Shipwreck: the Edmund Fitzgerald

by CruiseReady

Besides the song Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, there's so much more about the shipwreck that happened in a brutal November storm.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It's more than just a hauntingly captivating song. It was a real event that took real lives, 29 of them.

The date was November 10, 1975, and the place was on Lake Superior. She wasn't supposed to sink. None of them ever are. But sink she did, in a matter of moments, taking all aboard with her.

Today, the ship that was something of a queen of the waterways she plied lies at the bottom of the lake. Her resting place is a legally designated watery grave. As such, it will remain undisturbed, out of respect for the remains of those who went down with her.

She's probably the most famous, and certainly the largest, ship ever to succumb to the sometimes treacherous waters of the Great Lakes of North America.

Most everyone probably knows the song about her. But there are other things to know. Some of them are here on this page.

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

Built to Order, Built to Please

Edmund Fitzgerald in 1971, by Greenmars, CC 3.0

Image Credit: Edmund Fitzgerald in 1971, by Greenmars, CC 3.0 

 

 The ship was a bit of a grand lady among her peers on the Great Lakes.

Built to order by the Great Lakes Engineering Works for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, she boasted several firsts and some luxuries not usually associated with lake freighters.  Some of them included:

  • Largest ship on the Great Lakes (at the time she was built)
  • First ever built to the maximum size that would fit through the coming St Lawrence Seaway
  • First ever ordered and owned completely by an American insurance company
  • She had air conditioned crew quarters (a luxury for lake freighters)
  • Equipped with "state of the art" nautical and navigation instrumentation
  • Deep pile carpets in captain's and crew quarters
  • Two dining rooms with fully stocked pantries
  • Two staterooms for guests
  • Largest ship ever to sink in any of the Great Lakes

 As a carrier of iron ore, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald soon set a record for amount of ore hauled in a single season. Then, she beat her own record, holding the 'seasonal record' an astonishing six times in her seventeen years afloat. Those feats were no doubt what earned her the nickname "Toledo Express."

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Gordon Lightfoot

Listen to the Song as You Read More About Big Fitz

The Launch of Big Fitz

On June 7 1958

Begun in August of the previous year, she was named after the president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Mr. Edmund Fitzgerald. Thousands attended the christening on June 7, 1958.  Perhaps Fitzgerald's wife, Elizabeth, should have put in a bit of practice beforehand.  It took her three swings at the bow to break the champagne bottle.  (Some mariners consider problems with the christening to portend bad luck for the vessel)

And, if that omen wasn't enough . . .

The actual launch following the christening wasn't exactly immediate.  There were problems releasing the blocks holding the keel in place. When they were finally released a half hour later, the ship crashed into a pier upon entering the water.

Did these troubles in this grand ceremony foreshadow the tragic end of the great carrier some seventeen years later?  

Watch a the Launch Video

Filmed by a TV Station

Gifts ideas for Fans Of Nautical History

and Big Fitz
29 Missing: The True and Tragic Story of the Disappearance of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Recommended for ages 12 and up Though adults may very well also enjoy this account, it's intended audience is young people, who seem to really enjoy it. They've heard the song, and reading this book, they'll know the story from a historical perspec

View on Amazon

EDMUND FITZGERALD Suncatcher Window 11x22 Glass Panel Framed

Let the sun shine through and light up this hand painted and wood framed art glass of the ship when you hang it in your window.

View on Amazon

The Edmund Fitzgerald Investigations

Hour long documentary begins with the building and design of the ship, and goes through her career and ultimate end, dive expeditions to the shipwreck, and memorials to her crew.

View on Amazon

Nicknames for The Edmund Fitzgerald

People Were Really Fond of Her


People were genuinely fond this steamer - even those who only stood on the banks and watched her sail by. Nicknames often grow out of such fondness.  Here are some of the ones that did:

 

  • Big Fitz

    A term affectionately applied to her by those who crewed her.

  • Mighty Fitz

    Another affectionate moniker bestowed by crew members

  • Pride of the American Flag

    Made in America, crewed by Americans, sailing American waters - and performing quite admirab;y

  • Toledo Express

    Earned by the speed and efficiency with which she carried great loads of ore from Minnesota to Toledo and other steel towns.

  • Titanic of the Great Lakes

    Like Titanic, she broke completely in two. Days after the storm, she was found on the bottom, bow and stern widely separated and at an angle to one another. Why she broke is not known, but theories include a rogue wave, structural failure, hold flooding, and extensive damage to her topside.

