Storm Surges / Lake Michigan Seiche / Tidal Waves
The killer seiche of 1954
Chicago Tribune reporter
Chicagoans love their lake. It cools the hot summer winds, and it provides a watery playground for swimmers, fishermen and boaters. But last week's warnings of rogue waves reminded residents that Lake Michigan can be a dangerous neighbor, even in the warm months.
Deadly rip currents, boating accidents and drownings take numerous lives every year. There's also another danger: the seiche.
A seiche (pronounced saysh) is formed when a high-pressure system pushes lake water ahead of it, much like a storm surge. When the storm front passes through, the water rushes back into place. On June 26, 1954, those atmospheric ingredients resulted in a deadly tragedy.
Chicago was suffering through a stifling heat wave that June. Friday, June 25, saw a record high of 100.3 degrees, but Saturday broke a bit cooler. Many fishermen headed for the lakefront that morning but the lower temps and an ominous line of clouds on the horizon kept most of the beach crowd at home — the only break the city would get that day.
Though the squall line swept in from the north, the rain never came. The fishermen, some of whom had packed up and started leaving as the storm advanced, returned to their favorite spots at the North Avenue jetty and the Montrose Avenue harbor when the clouds passed on to the south and the skies began to clear. The lake was calm.
About 9:25 a.m., the seiche hit. A 1985 Tribune reconstruction described it as a "monstrous, hump-backed sea beast." The surge first lapped over the edge of the Montrose Avenue pier and wetted shoes, but immediately after — so fast that few who ran were able to make it to shore — a wave towering an estimated 8 feet high swept up the shoreline from North Avenue to Wilmette. About 50 people at Montrose Harbor were caught on the breakwater.
It would take more than a week to find all the bodies, eight in all, including a husband and wife who had planned to renew their marriage vows at their son's upcoming wedding, A 16-year-old boy lost his father in the wave but survived because he just happened to be at a nearby boathouse.
Such sudden, violent waves have hit Chicago before and since, though the 1954 incident was the deadliest reported by the Tribune, possibly because the offending storm failed to scare off the beach-goers and fishermen enjoying a respite from the heat. While an August 1960 storm produced a seiche, heavy rain, high winds and a seiche warning from officials cleared the area. One elderly man still was killed.
In July 1980, a "seichelike wave" threatened Chicago's beaches. Luckily, while 10 people had to be rescued, nobody was injured or killed. An Oak Street Beach lifeguard described what he felt when the lake showed its dark side: "It was just like the water was attacking you."