“Giant tidal wave hits local town lake”. April Fool’s joke? Probably. “Giant tidal wave hits Chicago”. Joke, right? No. This was the headline of the afternoon 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 up to the beach and the port of Montrose on Lake Michigan to meet my father and some friends at Wilson Rocks Bait Shop, where he hung up. with his fellow fishermen. We were going 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. In preparation for my last 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 I would soon find something quite different … something I will never forget.
When I got to the parking area, I noticed that it was full of water even though it was a sunny day. The lake was unusually rough. I also noticed people running towards the dock. There was a feeling that something very serious and very bad was happening and immediately and instinctively I headed to the bait shop to connect with my father. He saw me coming and said “let’s go to the dock, they need help there”, and we took off at full speed along with many others. A Seiche (pronounced sayh) had struck the port of Montrose without warning on this June morning. It was 8 feet tall and 25 miles wide and hit the entire Chicago Lake … from Michigan City, Indiana to the North Shore. Eight people died, most of whom were fishing right there in the port of Montrose, where some 15 to 20 fishermen were washed away from the 175-foot narrow concrete pier. And we knew many of them.
When we arrived, bathers and fishermen were running for cover. Men, women and children ran and fell. The yachts floated widely in the water. At some points, the wave had rushed 150 feet towards shore before sinking in a few minutes, which explained why I saw so much water when I entered the parking lot. There were bailouts, panic, despair, and tight escapes. Unfortunately, we were too late to be of real help and then left helpless as rescue teams began the grim task of pulling every body out of the lake. Apparently, the fishermen who had been lying face down, idly guiding lines in the water, were simply dragged off the dock as the water swelled and washed over them. The fishermen at the North Avenue pier, several miles south, were also swept into 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 shortly before the wave hit. When he returned, his father was gone. The same happened with John Jaworski who was also fishing with his son. Those tragic events barely went unnoticed and stayed with me for a long time afterward.
Park police quickly spread word of the approaching wave, which pulled fishermen off a pier on 61th St. in Jackson Park minutes before the water submerged that area. At Loyola Beach to the north, waves crashed over a 9-foot boardwalk. All piers in the Belmont Harbor yacht basin were flooded when the wave raised the water level about 6 feet.
Before June 26, no one had heard of the word “Seiche”. After June 26, most of us were experts on the phenomenon.
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 swing back and forth “, is a standing wave that oscillates in a lake as a result of seismic or atmospheric disturbances that create huge fluctuations in water levels in just moments. Standing waves churn back and forth between the shores of the lake basin, often referred to as tidal changes of the Great Lakes, by many. Most seiches in the Great Lakes are the result of atmospheric disturbances and a cessation of wind, not seismic activity or enormous tidal forces “(Heidorn 2004; Wittman 2005).
This particular Seiche, which was the most dangerous of the three types, was propelled by a strong 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 before, passing from the northwest. to the south east. It is as if you dropped a stone in the middle of a bucket of water and watched the waves move from the center. The atmospheric pressure caused by the shower was the stone and the waves were the Seiche. Like water splashing back and forth in a bathtub, lines of fast-moving blasts with intense atmospheric pressure sent the lake churning from side to side and water levels rising on the shoreline and in ports by up to 10 feet. in a matter of minutes and with no warning.
Unlike a tsunami, which can travel through the open ocean at extremely high speeds, a Seiche moves much more slowly. The Seiche took 80 minutes to travel 40 miles from Michigan City to Chicago’s Lakefront on North Avenue. That is roughly 30 mph. The Seiche hit the entire Illinois coastline with a wave approximately 2 to 4 feet high, but reached a maximum height of 10 feet as it approached the North Avenue Pier.
As an eyewitness to the immediate aftermath, I was struck by how the Chicago newspapers dramatized the tragedy too much. The now-defunct Chicago Daily News ran headlines that read in two-inch black letters: “BIG WAVE OF TIDES HERE! Many were washed into lake; Fear of 10 dead. Mother of 11 among victims. 3 divers, boats hunt Others. Three people drowned and several more were feared to be lost Saturday when a 25-mile-wide tsunami ripped the shoreline of Lake Michigan here. The strange wave, estimated to be 3 to 10 feet high, hit around 9 am from Jackson Park north to Wilmette. An unknown number of people were swept into the lake. The death toll is estimated to have reached 10 ……. “There had not been a ‘big tsunami’; there had been a strange and deadly Seiche. Since then, there have been numerous scares and reports of smaller cuttlefish, but none that have caused similar damage or deaths.
Interestingly, however, one of the greatest disasters in the city of Buffalo, New York’s recorded history, occurred at 11 p.m. on October 18, 1844 when a wall of water rapidly flooded business and residential districts along the coast. 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 strong winds produced a Seiche by pushing water towards one end of Lake Erie. When the winds stopped, or shifted in the opposite direction, the water receded in the direction from which it came and the Seichedid the rest. Buffalo is estimated to have two to three seiches a year, but the threat has been largely eliminated by building a breakwater on Lake Erie, a project that began in the 1860s.
Unlike the devastating tsunamis caused by underwater earthquakes, cuttlefish have never caused much damage in the Great Lakes and most go unnoticed as they are relatively subtle and unnoticeable, causing the water level on beaches to rise only a foot or less.
But it was very noticeable, and it happened on a calm, warm Saturday morning in Chicago. What began as a day of peaceful fishing turned out to be an experience that has stuck in my mind indelibly and, I think, worth sharing. One thing is for sure, we will never experience a Seiche 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 usual.” Dick Keating, Belmont Harbor Foreman and Eyewitness.