching the 14-foot boardwalk and flooding the boardwalk. Newspaper accounts indicate that 78 people drowned. This tragedy was also caused by a Seiche, as prolonged high winds produced a Seiche by pushing water toward one end of Lake Erie. When the winds died down, or shifted in the opposite direction, the water receded in the direction from which it came and the Seiched did the rest. Buffalo is estimated to have two to three seiches a year, but the threat was largely eliminated with the construction of a breakwater on Lake Erie, a project that began in the 1860s.

Unlike the devastating tsunamis caused by undersea earthquakes, seiches have never caused much damage in the Great Lakes, and most go unnoticed as they are relatively subtle and imperceptible, causing water levels on beaches to rise only a foot or less.

But this one was very high-profile, and it happened on a quiet, warm Saturday morning in Chicago. What began as a quiet day of fishing turned out to be an experience that has remained indelible in my mind and, I think, worth sharing. One thing is for sure, we will never experience a cuttlefish here… at least I don’t think so.

“It didn’t go in like a wall… the water just started rising and kept rising until it was maybe 6 feet higher than normal.” Dick Keating, Belmont Harbor foreman and eyewitness.

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