By Tom Emery
It was far from the deadliest shipwreck in the history of the Great Lakes. But none are more enduring.
Of the thousands of wrecks on the Lakes, few stay in the public consciousness like the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot ore carrier in Lake Superior that was lost amid one of the worst storms in Great Lakes history in early November 1975. All 29 men on board the Fitzgerald were lost, and researchers still debate the cause of the wreck.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that the Fitzgerald stays with people,” said Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, Mich. “No one really understands why it sank, and it’s still a mystery. It’s sort of the age old, man-versus-elements aspect.”
The Fitzgerald, which was based in Milwaukee, was the flagship of the Columbia Transportation division of Cleveland mineral concern Oglebay Norton. It was launched on June 7, 1958 and quickly became one of the most revered ships on the lakes. Though it was no longer the longest ship on the inland seas by 1975, it was still considered the “Queen of the Lakes” both on and offshore.
The ship regularly made ore runs between upper Lake Superior and ports southward, and on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 9, 1975, loaded at Superior. for another routine voyage. In the past week alone, the Fitzgerald had sailed from Toledo to Silver Bay, Minn., loaded for a run to Ashtabula, Ohio, and sailed back to Superior to load again for a scheduled run to the Detroit area.
The Fitzgerald finished loading 26,000 tons of taconite pellets, which held substantial qualities of iron, and left Superior just after 2 p.m. in mild conditions. By evening, though the weather started to deteriorate, and by Monday afternoon and evening, recorded gusts of 90 miles per hour were coupled with blinding snow squalls and 30-foot seas.
“It’s hard to compare the bad storms throughout the years, and shipping has changed over time, with better weather reporting and safety procedures,” remarked Lynn. “But there’s no doubt that the 1975 storm was clearly one of the worst.”
One of the few options was to reach safety in Whitefish Bay in northern Michigan. Trailing behind the Fitzgerald was another giant ore carrier, the Arthur M. Anderson, which kept in radio contact with the Fitzgerald during the storm.
Seeking some protection, the Fitzgerald hugged the northern shoreline of Lake Superior, but around 3 p.m., the ship is believed to have sailed over Six Fathom Shoal, a treacherous reef that was not properly documented on industry maps. Shortly after, Fitzgerald captain Ernest McSorley radioed the Anderson that he had “a bad list” to starboard and indicated his pumps were not keeping up.
Many, including Anderson captain Bernie Cooper, believe the Fitzgerald suffered damage in the incident that may have proven fatal. Around 4 p.m., the storm disabled both of the Fitzgerald’s radars, and to make matters worse, the weather also knocked out the light beacon at Whitefish Point, at the top of the bay.
Around 7:10 p.m., with the Fitzgerald nine miles from Whitefish Bay and traveling at reduced speed because of the horrific conditions, the Anderson made its last radio contact. McSorley’s last words were “we are holding our own.”
Shortly before that, Cooper reported two massive waves as high as 35 feet that rocked his ship. Cooper and others since have wondered if the enormous waves caused the Fitzgerald, riding low from its earlier damage, to be lifted from the rear and driven downward into the frigid, swirling water.
No distress calls from the Fitzgerald were made, and only fragments of debris, including remnants of two lifeboats and several unused life preservers, were found in a three-day search. The ship was later discovered laying in two sections at the bottom, with debris and its load of pellets spilled in between.
In a highly controversial finding, a Coast Guard Marine Board of Inquiry determined in 1977 that hatch covers on deck had not been properly tightened, causing water to infiltrate the ship. The finding has been bitterly denounced by many mariners and researchers.
“The truth is, we really don’t know why the Fitzgerald went down,” commented Lynn. “There are a number of theories, and it’s a tough call. It’s still being debated today.”
In 1976, Canadian folk-pop singer Gordon Lightfoot wrote The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which further captured the imagination of the North American public and helped ensure the ship’s place in lore. The haunting melody and lyrics launched the song to #2 on the Billboard charts and remains a favorite on classic radio today.
The Fitzgerald is the last major shipwreck on the Great Lakes, where Lynn and others estimate that over 6,000 ships have been lost. However, small planes and watercraft are routinely reported missing on the five lakes.
Lynn says the Fitzgerald is “by far, the most famous shipwreck on the lakes. It’s the one that most visitors to our museum talk about, and our exhibit on the Fitzgerald draws the most attention. The Lightfoot song, the mystery that surrounds the ship, it’s a combination of factors. It’s a really good story, and one that still resonates.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.