 

 

Edmund Fitzgerald in MacArthur Lock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Edmund Fitzgerald in MacArthur Lock,  CC BY-SA 2.0

The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Happened on

November 10, 1975

A Freighter Captain Who Was There That Night

Tells What Happened

Captain of the Arthur M. Anderson, Bernie Cooper, tells about the night the Fitzgerald Sank.  He was there... or very close by.  The Fitz had been following the Anderson through the gathering storm.

Time passed, the gale was upgraded to a storm.  Ernest McSorley, Big Fitz's last captain, took his quicker vessel ahead of the Anderson. But the two men were in sporadic radio contact.  McSorley lost his instrumentation, and slowed to close the gap between the two ships so that Cooper could keep him on radar.

In the afternoon, ships in the area received a warning to seek safe harbor. The  Anderson began radioing directions to Whitefish Bay, their nearest point of safety.

Winds gusted to hurricane force.  Twenty five foot  waves crashed over the decks of the ships.  They were both in great peril.

Fitzgerald already had a 'bad starboard list.'  Just after 7 pm, Cooper asked how they were doing.  McSorley's reply of "We are holding our own," was the last transmission he ever made.  Minutes later, the ship was simply gone.  Just... completely gone.

The following video is the story from Captain Cooper himself, told in one of the last interviews he ever gave. 

Interview with Bernie Cooper

Captain of the Freighter Arthur M. Anderson

Remembering

The Ship and Her Crew

TRIBUTES

The Ship's Bell Recovered

and On Display

The Recovered Bell of the Mighty Fitz

 

The Ship's bell, CC 3.0

 

 On one of the expeditions to the shipwreck, the ship's bell was recovered. It's been restored, and is now on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Michigan. In a ceremony there held on each anniversary of the shipwreck, the bell rings out in honor of those sleeping in their watery grave.

 

To honor the 29 lost in 1975, the original bell has been replaced on the shipwreck with a replica. That new one was especially made for the purpose, and has the names of each of the lost crew members engraved on it.

 

I had planned to list the names of the crew members here, along with their positions and home states, but then I found someone who does a far better job of that than I would have. At S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online, you'll find not only crew names, but profiles, too. There's a whole lot more to explore there, including the story of the bell you see pictured above, but that crew information is a good place to start.

 

You'll also discover an amazing example of dedication to a task. The young man who runs the site has spent over half his life developing it, and he's not yet even thirty years old! It began as an outgrowth of a school assignment when the young man was a boy of ten. It grew from there, and earned the respect and support of a number of family members of some of the men lost in the tragic sinking.

Song of the Bell

by Kathy-Jo Wargin
The Edmund Fitzgerald: Song of the Bell

The story of the ship and its bell, told for youngsters. Highly rated!

View on Amazon

The Split Rock Light Shines Just One Day a Year

In Honor of Those Lost in the Shipwreck

The beautifully scenic Split Rock Lighthouse has been inactive  for over forty years.  Its light is officially extinguished.  Still, after all these years, that beacon is lit just once each year, and shines again on a special day.

 It shines that one day in honor of the 29 souls who perished on the Mighty Fitz.   

On November 10, a ceremony is help to remember the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  While the lighthouse is open (from noon to 6 pm) that day, there is a special closing at 4:30, when a ship's bell begins tolling, and the names of the lost crewmen are read.  Then, the revolving beacon is lit again for them. At the end of the day, the beacon sleeps again for another year, just as the earthly remains of the twenty-nine still sleep at the dark, cold bottom of Lake Superior.

The  Split Rock lighthouse, in Two Harbors, Minnesota is a national historic landmark. 

Split Rock Lighthouse

Wrapped Canvas Print

Lost Mariners Remembrance

At The Dossin Great Lakes Museum

At the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit, Michigan, there's an anchor from the Fitzgerald.  It's not from the shipwreck, but an earlier anchor from the ship.

There, you can attend the annual Lost Mariners Remembrance on the 10th of November.  

The program includes a lantern vigil at the anchor.

Advance registration is required, as there is limited seating for the two hour program.  (See website for details.)An Anchor from the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

Many Lives Have Been Lost at Sea

And We Remember Them

Over the years in the lifetimes of those who've landed on this page, many lives have been lost at Sea.  Most recently, the tragic wreck of the Costa Concordia was one of the worst maritime disasters in modern history.  On January 13, 2012, she ran aground off the Isle of Giglio, resulting in 34 fatalities (two of whom are still missing and presumed dead.)

