“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 at around 9:00 a.m. on a warm Saturday morning in June 1954 and drove uptown to Lake Michigan’s Montrose Beach and harbor to meet my father and some friends at the 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 deep fried and served with, lemon, tartar sauce and accordion fries. Getting ready for my final year in high school, I had been working a hard construction job and was in need of some sun and relaxation. Perch were the answer this Saturday morning, but I would soon find something quite different……something that I would never forget.
As I pulled into the parking area, I noticed it was full of water despite it being a bright sunny day. The Lake was unusually choppy. I also noticed people running toward the pier. There was a sense of something very serious and very bad going on and immediately and instinctively I headed for the bait shop to connect with my father. He saw me coming and said “let’s go to the pier, they need help down there,” and we took off at full speed along with many others. A Seiche (pronounced saysh) had struck Montrose Harbor without warning on this June morning. It was 8 feet high and 25 miles wide and hit Chicago’s entire lakefront……from Michigan City, Indiana to the North Shore. Eight people were killed, most of whom were fishing right there in Montrose Harbor where about 15 or 20 fishermen were swept off the narrow, 175-foot concrete pier. And we knew many of them.
When we arrived, bathers and fishermen were running for cover. Men, women and children scurried and fell. Yachts bobbed widely in the water. The wave at some points had rushed 150 feet inshore before subsiding in a few minutes which explained why I saw so much water as I pulled into the parking lot. There were rescues, panic, despair, and narrow escapes. Unfortunately, we were too late to be of any real help and then stood by helplessly as the the rescue teams began the grim job of pulling each body from the lake. Apparently, fishermen who had been lying on their stomachs, idly guiding lines in the water, were simply swept off the pier as the water swelled up and washed over them. Fishermen on the North Avenue pier, several miles to the South, were also swept into the lake, and the same grim work was being done there. Among those hurled into the water was Ted Stempinski, who had been fishing with his son Ralph, 16. Ralph left the scene for a moment shortly before the wave struck. When he returned his father was gone. The same thing happened with John Jaworski who also was fishing with his son. Those tragic facts hardly went unnoticed and stayed with me for a long time after.
News of the oncoming wave was spread quickly by park police who cleared fishermen from a pier at 61th St. In Jackson Park minutes before the water submerged that area. At Loyola Beach just North the waves broke over a 9-foot seawall. All the docks at the Belmont Harbor yacht basin were flooded when the wave raised the water level there about 6 feet.
Prior to June 26, nobody had ever 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 creating huge fluctuations of water levels in just moments. The standing waves slosh back and forth between shores of the lake basin, often referred as tide-like changes of the Great Lakes, by many. Most seiches on the Great Lakes are results of atmospheric disturbances and a cease in wind, not seismic activity or huge tidal forces” ( Heidorn 2004; Wittman 2005).
This particular Seiche, which was the most dangerous of the three kinds, was fueled by a severe squall line with high winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure that pushed down on the lake’s surface and crossed southern Lake Michigan a few hours earlier, passing from northwest to southeast. It’s as if you dropped a stone in the middle of a bucket of water and watched the ripples move from the center. The atmospheric pressure caused be the squall was the stone and the ripples were the Seiche. Like water sloshing back and forth in a bath tub, fast-moving squall lines with intense atmospheric pressure caused the lake to slosh back and forth and water levels to rise on the shoreline and harbors by up to 10 feet in a matter of minutes and with no warning.
Unlike a tsunami, which can travel across the open ocean at extremely high speeds, a Seiche moves much more slowly. It took 80 minutes for the Seiche to travel 40 miles from Michigan City to the Chicago lakeshore at North Avenue. That’s about 30 mph. The Seiche Struck the entire Illinois coast with a wave about 2 to 4 feet high, but it reached a maximum height of 10 feet as it approached the North Avenue pier.
As an eye witness to the immediate aftermath, I was taken aback by the way in which the Chicago papers over-dramatized the tragedy. The Chicago Daily News, now defunct, ran headlines that read in two inch black lettering: “BIG TIDAL WAVE HERE! Many Swept Into Lake; Fear 10 Killed. Mother of 11 Among Victims. 3 Divers, Boats Hunt Others. Three persons were drowned and several more were feared lost Saturday when a 25-mile-wide tidal wave smashed the Lake Michigan shore here. The freak wave, estimated from 3 to 10 feet high, struck at about 9 a.m. From Jackson Park north to Wilmette. An undetermined number of persons were swept into the lake. Estimates of the death toll ran as high as 10…….” There had been no “big tidal wave;” there had been a freak and deadly Seiche. Since then, there have been numerous scares and reports of smaller seiches, but none that caused similar damage or deaths.
Interestingly, however,one of the greatest disasters in the city of Buffalo, NY’s recorded history occurred at 11 p.m. October 18, 1844 when a wall of water quickly inundated the commercial and residential districts along the waterfront. The disaster occurred without warning, breaching the 14-foot seawall and flooding the waterfront. Newspaper accounts indicate that 78 people drowned. This tragedy was also caused by a Seiche, as prolonged strong winds produced a Seiche by pushing the water toward one end of Lake Erie. When the winds stopped, or shifted to the opposite direction, the water moved back in the direction from which it came and the Seichedid the rest. It is estimated that Buffalo has two or three seiches a year, but the threat has been largely eliminated by building a breakwater in Lake Erie, a project that started in the 1860s.
Unlike devastating Tsunamis caused by underwater earthquakes, seiches have never caused much damage in the Great Lakes, and most go unnoticed since they are relatively subtle and imperceptible, causing water levels on beaches to rise just a foot or less.
But this one was very perceptible and occurred on a calm and warm Saturday morning in Chicago. What started as a day of peaceful fishing turned out to be an experience that has remained indelibly in my mind and, I believe, worthy of a sharing. One thing is for certain, we will never experience a Seiche here……….at least I don’t think so.
“It didn’t come in like a wall…..the water just started to rise and kept going until it was maybe 6 feet higher than usual.” Dick Keating, Belmont Harbor Foreman and eyewitness.