The Great Lakes cover over 90,000 square miles and supply one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, with Lake Superior being the largest. The Chippewa Indians call Lake Superior “Kitchi-gummi” which means “great-water”. Later discovered by French explorers who named the lake, “le lac superieur”, which translates to upper lake.
Lake Superior is one of the busiest shipping lanes in North America and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. More than 1000 ships travel its waters each year landing either in the port of Duluth in the United States or Thunder Bay in Canada. Lake Superior is also large enough that it has considerable effect on the weather, especially when winds blow across its surface. Duluth sees over 50 days of fog between spring and fall and sometimes during a particularly cold winter the entire lake will freeze over. Another weather phenomenon common to the region, and particularly to Lake Superior, are the sometimes-vicious “northeasters”, which are gales that occur (mostly in November) and are formed when intense low pressure systems pass over the lake, thus creating hurricane-force winds that churn up enormous waves.
(Locals refer to these storms as “the witch of November.” It’s little wonder that the bottom of Lake Superior is littered with the skeletons of no less than 350 ships, most of them falling victim to the temperamental November ‘witch’)
That’s fascinating Kemp, but why the hell are you telling us all of this? And why the hell so many links?
Simple. Today (Thursday, November 10, 2005) is the 30th Anniversary of the most famous sinking on Superior (as well as the most baffling): that of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.
This is a story that has always interested me and I knew, after realizing that the anniversary was today, that I had to write about it and give all you loyal readers the means to find out more, thus the superfluity of linkage.
The Fitzgerald was one of the largest lake vessels of her kind at 729 feet long, 75 feet wide and with a cargo capacity of 27,500 tons. The 7,500 horsepower engines were built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation and helped the ship set different shipping records.
The captain was Earnest MacSorley and gale warnings had already been issued when MacSorley steered the Edmund Fitzgerald, loaded down with taconite, out of Superior, Wisconsin’s docks shortly after 2PM. Meanwhile what looked like a typical November storm was intensifying. On the morning of November 10, heavy rain was falling and winds were gusting from the Northwest in excess of 60 mph as the storm tracked toward Canada, pummeling the Fitzgerald. A little after 3PM that same afternoon, Captain MacSorley reported that his ship was suffering damage and listing. At that time, another ship (The S.S. Arthur M. Anderson) that was sailing close to the Fitzgerald, agreed to stay close until they reached the calmer waters of Whitefish Bay.
In less than a half hour, the storm intensified with wind gusts clocking in at over 100 miles per hour. Shortly thereafter MacSorley again called in to the Anderson, and reported that the ship had lost all radar. Both ships continued on through the worsening conditions, the Anderson keeping track of the Edmund Fitzgerald on her radar screen. By early evening, around 7PM, meteorologists believe the storm’s pressure reached its lowest point; this combined with energy from the jet stream and created a series of enormous waves that first slammed into the Anderson and then into the Fitzgerald. The Anderson sustained damage but survived the onslaught and immediately The captain of the Anderson, Jesse Cooper, radioed the Edmund Fitzgerald to warn the crew of what to expect. The last words that came from Captain MacSorley were, “We are holding our own”.
Ten minutes later, around 7:25 PM… the big freighter had disappeared from all radar screens and the ‘witch’ had claimed yet another victim.
The day after the wreck, Mariners' Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times, once for each life lost, a memorial that continues to this day. Every year on the anniversary, the church reads the names of the crewmen and rings the church bell.
An investigation by the Coast Guard suggested that the Edmund Fitzgerald had likely suffered enough initial damage that she began taking on water, causing the ship to list. Already unstable, the Fitzgerald was unable to ride out the onslaught of the massive waves once the northeaster worsened and she foundered, plunging to the bottom of Lake Superior with enough force to snap her in half. That report proved controversial, with the most common alternate theory contending that inoperative radar forced the crew to rely on maps that were woefully inacurate and, as a result, the Fitzgerald ran aground on a shoal without the crew knowing it and received bottom damage, thus causing it to gradually take on water until it sank.
The Edmund Fitzgerald now lies rusting under 550 feet of water. None of the sailors bodies were ever recovered. On July 4, 1995, a submarine expedition salvaged the ship’s bell and replaced it with another (as a tribute to the sailors and their families) with the date of the disaster and the names of the dead engraved on it. The bell is on display at the Whitefish Point museum near Paradise, Michigan.
The mystery of exactly how and why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank has never been discovered and the attachment of the ship and the story lives on, helped by the Gordon Lightfoot song: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” (lyrics to the song can be found here)
After reading a piece about the sinking in Newsweek, Lightfoot was inspired to write one of the signature songs of his lengthy career (and also one of his greatest hits) that turned into an improbable Top 40 smash.
Maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse, when speaking about the song, states: “In large measure, his song is the reason we remember the Edmund Fitzgerald. That single ballad has made such a powerful contribution to the legend of the Great Lakes.”
Three decades after the tragedy, the Fitzgerald remains the most famous of the 6,000 ships that disappeared on the Great Lakes. And the reasons for its sinking will probably never be known.