Historically, the Gales of November have long been known for ushering in long, cold winters throughout northern Michigan. When lake conditions became too hazardous for ships to travel, or when ice began blocking entrances to harbors, thousands of commercial ships became dormant. Usually beginning in early to mid-December, and sometimes lasting until the following May, virtually all commercial shipping on the Great Lakes came to an abrupt halt due to weather.
Alpena, Rogers City, Black River, Harrisville and dozens of similar small coastal communities played host to homeport vessels, as well as any other ship that came to load or unload cargo and was unable to leave the harbor before conditions turned sour. Thunder Bay River alone was often packed with three dozen or more lake craft of all varieties, some rafted together two or three deep for lack of dock space. Lumber schooners, steam barges, bulk and package freighters, harbor tugs, passenger propellers, and of course, a fleet of local fishing vessels could often be seen laid up together like sleeping behemoths.
The ships, of course, were not truly dormant, and owners often took advantage of the down time to make repairs to their boats, exchange worn out engines or machinery, patch sails, mend nets, or slap on a new coat of paint. All preparations had to be done before spring, as a sleeping boat did not pay the bills. As soon as the ice broke, and not a minute later, ships started departing the rivers and harbors throughout the region like bees leaving the hive. The groans of engines turning over for the first time in a long while, and the billowing black smoke from the stacks, signaled the approach of warmer waters and the hopes for a safe and prosperous season on the lakes.
Winter layups continue throughout northern Michigan to this day, though ice breakers and warmer winters now make the commercial shipping off-season considerably less lengthy. Most big ships are only in port for a month or so during the harshest part of winter in January and February. Smaller boats take a little bit longer to awaken. Now is the time to see the cement boats and fish tugs in Rogers City, Alpena and Rockport, and in other areas throughout the region, quietly sleeping under a blanket of fresh snow, and like all of us, yearning for spring!
by Wayne Lusardi, State Marine Archaeologist
Photo Credit: Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection