S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald, 1975-2015

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy….

Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”

Harper on the Pier

Do you remember I showed you a few weeks ago what Lake Superior could look like on a peaceful pre-fall day?

This is the other face of Lake Superior — Duluth Harbor in Minnesota, when the Gitche Manitou, the Great Spirit of the Lake-region tribes, is restless and angry.  This, however, is nothing compared to Superior forty years ago, on November 10, 1975.    On that day, the wind was whipping so hard across Superior that the tops of the waves were getting sheared off and blown into cold, cold mist before they could curl and foam and make what old Great Lakes hands call “Christmas trees.”  When that happens, it’s better that a ship stays in port, and that any ships carrying on their work find someplace to drop anchor and shelter until it blows over.


On the night of November 10, the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald was trying to do that.  They had left harbor on the west side of the lake in reasonably good weather, and the first part of the voyage was good.  But the barometer had been falling all along the way; a gale warning was issued on November 9, upgraded to a full storm warning on November 10.  Captain McSorley had gone through rough weather before, though, and he was accompanied by another freighter, the Arthur M. Anderson, who was astern of her by between ten and fifteen miles.  They agreed, as the weather got dirtier, to take a northerly route, as sheltered as possible by the Canadian shore, approaching Michipicoten Island before headed south for the easier waters of Whitefish Bay, and harborage near Sault Ste. Marie and the Soo Locks.


A safe anchorage was not meant to be.  The seas turned incredibly nasty, washing regularly over the decks of both ships; waves of 25 to 35 feet and wind gusts recorded at up to about 90 miles per hour.  McSorley informed Captain Cooper of the Anderson that he had lost two vent covers, that both of his radar systems were out, and that he had developed a bad list.  The Anderson stayed within radar range of the Fitzgerald to keep watch on her and guide her as they made the south turn.  Around 7:10 p.m., McSorley told Cooper on the radio that he was “holding his own.”  A few minutes later, the Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson‘s radar, without even a distress call.  All 29 men aboard were lost.  Searchers using a camera-equipped ROV the next year found her wreckage in 530 feet of water — 90 fathoms — some 17 miles from Whitefish Bay.  The ship was split in two, with a chunk of the center completely disappeared; her cargo of iron ore pellets was scattered on the lakebed around her.

No conclusive answer has ever been found as to why she sank, though several hypotheses have been put forward.  Being a woman of the Great Lakes with a love of the history of my state of Michigan, and who was alive back then and heard the news on the television, I’ve read up on the event.  There’s no way to prove it, but (if you’re willing to indulge me for a paragraph or so) I think the best explanation is that she bottomed out on the bed of the lake somewhere between Michipicoten Island and nearby Caribou Island, where the depths are significantly shallower.  This section of the NOAA chart for that region, along the track of the Fitzgerald (based on her reported positions) shows the water depth dropping from well over 75 fathoms to under 20 in many areas.  (Highlighted zone)

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A fathom is six feet, or just under two meters.  But depths are always measured at mean sea level.  If the Fitzgerald was caught in the trough between some particularly nasty waves, the actual depth at the time could have been significantly lower.  A ship the size of the Edmund Fitzgerald — 729 feet, the largest ship on the Lakes at her launching — and fully loaded, would drive down into the water as she rode the rough seas, and might have caught the bottom at one point without anyone in the pilothouse noticing.  Her hull plates would have been ruptured and weakened, allowing water to flood the hold, even with her drainage pumps running at full.  The damage would have caught up with her as she continued on to the southeast, into the significantly deeper waters where she eventually sank; and the weakened area would be around where the hull would split as she went down.

None of this on my part has any proof, any more than the other hypotheses offered; and for the men lost that night, none of it matters in the end.  We of the Great Lakes who remember following the news that November, who love our Lakes and their history, and who grew up listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s song remember this ship and her crew, and honor their memory.

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