The Big Seiche
May 5, 1952

by the late Vincent Elliott

     The Big Seiche of 1952 in Stokes Bay will be long remembered by the people who had to clean up the mess, or who lost cabins, furniture, boats or wood, but since no one was hurt, to-day it is just an amusing story from the past.

     It all started with what looked like a hot, humid day. Not a breath of air stirred the gently flowing Stokes River and a faint mist lay over the Bay. The fishermen had just finished their breakfasts and were getting ready to start the day fishing or mending their nets or getting the boats ready for the coming fishing season. George McLay had his boat drawn up on the shore for last minute repairs. Seymour Knight has a brand new boat tied up at the Government Dock and his old boat tied up beside it. Malcolm McDonald had his lighthouse boat tied up to a piling of the bridge and a fence-post on Jack McLay’s lawn. Kenny McLay left his boat at Howdenvale and the other Stokes Bay boats were tied up loosely along the river front. My own little aluminum boat was tied up beside Garny Hawke’s despite the fact that Garny had wiped out my last wooden boat by throwing an anchor through its bottom in the dark one night.

George McLay’s boat lifted on part of the bridge when Big Seiche struck Stokes Bay and the river in May 1952.

     At 6:00 a.m. Annie McLay glanced out the window and called out to her husband, “Jack, come and look outside. The garden is all covered with water.” The water had come up level with the river bank and was now gently flowing across the road. This is the first seiche to arrive. There were to be three that forenoon, each getting more violent. In this article I will simply call the rise in water level a “tide” for want of a better word. The tide soon went down but the village people were now aware that something was happening. At this time I came down to the shore to go fishing with Ralph Beacroft from Wallaceburg. I stopped to take a picture with the water up around my knees but by the time I had things in focus I was standing on dry land again. In the lull after the first tide we took off into Stokes Bay, so we were not to see the things that were shortly to happen in the village.

     About half an hour later the second tide came in. This was bigger than the first covered the road for some distance up town. People became alarmed about the safety of their boats and put extra ropes on them. The tide went out with a rush, leaving the river almost dry and fish flopping on the bottom. Kenny McLay said, “I could have walked across to Garden Island in my rubber boots.” As the second tide rushed out, Malcolm McDonald, to save the lighthouse boat, jumped into it, cut all the ropes, and rode it down the river. He checked in with his parents manning the light at Knife Island but they had not noted any disturbance so far in that part of Stokes Bay. This second violent tide should have warned the local people to be ready for anything, but no one suspected that the worst was yet to come.

     The third tide, or Big Seiche, came in just before noon. Here are the exact words of Annie McLay who ran to the Post Office beside the bridge:

     “I awoke about 6:30 at my usual time to get up. I was Postmistress and had to have the office open at eight o’clock. Martin was going to High School in Lion’s Head then and had to leave to catch the bus. On looking out the bedroom window I saw the water up on the road and some on the garden. I called on Jack and Martin to come and see this unusual sight. The tide receded and in a few minutes the river was dry. I got breakfast and was just going to sit down when we saw the water running up the river again. Malcolm’s boat was tied up at the bridge and Jack went out to put another line on it. He tied this line to our fence-post. Earl McArthur and Donelda came to our place. There was no wind at all, but a distant rumble of thunder. When the water started coming in under the door I picked up the mailbags and everything belonging to the Post Office and put it up high. Martin and Donelda picked up a few things and got one chair up on the table. By this time the water was getting so deep we took the cash box and money from the Post Office and went upstairs.

     “On looking out the upstairs window we saw a terrible sight. Boats had broken loose all over and were coming up the river. George McLay’s boat had come off the shore and was coming up the river faster then a motor could have driven it. Jack went out to save some boats but he couldn’t get home against the tide rushing in so fast, and had to go up the road towards the store. George Vaughan, from his fishing camp, put his wife Alice on his back and carried her up the road, stopping to rest on the front steps of McLay’s Store. Jack had 7 cords of wood and 50 fence posts stacked in the yard and Earl McArthur had another 7 cords of wood piled beside his cabin. All this was wahed away and never seen again. Jack has a wagon and a sleigh in the yard fenced in behind a strong pole fence, but they were lifted up by the tide and went sailing over the top poles of the fence and out onto the road and into Golden’s swamp.

     “Donelda and Martin and I watched from the upstairs window. It was a weird sight... all kinds of lumber and debris and upset boats. Donelda started to cry when she saw her house move off its foundation and start bouncing up and down on the water, but she had a very heavy cook stove at one end of the house and this kept it from washing away. The water took out the bridge and left George McLay’s boat sitting high and dry on the middle abutment.

     “When Allan McLay came in from Tamarack he saw the water rushing in and called to Roddy Smith to get out of his house and up the road. Roddy wouldn’t move and said he was all right, but as he saw the water getting deeper in his house it wasn’t long before he was glad to get out. As Roddy was going out the front door a muskrat came swimming in the back door.”

