29 Souls of Gitche Gumee

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Gordon Lightfoot

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

40 years ago on November 10, 1975, the rugged freighter named the Edmund Fitzgerald sank beneath the colossal waves of Lake Superior amidst a furious storm. The great ship was once the pride of freshwater shipping vessels, yet now rests in two pieces 530 feet below the surface and is known as the most renowned shipwreck of the Great Lakes. Much has been surmised regarding the mysterious demise of the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew, but nothing definitive has ever been confirmed. What is known is that the tragedy left the families and friends of the 29 souls who perished with the boat devastated. The entire shipping industry and sailing community of the Great Lakes was affected by the sinking and shall remember forever the storm that struck Superior that fateful night

With its design and construction beginning in 1957 and its launch in 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald had was named after then president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Northwestern Mutual was a large investor in the iron trade and became the principal financier of the new ship that would become the biggest still capable of traveling through the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest laker (freshwater vessel, as opposed to a saltie) built at the time, measuring to an astounding 729 feet (222m) from bow to stern, and 75 feet (29.2m) at its greatest width earning it the title “Queen of the Lakes” that is given to the largest ship on the Great Lakes. This record was be broken quickly, only a year later in 1959 by the Murray Bay. The Edmund Fitzgerald had many nicknames including several variations of “Fitz”, “Toledo Express”, and the ominously appropriate “Titanic of the Great Lakes”. However, names aside, the Edmund Fitzgerald saw more than its fair share of dings and dents over the years, including a collision with the pier on its launch! The ship suffered further significant damage during its 17 years of sailing. Running aground close to the Soo Locks in Sault Ste Marie where Lake Superior connects to Lake Huron (and Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, Canada connects to Sault Ste Marie, Michigan, United States); colliding with another ship called the Hochelaga; and striking a lock wall all within a year contributed to the battle scars of the freighter. All of these were of course repaired long before its final voyage, but it goes to show that the Fitzgerald had taken a thorough licking in its lifetime, and perhaps this took its toll or there was something structurally unsound that adding to its sinking.

As I stated earlier, there are no conclusive answers to what exactly sunk the ship, and multiple expeditions have taken a look at the wreckage in order to find something that may shed some light on the mystery. Rarely have these investigations brought any new evidence, and when they have it leads to a disagreement with the former conceptions on the ship’s sinking. However, the one thing that all of these have agreed on is that the massive storm that surged on the Edmund Fitzgerald‘s path was a contributing factor to its end.

Heading from Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, Minnesota, onward to Zug Island by Detroit, Michigan, the Edmund Fitzgerald was not traveling the whole way alone. She was ahead of another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson, by about 10-15 miles during the last day it would sail, and it was this other vessel that has the closest to an eyewitness account of what happened. The Fitzgerald was in sight of the crew of the Anderson for hours as the waves were 10 feet high. As the storm got rougher and visibility lessened, the Anderson kept in contact with the Fitzgerald and had her on radar. The captain of the Fitzgerald, Ernest McSorley, radioed Captain Jesse Cooper of the Anderson a few times asking for help. First, he reported that the Fitzgerald had taken some damage and developed a list and requested the Anderson stick close by until they reached Whitefish Bay near Sault Ste Marie where both ships would be safe from the storm. Cooper obliged. Less than an hour later though, he received another call from Captain McSorley saying that the Fitzgerald‘s radar was no longer working and asking if Cooper could direct them as needed. Again, Cooper obliged. About three hours later, at approximately 7:10pm, Captain Cooper called back to the Fitzgerald for what would be his last conversation with Captain McSorley. He pointed out another ship on radar that was still miles away from the Fitzgerald. After sharing that news, Cooper added a question of interest toward the Fitzgerald‘s condition. McSorely simply said, “We are holding our own.”

Five minutes later the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson‘s radar – not an uncommon occurrence in a large storm, but still a concerning one, especially given the issues Captain Cooper knew the other ship was having without knowing for sure what they were beyond failing radar. Copper called the Coast Guard to make them aware and have them keep an eye on the Fitzgerald. Neither party ever saw the ship on scope again. The Coast Guard deemed it too risky to venture out and search for the ship and crew that had vanished, and so asked the Anderson if she’d take a look around. Captain Cooper reluctantly yet dutifully obliged, not wanting the get swept away by a squall himself, but wanting to find the ship lost from sight. Obviously the crew of the Anderson did not successfully locate the Edmund Fitzgerald, but they made it safely back to port. While the wreck was found days after the sinking, it was not officially recorded as found until an expedition the following May. As happened in international sailing in the aftermath of the sinking of the Titantic, shipping rules and regulations in the Great Lakes were improved as a result of the wreck.

The tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald is one that I grew up hearing about from many people thanks to having grown up in the city it so frequently docked at to have earned a nickname for it. I first heard the tale in a manner I’m sure many others, especially those who live along the Great Lakes, have. While driving in the car, American folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 hit song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald“, which details the fate of the freighter, came on the radio. My dad explained the story to me after we listened to the haunting yet respectful ballad. Lightfoot’s song has been praised by family members of the crew, and it served as the introduction to the tale to many outside of the Great Lakes during the 1970s.

The bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald was recovered as part of an expedition in 1995 and refurbished then placed in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point, Michigan.

In 1999, the 29 men who perished aboard the ship were granted a graveyard at the Mariners’ Church in Detroit. Every year on November 10th, many churches around the Great Lakes ring their bells 29 times in memorial. I invite you to remember the men and their ship any way you can. Whether it be by ringing your own bell 29 times, with a moment of silence, or a pint of Great Lakes Brewing Company’s Edmund Fitzgerald porter, offer your own condolences to the men and their families. For as Lightfoot sings:

They might have split up or they might have capsized;
they may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and the daughters.

Thanks for reading. If you are interested in more about the legendary ship, then check out the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. This site offers information on not only the ship and its sinking, but the crew and their families. It helped a lot to read through it before writing this. If you have questions or comments feel free to leave them below or direct them to monotrememadness@gmail.com. Remember that everything you buy that does not come directly from the source was shipped at least a minimal distance and was transported by at least a crew of one, and there are always risks associated with moving cargo. So as you place your orders for Christmas don’t hold it against the delivery guy if he seems to have his full. For one, he probably does, but he’s also not the only one who helped that package get from Point A to you. There are many factors that can delay a delivery, and as we approach winter the weather becomes a more problematic one.

Come back again next week and every Monday for more educational and interesting topics.

Rester forte France,

Alex

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