Holland diver breathes life into 80-year-old tragedy on Lake Michigan with new museum exhibit

Weather whiplash.
 
There’s not a more fitting way to summarize the weather on Lake Michigan on Monday, Nov. 11, 1940, an event that lives in history as The Armistice Day Storm. 
 
It’s been 80 years since the deadliest storm in Great Lakes history. There were 64 drownings in Lake Michigan. About 100 additional lives were lost on land throughout the Midwestern United States.
 
Holland resident Valerie van Heest became captivated by The Armistice Day Storm the same way she becomes fascinated with most things — through shipwrecks.
 
Van Heest and her husband, Jack, are founders of the Michigan Shipwreck Research Association (MSRA). She is an inductee into the International Women Divers Hall of Fame. She is also a principal in the educational exhibit firm Lafferty van Heest and Associates, which has curated, constructed, and installed exhibits at West Michigan museums that include the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum and Historic White Pine Village in Ludington, the Historical Ottawa Beach Society’s Pump House Museum in Holland, and the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.
 
The Armistice Day Storm is the subject of Van Heest’s new exhibit on the second floor of the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum, which is in the former Coast Guard station in Ludington. The museum will be open to visitors Nov. 11 from 1 to 7 p.m. to mark the 80th anniversary of the storm. The museum is closed for the winter, except for this event.  
 
‘A ferocious storm’
 
“This was a ferocious storm caused by a West Coast windstorm that collided with two other fonts as it moved east, causing big trouble for 20 ships on Lake Michigan,” van Heest said. “But the worst of the storm was near Pentwater and Ludington, where 40-foot waves were reported.” 

The Armistice Day Storm exhibit at the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum shines a spotlight on the deadliest storm in Great Lakes history.
 
Three ships — the Novadoc, a Canadian ship hauling mostly grain; the Sarnia-chartered Anna C. Minch, carrying grain from Ontario to Chicago; and the William B. Davock, a U.S. ship carrying coal loaded in Erie, Pennsylvania — all went down between Big Sable Point and Little Sable Point. Fifty-six sailors perished. The ships were total losses. 
 
A fourth ship — a large car ferry named The City of Flint 32, en route from Milwaukee — hit the north break wall while attempting to enter the Ludington harbor amid violent winds. The impact rotated the ship and forced it into the shallows on the north side of the channel, where it became embedded in a sandbar 500 feet parallel to shore. Rescue efforts had to wait until the massive surf subsided, but no lives were lost. The car ferry was repaired and returned to service.
 
In addition, a total of eight crew members drowned in the southern part of the lake when two fishing tugs out of South Haven — the Richard H and the Indian — were lost in the storm.
 
Several other vessels ran aground in sustained southwest gales, which a National Weather Service report said caused a drop of 4.8 feet in the Lake Michigan water level at Chicago, and a rise of 4 to 4.5 feet at Beaver Island. The fluctuation forced a temporary suspension of operations of a power plant and paper mill in Green Bay, Wisconsin, according to the report.
 
Legacy of the storm
 
The Armistice Day Storm was so deadly because it was so unexpected, van Heest said.

Prior to this storm, weather forecasts for the Great Lakes Region originated out of the National Weather Bureau in Chicago during 12-hour shifts, six days a week, and weather predictions rarely happened on Sundays. 

After this storm, the bureau expanded to include auxiliary offices that provided 24-hour weather forecasting, seven days per week. 

Thanks to more thorough weather monitoring and forecasting, no single weather event since 1940 in the Great Lakes Region has damaged as many ships or claimed as many lives.
 
A 1940 experience
 
Lafferty van Heest and Associates weaves historical photos, news reels, recorded interviews, and other storytelling devices in a way van Heest hopes will allow visitors today to experience what was one of Lake Michigan's deadliest storm and its tragic aftermath as Midwesterners in 1940 did.

The Armistice Day Storm exhibit at the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum shines a spotlight on the deadliest storm in Great Lakes history.
 
Temperatures were unseasonably sublime at 60 degrees that Monday morning, and many people left home in shirtsleeves. It was the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement that ended World War I, and a holiday for most workers. There were parades down main streets of many communities. Hunters were hitting the marshes in droves because the duck hunting season was ending. It was also the beginning of trout season, and fishermen were eager to cast their lines.
 
Desire to enjoy a glorious late-fall day was not diminished by news that high winds had destroyed a long suspension bridge under construction near Tacoma, Washington, a few days earlier. Such storms usually faltered and weakened against the  Rocky Mountains, but this one remained fierce.