     In Annie’s account she doesn’t mention the second tide. I checked the impossible “Muskrat” story, and it is true! There were a lot of other incidents connected with the Big Seiche. Here are some of them:

     When Seymour Knight went to the Government Dock he tried to secure his two boats with more ropes. This was impossible, so he hung on, like dear life, to his new fishing boat, and the old fishing boat broke away and was seen sailing serenely out through the bouys of the channel and into the great beyond. Seymour and Elby recovered it undamaged several days later.

     A tourist at Lookabout Bay got up and reached down to get his shoes. He put his arm into the water, and then found his shoes floating under the bed.

     A tourist at the Government Dock claimed that all wood washed up on the shore was “Driftwood” and belonged to the finder. Despite the fact that he knew whose wood it was, (mostly Jack McLay’s and Earl McArthur’s) he proceeded to gather it up and add it to his own woodpiles.

     When Annie McLay was upstairs watching the tides she heard a bump and found her chesterfield floating around her living room. A few minutes later she heard and even bigger bump and found that the tin heater had risen up and was behaving like a boat while the stovepipes came crashing down, getting soot all over the room and through her cupboards.

     Margaret Burley came up town and took pictures of George’s boat up on the piling where the bridge used to be. She stopped to fill up several containers of perch from Garny Hawke’s lawn and Norm McDonald’s yard. Other local people found the fishing very easy that day and helped themselves.

     Alice Hawes lost her boat and found it later in the swamp near the graveyard. Jack McLay brought it back when he found his wagon again.

     George Vaughan’s cabin was washed right away and landed across the road in the swamp.

     Annie McLay’s cat kept bringing in drowned kittens all morning and putting them on her front doorstep.

     Lobsinger came in from the lake and said, “Where is my dock?” Jack said, “Just tie your boat to my fence post.”

     Between tides that morning Ralph and I had gone out into the bay fishing. What happened to us was just as weird as Roddy’s muskrat and George’s boat. We tried to fish in the “deep hole” off McDonough’s but a dense fog came in and we couldn’t see even a few feet away. We had to stop fishing because our lines seemed to take off violently in one direction for no apparent reason. At this time we must have been rushing along at a fast rate, but because of the fog and the movement of the entire surface of the water we had no sensation of going anywhere. After about an hour the fog lifted and we found that we were not in Stokes Bay at all, but had crossed a spit of land and were now in Gallie’s Bay!

     How can a seiche cause a flood like the one on May 5, 1952? I don’t think it can.

     A seiche is really a transverse vibration of the water in the lake. If you tilt up one side of a wash basin, the water slops up against the other side and then back again. That is a seiche. There are longitudinal seiches making quite strong currents in Lake Huron in a North-South direction. The commercial fishermen encounter these. The seiches the sports fishermen know most about are little crosswise tides that come in and go out about every twenty minutes. These raise the water only a few inches to a foot and are noticed especially before a storm. We are very aware of these because the fish bite best just before the “tide” changes. At the “Reversing creek” at the foot of Dorcas Bay you can see this periodic inflow and outflow of water. Stokes Bay is also funnel-shaped and this intensifies the effect of a seiche. In Stokes Bay “tides” may come and go every ten minutes because the vibration may be relected by the shore of Lyall Island and cause a vibration with a vibration.
     Another thing that could cause a “tide” would be a strong wind. In Florida I’ve seen all the water blown out of the shallow mangrove swamps into the ocean so we couldn’t fish for three days. A strong west wind would magnify the effect of a seiche, but there was NO wind on May 5, 1952.

     I think the Big Seiche was caused by an area of high pressure out over the lake, and just on that day we had an area of extremely low pressure, like in the eye of a cyclone, right over Stokes Bay. This pushed a big mass of water in on top of us which was magnified by the shape of our Bay and the mouth of Stokes River.

     Twenty-nine years have passed since the Big Seiche. The older people have almost forgotten it and he young don’t know about it, or hear such stories with disbelief. Yet tourists are still building cabins along the mouth of Stokes River, and these people are blissfully unaware that there is no reason in the world why this couldn’t happen again. We could have another “Big Seiche”.
By Vincent Elliott 1913 - 1988

House in middle was the Alex Martin House.

Pages 27-31 of Old Timers’ Tales
A History of Stokes Bay and Area
(Bruce Peninsula)
By Helene Scott

Seiche strikes Stokes Bay area

About 30 years ago at Stokes Bay, the water in the bay was almost emptied, then it came rushing back to flood most of the community.
Last Friday a similar seiche hit Stokes Bay, but it wasn't as severe as the earlier one.
A seiche is caused by a change in aor temperature over the Lakes and causes something similar to the ebb and flow of the tide. However a seiche isn't caused by the pull of the moon's gravity and can happen with little warning.
The seiche Friday caused extensive damage to docks, and a few cottages lying on low ground were flooded.
Bruce Atchison, owner of Peninsula Marine near the mouth of Old Woman's River said it was the worst in a long time and expected it will happen again.
High water levels on the Great Lakes are causing concern to many residents who fear a bad storm could cause disastrous flooding.