Close To Me Water Flowing To Ocean In The Morning The Day a "Tidal Wave" Hit Chicago

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The Day a "Tidal Wave" Hit Chicago

“Huge Tidal Wave Hits Local City Lake.” An April Fool’s joke? Probably. “Massive tidal wave hits Chicago.” A joke, right? No. That was the headline of the June 26, 1954 afternoon edition of the Chicago Daily News.

On a warm Saturday morning in June 1954, I left the house around 9:00 a.m. in my wrecked Chevy and drove uptown to Montrose Beach and the Lake Michigan docks to meet my dad and some friends at the Wilson Rocks bait shop where he was hanging out out with your fellow fishermen. We were going to fish for perch……it’s a chewy white-fleshed fish that tastes heavenly when deep-fried and served with lemon, tartar sauce and fries. When I was getting ready for my senior year of high school, I was working a hard job in construction and needed some sun and relaxation. Perch was the answer this Saturday morning, but soon I would find something completely different……something I would never forget.

When I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed that it was full of water, even though it was a sunny day. The lake was unusually wavy. I also noticed people running towards the pier. I had a feeling that something very serious and very bad was going on and I immediately and instinctively went to the bait shop to contact 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. Seiche (pronounced sayh) hit Montrose Harbor without warning on a June morning. It was 8 feet high and 25 miles wide and hit the entire Chicago Lakeshore……from Michigan City, Indiana to the North Shore. Eight people were killed, most of them fishing right there in Montrose Harbor, where about 15 or 20 fishermen were swept off the narrow, 175-foot concrete pier. And we knew a lot of them.

When we arrived, swimmers and fishermen were running for cover. Men, women and children were running and falling. Yachts swayed widely in the water. The wave washed 150 feet into shore at some points before calming down within minutes, which explained why I saw so much water when I pulled into the parking lot. There were rescues, panic, despair and barely escaped. Unfortunately, we were too late to really help and then stood by helplessly as the rescue teams began the grim work of pulling the bodies out of the lake. Apparently, the fishermen, who had been lying on their stomachs and idly spinning their lines in the water, were simply swept away from the pier, as the water swelled and washed them away. Fishermen at the North Avenue Pier, a few miles south, were also swept into the lake, and there the same grim work was being done. Among those thrown into the water was Ted Stempinski, who was fishing with his 16-year-old son, Ralph. Ralph left the scene for a moment just before the wave hit. When he returned, his father was gone. The same thing happened to John Jaworski, who was also fishing with his son. These tragic facts hardly went unnoticed and followed me for a long time.

News of the incoming wave was quickly spread by park police, who removed anglers from the 61st Street pier in Jackson Park minutes before water submerged the area. At Loyola Beach to the north, waves broke over a 9-foot seawall. All docks in the Belmont Harbor Yacht Basin were flooded when the wave raised the water level there by about 6 feet.

Before June 26, no one had ever heard of the word “Seiche”. After June 26, we were mostly connoisseurs of phenomena.
Specifically, “Seiche must occur in an enclosed body of water, such as a lake, bay, or inlet. Seiche, a French word meaning “to rock back and forth,” is a standing wave that oscillates in a lake as a result of seismic or atmospheric disturbances that cause large fluctuations in water level in just a few moments. Standing waves whip back and forth between the shores of the lake basin, often referred to by many as tidal changes in the Great Lakes. Most seiches in the Great Lakes are the result of atmospheric disturbances and cessation of wind, rather than seismic activity or large tidal forces’ (Heidorn 2004; Wittman 2005).

This particular Seiche, which was the most dangerous of the three types, was fueled by a powerful storm boundary with strong winds and rapid changes in atmospheric pressure that pushed up the lake surface and crossed southern Lake Michigan a few hours earlier, going from the northwest to the southeast. It’s like dropping a rock into the center of a bucket of water and watching the waves move out from the center. The atmospheric pressure produced by the storm was a stone, and the ripples were Seiche. Like water sloshing back and forth in a bathtub, fast-moving storms of high atmospheric pressure caused the lake to slosh back and forth, and the water level on the shore and docks rose 10 feet in a matter of minutes, and with without warning.

Unlike a tsunami, which can travel across the open ocean at extremely high speeds, a Seiche moves much more slowly. It took Seiche 80 minutes to travel 40 miles from Michigan City to Chicago’s lakeshore on North Avenue. That’s about 30 mph. Seiche 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 struck by the way the Chicago newspapers overdramatized the tragedy. The Chicago Daily News, now defunct, carried headlines that read in two-inch black letters: “BIG TIDAL WAVES HERE! Many swept into lake; 10 feared dead. Mother of 11 children among victims. 3 divers, boats catch others.Three people drowned and several feared lost Saturday when a 25-mile-wide tidal wave smashed into the shores of Lake Michigan here.The unusual wave, estimated to be 3 to 10 feet high, struck around 9 a.m. from Jackson Park north to Wilmette. An undetermined number of people were swept into the lake. Estimates of the death toll ranged as high as 10….” There was no “large tidal wave;” the strange and deadly Seiche happened. Since then, there have been many scares and reports of smaller seshes, but none have caused similar damage or death.

Interestingly, however, one of the greatest disasters in the history of the city of Buffalo, New York occurred on October 18, 1844 at 11 p.m., when a wall of water quickly overwhelmed the commercial and residential districts along the waterfront. The accident happened without warning, breaching the 14-meter sea wall and flooding the coast. According to newspaper reports, 78 people drowned. This tragedy was also caused by the Seiche, as prolonged high winds caused the Seiche by pushing water toward one end of Lake Erie. When the winds stopped or shifted in the opposite direction, the water moved back in the direction from which it came, and the Seichedid remained. Buffalo is estimated to have two or three sejjas a year, but the threat was largely eliminated by the construction of the breakwater in Lake Erie, a project that began in the 1860s.

Unlike devastating tsunamis caused by underwater earthquakes, seismographs have never caused much damage in the Great Lakes, and most of them go unnoticed because they are relatively subtle and unnoticeable, causing water levels on beaches to rise only a foot or less.

But this one was very noticeable and it happened on a calm and warm Saturday morning in Chicago. What started out as a day of peaceful fishing turned out to be an experience that will stay indelibly in my memory and I believe is worth sharing. One thing is for sure, we will never experience Seiche here……….at least I don’t think so.

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

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