We all feel for those lost at sea, even if they were strangers to us.  

The ceremonies are often very touching, and give attendees a sense of connection with the sea and the souls of those who've gone before them.

If you live any near a coastal community, chances are there is a memorial to those whose lives were claimed by the  might of the ocean at some time during a given year.

Here are several examples:

 

 

Have You Been to a Mariner's Memorial?

(a poll)

Gordon Lightfoot's Greatest Hits

Including The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
Gordon Lightfoot - Complete Greatest Hits

The most comprehensive single-CD collection by this treasured troubadour. These 1965-1987 United Artists, Reprise and Warner Bros. tracks include his Top 10 hits Sundown; If You...

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Updated: 06/03/2015, CruiseReady
 
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?
6

Your Thoughts about The Edmund Fitzgerald, or other Sea Tragedies


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CruiseReady on 06/20/2016

Glad to hear it!

Suseela on 06/20/2016

Great and useful article. Creating content regularly is very tough. Your points are motivated me to move on.

CruiseReady on 08/29/2015

I thought most people had at least heard the song, but I am finding you are not the only one who hadn't. Thank you for the kind words. Yes, I think that those who choose a life at sea deserve a lot of respect. it's not for everyone.

Veronica on 08/29/2015

I had not heard of this, neither the song nor the story. You write with such compassion and your respect shows through your writing. What a terrible thing to happen. RIP

CruiseReady on 08/04/2015

Those are some amazing recollections. Thank you so much for sharing.

James Elmer Dobson on 08/03/2015

It has held my attention from the first time I heard the song. I was aboard the USS BELMONT AGTR-4 when she began to sink coming out of dry dock. Water was almost to the hand rails in shaft ally, I was the only one willing to go under the water and try to find the problem. We could tell the area where the problem was, as water was rolling at the top of the water, which may have been 12 feet deep, no light shinning in the area, eyes closed. The dry dock crew had left out a screw in plug maybe 3" in diameter. There were pipes to negotiate and get threw while holding my breath and going down feet first, remembering where all the pipes were, fortunately none were hot. When I finally made my way to the bottom I could feel the rushing of the water on my feet, figured out the hole was round. I reported it when I came back up, this was maybe the 6-8th dive. I asked for a DC / damage control plug, a cone shaped piece of wood and a sledge hammer. I guided the DC plug holding it with my feet, holding my self down pushing up on the pipes with one hand and hammering in the DC plug with the sledge hammer between my feet with the other hand. I do not recall a thank you for this. I was also on this ship when the USS LIBERTY AGTR-5 was torpedoed by Israel 8 Jun 1967. We were coming out or maybe just came out of the Panama Canal on our way back to Norfolk, Virg. when we got word the Liberty had been hit. We had been gone 4 1/2 months sailing around South America, through the Straights of Magellan, we were to come to port, take on stores, Port and Starboard Liberty, then proceed to Israel. That night there were about a dozen of us, and at least one officer, who had the same dream, we were dead. Part of it was a scene from the "Fighting Sullivans" at the end when they were walking in the clouds up to heaven in uniform. The guys there were from my circle of friends, myself, Burns, Williams, I think Taylor, Burns was chastising Tony Valentino, "come on WOP we are always waiting on you." The wives were on the mess decks, all were weeping, and only one night with their husbands after 4 1/2 months, then into harms way. We could not get all the stores we needed so we would sail the following week or so, so we decided to do some repairs, had to wait for parts etc. We finally left 6 months later. I never understood the dream, till a couple of years ago when I watched a you tube video, President Johnson was shouting "I want that god damned ship on the bottom."

CruiseReady on 07/24/2015

Yes, It does. The account of the loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald is an incredibly compelling piece of maritime history.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/23/2015

CruiseReady, Thank you for caring and sharing. It says everything about the bravery of those who go down to the sea in ships that Big Fitz's crew were holding their own.

CruiseReady on 06/24/2015

Thank you so much for your kind comment. Big Fitz was quite a ship, and the song reminds us of the dangers of a seaman's life.

blackspanielgallery on 06/19/2015

This is one of the most interesting accounts of a lost ship I have read.


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