Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald
Reprinted with permission by Lillie Suburban Newspapers
When the gales of November took down the ore freighter
For years I’ve heard the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in a storm but I didn’t know the details until my recent trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I went through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, visited two maritime museums along Lake Superior and heard lots of stories.
My trip began with a narrated sunset cruise through the Soo Locks, where I watched a giant freighter slowly passing through with inches to spare.
The Fitzgerald passed through these same locks dozens of times on its way to the steel mills around Chicago and Detroit.
“The worst sea”
On the fateful morning of Nov. 10, 1975, the Fitzgerald, the largest freighter on the Great Lakes at the time, departed from Superior, Wisconsin, in calm waters, heading to Detroit with 26,116 tons of taconite.
The experienced captains of both the “Fitz “and the closely following Anderson were aware a storm was coming up and decided to take a slightly different course across Lake Superior, staying close to the Canadian border until they could turn southeast to the shelter around Whitefish Point along the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
They stayed in radio communication as the weather deteriorated.
The violent storm that came up was the worst in decades with winds clocked at 80 mph and gusting to 98 mph with 30- to 35-foot waves. The Whitefish lighthouse’s fresnell light that helped direct ships safely around the point for almost 150 years clicked off that night, as did the radar signals.
At 5:30 p.m. the Fitzgerald captain Ernest McSorley reported by radio to Captain Bernie Cooper on the Anderson, “We are taking heavy seas over our decks. It’s the worst sea I’ve ever been in. We have a bad list and no radar.”
Suddenly, the captain of the Anderson felt a lurch as two huge waves engulfed his ship and drove the bow of his ship down under. Then it bobbed up.
Afterwards, the captain said, “I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.”
The Fitzgerald went down under in the cold, deep water off Whitefish Point at about 7:15 p.m. The search for survivors began almost right away but only some debris was found, including empty lifeboats. The Fitz had joined at least 240 other shipwrecks in that area.
Museums bring fateful night to life
A few days later, a U.S. naval plane equipped to detect magnetic abnormalities discovered the remains of the Fitzgerald. The ore freighter had apparently hit nose down and broke in two.
Over the years, just a few dives have been undertaken, and in one, the diver found the remains of a crew member wearing a life jacket.
I learned much of this in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, at the Museum Ship Valley Camp, located in an old steam-powered freighter that came by tugboat from Duluth and is permanently docked there.
Inside the mysterious, rusty old hull that used to carry iron ore and coal, two battered lifeboats recovered from the Fitz are on display.
Boat No. 2 was split in the front and boat No. 1 was broken in half during the powerful nor’easter. The faded name and lifeboat numbers are still legible on the sides.
Also featured are models and paintings of what the waves must have looked like, and a movie explaining what probably happened that stormy, tragic November night.
In addition, the nearby more modern Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and Whitefish Light Station in Paradise, Michigan, tells more of the story.
The museum features the 195-pound bronze bell from the Fitzgerald. It was retrieved from the bottom of the lake in 1995 at the request of surviving families and is now polished and gleaming. A replica bell inscribed with the names of the dead was then lowered into its place.
Treasure hunters banned from site
The elaborate Newtsuit diving system worn by the diver who retrieved the bell and explored the area of the wreck is also in display. A Canadian law now protects the “watery graves” of many shipwrecks from unauthorized dives.
Gordon Lightfoot and family members of the men who died on the Fitzgerald have visited the shipwreck museum, and people come from all over the world to learn about the wreck Lightfoot made so famous, explained site manager Terry Begnoche.
This museum highlights many other shipwrecks, as well, telling their stories with photos, drawings, text and artifacts in an attractive series of displays. Included are the shipwrecked Daniel Morrell, where Dennis Hale was the only survivor in 1966, and the Comet, which sank in Whitefish Bay in 1875.
Bells still toll for the Fitz
On Monday, Nov. 10 bells will be rung in several Great Lakes towns and in Detroit to commemorate the sinking of the S.S. Fitzgerald.
Many people will recall Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
After visiting these museums, I dined at Fitzgerald’s Restaurant in the town of Eagle River on the edge of the Lake Superior shipping lane where the Fitz used to pass by.
I gazed out the picture window searching for ore boats and imagined seeing the Fitzgerald heading to Detroit. I recalled how a friend said he watched the Fitz pass through Duluth harbor many times when he was a child.
Looking at the magnificent sunset, my mind rolled over all I had learned about the terrible storm that sank the ore freighter and the crewmen whose remains will forever be at the bottom of Lake Superior.