November 10, 2022 UPDATE: This story was originally posted in 2020. It’s 70f in Madison today and a cold front is on the way, just like the Armstice Day of 1940. Winter is coming.
A cold front pushed the winds of November across Lake Mendota yesterday but thanks to weather forecasting, we knew the storm was coming. Let’s go back 80 years and revisit Don Sanford’s story of the 1940 Armistice Day Storm, about a surprise storm that caused mayhem and death across the nation. In the past few years, even more stories, photos, and videos have been shared to the internet about this historic storm, including the video by Great Lakes underwater explorer and historian Valerie Van Heest, embedded below. After 145 people died in the storm, the National Weather Service’s “forecasting responsibilities were expanded to include 24-hour coverage and more forecasting offices were created, yielding more accurate local forecasts.”
The Armistice Day Storm
Lake Mendota has but one island. It sits at the northeast end of the lake about midway between Farwell’s point and Six Mile creek. No more than 30 feet in diameter, the island has no official name. You’ll not even find it on most charts of the lake. It’s not to be confused with Rocky Roost, which lies about a mile to the southeast and just a few hundred feet north of Governors Island. To most Lake Mendota sailors, the little island is simply called “the rock pile.” It’s a lonely spot, with little in the way of vegetation, home to no one other than a few seagulls. It is an ideal spot for duck hunting and in November of 1940, it was the scene of a potential tragedy and an heroic rescue.
Monday, November 11, 1940 dawned unseasonably warm in Madison, Wisconsin. Much of the upper Midwest was enjoying the same, unseasonably warm weather. In New York, Fantasia, Walt Disney’s groundbreaking film premiered, breaking box office records. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had just been elected to his second term in office, defeating Wendell Wilke.
By 10:00 that morning the mercury in Madison had climbed to an unseasonable 55 degrees. Rupert J. Batz, University of Wisconsin weather observer was on vacation at the Jackson cottage on the north shore of Lake Mendota. Accompanied by his dog Brownie, Batz decided to go duck hunting that day. He planned on spending the day in the duck blind about a half-mile south of the cottage on “the rock pile.” What started off as a beautiful day began to change rapidly. Just a few days before, unknown to Batz and most Midwesterners, four days ago, a massive storm roared off the Pacific Ocean and causing the collapse of “Galloping Gerdie,” the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. That storm was now gathering strength on the plains preparing for an all-out assault on the unsuspecting Midwest.
Early in the afternoon, the weather began to change. By 1 p.m., the temperature had dropped 20 degrees to 35 and the wind began to churn Lake Mendota into an angry froth. Just before dark, Batz’s boat was blown away as the winds continued to rise and the temperature dropped. By 5 p.m. the temperature had dropped to 20 degrees. At the airport, Northwest Airlines grounded its planes and cancelled flights as winds hit 52 mph at 7 p.m. Meanwhile, out on the lake, attempts were made to rescue Mr. Batz but the boats that tried to make the half-mile trip were no match for the gale-force winds. It was getting dark and Batz realized that he and Brownie were going to be staying on the island overnight. The only boat large enough to rescue Batz was the Isabel II, the 28-foot Chris Craft utility used operated by the UW Lifesaving service. With her high freeboards and large cockpit, the Isabel II was ideally suited for rescue work in difficult conditions.
Unfortunately for anyone needing a quick rescue in November, boating season had long-since closed. The Isabel II had been decommissioned for the winter, having been moved into her wintertime storage area in the old University boathouse behind the red gym on Langdon St. To further complicate matters, her big six-cylinder inboard engine had been pulled for off-season maintenance. The storm continued to intensify and by midnight, the temperature dropped to 14. The winds, powered by a huge storm system that swept across the upper Midwest, continued to howl steadily at speeds of 50 mph during the night.
According to A. F. Gallistel, director of the university buildings and grounds, members of the University life-saving crew learned of Mr. Batz’s plight late Monday. Harvey Black was the director of the lifesaving station then. Black and his assistant Vincent Grudzina were called to the boathouse around 1 am and immediately set to work to make the Isabel II ready for the water. The crew worked all night, even calling on the Madison Police Department for batteries needed to get the Isabel’s engine started.
By 9 a.m. on Tuesday, November 12, the temperature had dropped again, hitting just 9 degrees above zero. Early that morning, the Isabel II with Black at the helm and Grudzina at his side, was underway, headed for the little island four miles away. Black later described this as his toughest assignment. “The wind hit 60 miles and hour, 80 in the puffs”, Black said. “The waves were so deep that shore couldn’t be seen when the boat went down into the troughs”, he continued . When they could get the occasional glimpse above the tops of the waves on the angry lake, the rescuers could see no signs of life on the island. As they drew closer their hopes rose when they could see Batz and his dog. The men in the Isabel began waving blankets to signal that they were headed to pick the castaways.
Getting Mr. Batz off of the little island required first-rate seamanship, a skill that Black was famous for. The lake shoals (gets very shallow) rapidly in
the vicinity of the island. The bottom is littered with rocks. It’s an inhospitable place, even when the weather is fine. “We attempted four landings on the island. On the first three, our launch was blown away, but the fourth succeeded”, Black later recalled. The Isabell had no windshield, nor a cabin, so the boat and crew were solidly coated with ice by the time they arrived. Black and Grudzina were frozen and pounded by the waves and wind before Batz and Brownie were brought aboard. The lifeboat crew found Mr. Batz cold, but safe after his 30-hour adventure in a howling gale on Lake Mendota. Years later black recalled, “That was the toughest one we ever had, and we don’t want another.”
Hunters and sportsmen on Lake Wisconsin and the Mississippi River encountered the same surprise storm. Ships on Lakes Michigan and Superior ran aground or sank as the storm crossed the upper Great Lakes with the same fury it displayed on Mendota. As the storm roared across Minnesota, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma 116 died in its wake. In the days following the storm, Madison service stations reported a brisk business repairing automobile radiators and cracked engine blocks. In Vilas Park, a dredge working on the new lagoon was trapped in the early season ice.
While many perished elsewhere, no lives were lost in Madison, thanks in large degree to the efforts of Harvey Black and the crew at the UW life-saving service. It’s unknown if Mr. Batz went duck hunting again.