|High waves at the Jackson Park shoreline. Published by V.O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago.|
The incident was called an “act of God” by some media agencies at the time. Experts, however, believed it was a seiche wave (pronounced “sayshe” or “seech”), which can occur when a storm squall line creates high winds and driving water across the lake and then back to the Chicago shoreline. The wave can range from a swell of just a few inches to a large wall of water so big that it can smash onto Lake Shore Drive.
Seiche waves can occur on smaller lakes too. In 1956, three fishermen died after a seiche wave struck their boat on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. There have been about 10 major seiches waves on Lake Michigan in the 20th Century.
|Fishing near the entrance of the Chicago Harbor. Published by Gerson Bros., Chicago.|
On June 1980, seiche-like waves also hit the Chicago shoreline, prompting lifeguards to pull 10 people from the water. Luckily, all 10 people survived. The water peaked at about 6 feet above normal levels and then rolled several hundred feet up to the sidewalk at North Avenue beach.
After the 1954 incident, the city installed metal cables and posts anchored in the concrete on wave breakers, which are intended to provide a handhold in the event of a sudden large wave.
A Chicago Tribune story in 2019 that revisited the 1954 tragedy quotes scientists and meteorologists who believe the wave was a meteotsunami rather than a seiche. In short, the difference between the two is that a seiche is a singular wave rocking back and forth, while a meteotsunami wave is generally the width of a stormfront and often lasts for a shorter period of time.
|Beach scene at Oak Street Beach. Published by Max Rigot Selling Co., Chicago.|
Scientists say that a meteotsunami can happen anywhere in the world, including on the East Coast and West Coast of the United States. More incidents may also occur in the future along Lake Michigan due to climate change and stronger storms passing through the area. High lake water levels over the past few years are making the waves more devastating overall.
There are many postcards depicting images of large waves on the Chicago shoreline that appear to be similar to ocean scenes. On the other hand, some of my favorite childhood memories include visiting the beaches on the Chicago lakefront at times when the waves were more peaceful. I’ve included some postcards of people enjoying the lakefront here as a reminder of these happy days experienced by myself and many other Chicagoans.
|People at Oak Street Beach. Published by Gerson Bros., Chicago.|
Bathing at the beach at 76th Street. Published by Max Rigot Selling Co., Chicago.
Yachting on Lake Michigan. Published by A. C. Mc Clurg & Co., Chicago.
Boating on Lake Michigan. V.O. Hammon Publishing Co., Chicago.