Colliding fronts
 
When this windstorm smashed into a Southern warm front and a Northern cold front over the Midwest on Sunday, a blizzard resulted. Then cyclonic winds began to twist.
 
About noon on Nov. 11, 1940, in West Michigan, balmy temperatures began plummeting, plunging 40 degrees in about five hours.
 
“In those days, the National Weather Service Office in Chicago was staffed only half-days on Sundays,” van Heest said. “What they later described as a ‘weather bomb’ didn’t develop until after staff went home. They sent out warnings the next day, but that was too late to warn some people.”

Port of Ludington Maritime Museum
 
The new Port of Ludington Maritime Museum exhibit includes a simulated two-person submarine that visitors can board to see a video of the actual shipwrecks
 
It also includes a photograph of van Heest’s daughters — Cella and Taya, now 19 and 17, respectively — making their first dives on the SS Novadoc five years ago. The Novadoc is popular with novice divers because it is under only 20 feet of water and can usually be seen from the surface.
 
Interest in history
 
Van Heest was a teen-ager growing up in Chicagoland when she made her first dive in Lake Michigan. Her father, Richard Olson, was a Navy diver in World War II. He later joined forces with friend Sam Davison to form a scuba diving gear manufacturing company.
 
“I loved the underwater world from the first time I experienced it because it is absolutely unique,” van Heest said. “Shipwrecks intrigued me. How did it come to be at the bottom of the lake? Shipwrecks caused me to become interested not just in maritime history, but all history. I really wasn’t much interested in history before I started to dive. I owe my interest in the world to scuba diving.”
 
The then-Valerie Olson started exploring and documenting shipwrecks in Lake Michigan near Chicago. Gradually, she became known throughout the region for having expert knowledge of shipwrecks throughout the Great Lakes.
 
She was presenting findings in the Detroit area about the wreck of the schooner Goshawk in Lake Huron when she met Jack van Heest, a diver who came to her lecture. They began dating and married, then settled in Holland in 1995. The van Heests are active in the MSRA, an organization of divers that searches for shipwrecks and documents them.
 
Incorporating passion
 
Although van Heest’s formal training is in architecture and design, she said her professional career, after 25 years, grew to envelope her passion, which is scuba diving.
 
A downturn in the economy about 2008 resulted in museums losing paid staff. As a result, museum owners began outsourcing exhibit curation and development, and Lafferty van Heest and Associates was formed to satisfy that need, van Heest said. 
 
About that time, the Mason County Historical Society was launching plans for a maritime museum in what had been Ludington’s Coast Guard Station. They reached out to van Heest because they already knew her as a diver.  Lafferty van Heest and Associates has produced all of the exhibits for the Ludington museum, as well as at Historic White Pine Village, also operated by the society.
 
Van Heest said she turned to historic newspapers and other primary sources while researching The Armistice Day Storm. The reported number of casualties varied significantly, especially the number on land that could be attributed to the powerhouse storm.
 
A lasting memorial
 
The Armistice Day Storm exhibit will remain a fixture of the Port of Ludington Maritime Museum. The display includes a memorial wall that lists the names of all the men whose lives were lost on Lake Michigan.
 
Capt. Charles W. Allen, of Detroit, is among a crew of 33 on the William B. Davock who perished. Capt. Donald Z. Kennedy, of Collingwood, Ontario, led the crew of 23 who lost their lives on Anna C. Minch. Two Canadian stewards lost their lives on the Novadoc, but there were 17 survivors. Capt. Jack McCay Jr., of South Haven, plus two crewmen, died aboard the Richard H. Capt. James Madsen, of South Haven, was among five crew members aboard the Indian who perished.
 
Although bodies of many seamen lost during The Armistice Day Storm were eventually found, identified, and laid to rest, men who worked in the engine room of the Davock were never recovered. The exhibit includes interviews with sons of the first and second engineers Harold F. Mullen and Arnold J. Johnson — both named for their fathers — recorded during an event that marked the 75th anniversary of the storm.
 
Divers have been important in piecing together what did and didn’t happen regarding the shipwrecks in which there were no survivors, van Heest said. For 32 years people suspected that the Davock and the Minch may have collided in the storm because the Minch was essentially split in half. The stern, when found, was a quarter-mile south of its bow. That theory is no longer believed.
 
Van Heest said she is writing a chapter about The Armistice Day Storm to include in a sequel to her book Lost and Found: Legendary Lake Michigan Shipwrecks, published by In-Depth Editions.
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