“Giant tidal wave hits local town lake.” April Fool? Most likely. “A giant tidal wave hits Chicago.” Joke, right? No. It was the headline of the afternoon edition of the Chicago Daily News for June 26, 1954.
I left home in my battered Chevy around 9 a.m. on a hot Saturday morning in June 1954 and drove to Montrose Beach and the Lake Michigan Harbor to meet my dad and some friends at Wilson Rocks Bait Shop where he hooked up with his fishing friends. We were going pole fishing. Preparing for my senior year in high school, I had worked hard in construction and needed some sun and relaxation. The pole was the answer that Saturday morning, but I would soon find something quite different…something I would never forget.
Upon entering the parking lot, I noticed that it was full of water despite a beautiful sunny day. The lake was unusually rough. I also noticed people running towards the pier. I felt like something very, very serious was going on and immediately and instinctively I headed to the bait shop to get in touch with my dad. He saw me coming and said “let’s go to the pier, they need help there”, and we took off at full speed with many others. A Cuttlefish (pronounced sayh) had hit Montrose Harbor without warning that June morning. It was 8 feet tall and 25 miles wide and touched the entire Chicago Lakefront……from Michigan City, Indiana to the North Shore. Eight people were killed, most of whom were fishing just there in Montrose Harbor where around 15 or 20 fishermen were swept away by the narrow 175ft concrete jetty. And we knew a lot of them.
When we arrived, swimmers and fishermen were running for cover. Men, women and children rushed and fell. The yachts bobbed widely in the water. The wave in some spots had rushed 150 feet towards the coast before sagging within minutes, which was why I saw so much water as I pulled into the parking lot. There have been rescues, panic, desperation and narrow escapes. Unfortunately we arrived too late to be of any real help and then stood helpless as rescue teams began the grim work of pulling every body from the lake. Apparently the fishermen who were lying face down, lazily guiding lines through the water, were simply swept off the pier as the water swelled and submerged them. Fishermen at 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 thrown into the water was Ted Stempinski, who was fishing with his 16-year-old son Ralph. Ralph left the scene a moment shortly before the wave hit. When he returned, his father was gone. The same thing happened with John Jaworski who was also fishing with his son. These tragic facts barely went unnoticed and marked me long after.
News of the impending wave was quickly spread by park police who evacuated fishermen from a pier on 61st Street in Jackson Park minutes before water submerged that area. At Loyola Beach, just to the north, waves crashed over a 9-foot seawall. All of the docks in the Belmont Harbor boating basin were flooded when the surge raised the water level by approximately 6 feet.
Before June 26, no one had ever heard of the word “Cuttlefish”. After June 26, most of us were experts on the phenomenon.
Specifically, “A Seiche must 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 creating huge fluctuations in water levels within moments Standing waves move back and forth between the shores of the lake basin, often referred to as Great Lakes tidal changes, Most seiches on the Great Lakes are the result of atmospheric disturbances and wind stoppage, not seismic 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 violent squall line with high winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure that pushed down onto the surface of the lake and crossed the south of the lake. Michigan a few hours earlier, moving northwest to southeast. It’s like dropping a stone in the middle of a bucket of water and watching the ripples move from the center. The atmospheric pressure caused by the grain was the stone and the ripples were the Cuttlefish. Like water swaying in a bathtub, fast-moving squall lines with intense atmospheric pressure rocked the lake back and forth and raised water levels at the shoreline and harbors by as much as 10 feet in a few minutes and with no warning.
Unlike a tsunami, which can cross the ocean at extremely high speeds, a seiche moves much more slowly. It took the Cuttlefish 80 minutes to travel 40 miles from Chicago’s lakeside Michigan City to North Avenue. It’s about 30 mph. The Cuttlefish hit the entire Illinois coast with a wave about 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 surprised at how the Chicago newspapers overdramatized the tragedy. The now defunct Chicago Daily News ran headlines that read in two-inch black letters: “BIG TIDAL WAVE HERE! Many swept into lake; 10 feared dead. Mother of 11 among victims. 3 divers, boats chase others.Three people drowned and several others feared lost on Saturday when a 25-mile-wide tidal wave broke the shore of Lake Michigan here.The freak wave, estimated 3 to 10 feet high, struck around 9 a.m. from Jackson Park north to Wilmette. An unknown number of people were swept into the lake. Estimates of the death toll were 10. …..” There had been no “great tidal wave”; there had been an abnormal and fatal Cuttlefish. Since then there have been numerous alerts and reports of small seiches, but none have caused similar damage or fatalities.
Interestingly, however, one of the greatest disasters in the recorded history of the city of Buffalo, NY, occurred at 11 p.m. on October 18, 1844 when a wall of water rapidly flooded the commercial districts and residential along the waterfront. The disaster occurred without warning, breaching the 14ft seawall and flooding the waterfront. Newspaper accounts say 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 stopped or moved in the opposite direction, the water returned in the direction it came from and the Seichedid the rest. Buffalo is estimated to have two or three seiches a year, but the threat was largely eliminated by the construction of a breakwater in Lake Erie, a project that began in the 1860s.
Unlike devastating tsunamis caused by undersea earthquakes, seiches have never caused much damage in the Great Lakes, and most go unnoticed because they are relatively subtle and imperceptible, causing water levels to rise. on ranges of a foot or less.
But this one was very noticeable and happened on a calm, warm Saturday morning in Chicago. What started out as a peaceful day of fishing turned out to be an experience that has remained indelible in my mind and, I believe, worthy of sharing. One thing is certain, we will never experience a Cuttlefish here…at least I don’t think so.
“It didn’t come in like a wall…the water just started to rise and continued until it was maybe 6 feet higher than usual.” Dick Keating, Belmont Harbor foreman and eyewitness.
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