In Lake Superior, the well-founded Steamship Edmund Fitzgerald, an American freighter, sank mysteriously on November 10th, 1975, with all 29 souls aboard perishing.
The incident was the subject of Gordon Lighfoot’s megahit song that catapulted the SS Edmund Fitzgerald as the most famous shipwreck in The Great Lakes.
The Birth Of The Largest Ship Plying The Great Lakes
Measuring 729 feet (222 meters) in length and weighing over 13,632 gross tons, the Edmund Fitzgerald was launched on June 8th, 1958. Her owners were Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Compan, which named the new vessel after the firm’s president.
The launching had a few glitches. Was that an omen?
She set off on her maiden voyage on September 24th, 1958, with a load of pelletized iron ore called taconite.
She quickly gained widespread fame and was nicknamed “Big Fitz” or “Mighty Fitz.”
The Usual Route Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
Edmund Fitzgerald’s route was loading taconite at Silver Bay, Minnesota, and discharging the cargo at the steel mills in the Detroit and Toledo area.
On the return trip, she was empty. Lake Superior’s original native Chippewa Indian name is Kitchi-gummi, translated as Great-water.
The Final Voyage Of The Edmund Fitzgerald
On November 9th, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald loaded a full cargo of taconite at Superior, Wisconsin. Her nominated port of discharge; Lug Island, Detroit. Ernest M.McSorley captained her.
November is gale season in the Great Lakes.
Weather forecasting in those days was not so accurate as it is today. So then, data is collected to forecast the weather accurately, depending on a grid model of three grid points. By 2000, the number of grid points rose to 420.
The captain had no clue what was heading his way.
Down in Kansas, the Fitz storm emerged as a moderate low pressure.
By this time, the Edmund Fitzgerald had sailed out.
On November 10th, the low had closed into James Bay, Ontario. The low had intensified to the level of a force two hurricane.
This kind of rapid intensification was impossible to predict at that time. It could easily result in rogue waves of 16-18 feet, which could superimpose, leading to giant waves up to 30 feet. Though well-founded, the Edmund Fitzgerald’s design and construction were for inland waters, not as a seagoing freighter.
Record Of The Fatefully Passage
The Edmund Fitzgerald departed from BurlingtonNorthern Railroad Dock No.1, Superior, Wisconsin, with 26116 long tons of pellet,
The same afternoon, she took on a load to her marks and sailed out at 2.30 PM.
Close on her heels was the Arthur M. Anderson, captained by Bernie Cooper, having departed from Two Harbors, Minnesota. The port of discharge was the same. The Edmund Fitzgerald on passage, always in radio contact with the Arthur M. Anderson, which was some 10-15 miles behind her as the Fitzgerald was faster.
Aware of the weather conditions down in the plains, the two captains agreed that prudent seamanship was to keep to the north protected by the Canadian shore highlands before turning south to their destination, Whitefish Point.
The weather conditions kept getting worse, and by 7 PM, the forecast was for gale warnings. By 10 AM of the 10th, the gale winds were upgraded to a storm warning. The seas were mounting to 17 feet and the wind gusting to 50 knots.
By afternoon 10th, the Fitzgerald, having skirted Michipicoten Island, was nearing Caribou Island. The Anderson approaching Michipicoten Island was The West End Light about 3 miles off.
The Edmund Fitzgerald is Beset
Captain Cooper later reported that Edmund Fitzgerald passed near the six fathom shoal north of Caribou Island. He could sight the Fitzgerald and the Caribou Island light on the radar. He and his officers watched as the Fitzgerald passed directly over the difficult part of the shallows. Snow and the heavy spray had obscured the Edmund Fitzgerald 17 miles ahead of the Anderson.
At 3.30 PM, Captain McSorley contacted Captain Cooper to appraise him of the Fitzgerald’s status.
“Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two or three vents missing, and a list. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?”
By slowing down, Captain McSorley was allowing the Anderson to get closer.
Captain Cooper asks Captain McSorley if his pumps are running. McSorley replies, “Yes, both of them.”
As the afternoon passed, Captain McSorley did not report anything alarming. The exchanges between the two ships were navigational information only.
At around 5.20 PM, a massive wave smashes the starboard lifeboat of the Anderson, rendering it unusable. The wind was from NWW at 58 knots, gusting to 70 knots with 18 to 25 feet of seas.
At 6.55 PM, a huge wave engulfed the Anderson from astern, driving her bow under the water. The Anderson rightened up, and a second wave smashed into her again.
The monster waves heading down south in the direction of the Fitzgerald, and Captain Cooper believes they did the Fitzgerald in.
The Last Watch
The Anderson’s first mate, Morgan Clark, in charge of the bridge, kept observing the Fitzgerald on the radar, 10 miles ahead of the Anderson. He was engaged in calculating the Fitzgerald’s distance from other vessels. The Fitzgerald showed up on radar on and off as the sea was high, and when she was in the trough, no signals returned.
Around 7.10 PM, Clark spoke with the Fitzgerald for the last time.
He inquired, “By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out?”
“We are holding our own,” was the reply.
“OK fine, I’ll be talking to you later.” Clark signed off.
At 7.15, the radar pip of the Fitzgerald disappeared. Clark attempted radio contact at 7.22 PM. There was no reply.
Captain Cooper called all ships close by for any sighting of the Fitzgerald. The Soo Coast Guard was also alerted. He contacted them again at 8.00 PM, fearing the worst for the Fitzgerald.
The Search To Locate The Edmund Fitzgerald
The Soo Coastguard called the Anderson at 9.00 PM. The Anderson had made it to Whitefish Bay and was 2 miles off Parisienne Island. The Coastguard requested Captain Cooper to go back to the spot for searching while they mustered other vessels to join in. It was a difficult decision for Captain Cooper, but the brave man agreed and turned around. The William Clay Ford joined him. They sighted the Fitzgerald’s lifeboats and debris floating on reaching the spot.
The Coastguard launched an HU-16 aircraft at 10 PM accompanied by two cutters, the Naugatuck one arriving late the next day and the Woodrush on November 14th coming from Minnesota.
The Woodrush using side-scan sonar, located two large pieces of wreckage.
In May 1976, the Woodrush returned to the scene and captured the words “Edmund Fitzgerald” on the stern of the wreckage 535 feet below the surface using an underwater recovery vessel.
The Final Findings As To The Sinking Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.
One of the theories put forward is that the Edmund Fitzgerald took on three rogue waves, a phenomenon termed “three sisters as reported by a ship in the vicinity.
The official report was the total loss of buoyancy and stability due to the cargo hold’s massive flooding.
Conflicting theories abound, but after three diving expeditions, it became clear that the bow went under from a gigantic wave indicated by the severe damage to the forward superstructure.
But what caused the ship to flood so rapidly and go down without a single cry for help?
The Bitter Legacy Of Lake Superior
Twenty-nine men perished on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
There are about 350 ships that have gone down in the icy waters of Lake Superior. Over 10,000 sailors have perished, but, as the legend goes, Lake Superior never gives up her dead.
Bacteria feed on human remains to create gas which causes the bodies to float. Unfortunately, the average temperature of the water in Lake Superior is 36𝆩F, and bacteria cannot survive those temperatures, and as a result, these bodies never float up.
Her bell is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
Memories are held annually on November 10th to mourn the lost lives of the Edmund Fitzgerald throughout the Great Lakes.
Gordon Lightfoot immortalized this event with this song.