The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they called Gitchee Gumee.
The lake it is said never gives up her dead
when the skies of November turn gloomy.
Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics memorialize the tragedy of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, but the mystery remains – what sunk the great ship?
In 1975, it was inconceivable that a ship like the Edmund Fitzgerald could sink, but the great ship and her crew are entombed at the bottom of Lake Superior, and although theories abound no one knows exactly why. The news of the tragedy spread quickly and just as quickly could have been forgotten, but Gordon Lightfoot’s song and annual memorials on the anniversary of her sinking help to keep the memory of the courageous crew and their well-seasoned captain alive.
At her christening, the 729-foot Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on the great lakes. The vessel set speed and tonnage records and was called “The Pride of the American Flag.” The Edmund Fitzgerald was a “laker” as opposed to a “salty” ocean-going vessel. Frederick Stonehouse described her as “a conventional straight decker Great Lakes ore carrier. Cargo holds were located in the center of the vessel. Ballast tanks were situated below and outboard of the holds. The forward deckhouse contained both crew accommodations and pilot house. The aft deckhouse contained both crew accommodations and the mess room. Crewmen were able to travel between the two deckhouses across the open spar deck or through port and starboard access tunnels located above the cargo hold and below the open deck.” Visible on the ship’s open deck were 21 separate cargo hatches running down the center of the ship, and below the hatches were three cargo holds, separated by non-watertight screen bulkheads.
“The Fitzgerald carried two 50-man lifeboats, and two 25-man life rafts. There is no evidence that any of the lifesaving devices aboard the Fitzgerald were so much as touched by any of the crew before the giant ore carrier plunged to the lake’s bottom.
On November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets heading for Detroit, Michigan. At the same time, the steamer, Arthur M. Anderson, left Two Harbors, Minnesota, with a cargo of taconite pellets heading for Gary, Indiana. The two lakers followed roughly the same course toward the locks at Sault Ste. Marie.
The storm, which was a factor in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, started small – a typical November storm, and built up strength as it moved through Iowa on its way to Wisconsin. The National Weather Service issued gale warnings and then changed them to storm warnings by the time it reached Marquette, Michigan, and moved onto Lake Superior. The Edmund Fitzgerald and the Arthur M. Anderson changed course because of the storm to follow closer to the north shore of Lake Superior. “Sometime after 2 a.m. on November 10, Captain Jesse B. Cooper of the Anderson radioed Captain Ernest McSorley of the Fitzgerald to discuss the threatening weather. During this conversation, the two captains agreed to take the longer, safer northern route.”
Captain Cooper of the Anderson radioed McSorley on the Fitzgerald at 1:40 p.m. to advise him they were changing course due to Michipicoten Island. McSorley said he had just cleared the island and added that his vessel was rolling some. The Anderson had the Fitzgerald in sight, but then heavy snow began to fall, and although they lost sight of the Fitzgerald, they still had them on radar.
Frederick Stonehouse, an authority on Great Lakes maritime history, in his book, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” relates, “Meanwhile, the seas had been building and the winds stepping up their force. At 3:20 p.m., the Anderson recorded the winds howling at a steady 43 knots and the waves running up to 12 and 16 feet. Her deck was awash with heavy amounts of water. Ten minutes later, the Anderson received a call from the Fitzgerald. McSorley reported that “his ship had a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged and a list, and that the Fitzgerald was slowing down so that the Anderson could catch up and keep track of her.” Captain Cooper asked if her pumps were going and was told, “Yes, both of them.”
The Coast Guard sent an emergency broadcast that all ships go to safe harbor – the locks at Sault Ste. Marie are closed. “Later, the lock master at the Soo stated that his anemometer showed gusts over 90 mph and that water was regularly sweeping over the lock gates. Even the Mackinaw Bridge was forced to close down – winds there had reached 85 mph.
At 4:10 p.m., the Fitzgerald radioed the Anderson reporting that both her radars were out and she needed navigational help, which they agreed to provide. Just after 5 p.m., the Fitzgerald radioed the Anderson for a position. The Anderson replied and said Whitefish Point was 35 miles away.
At 7:10, the Anderson called the Fitzgerald to tell them another vessel was approaching nine miles ahead. The Fitzgerald asked, “Well, am I going to clear?” The mate said, “Yes, he is going to pass west of you.” Fitzgerald replied, “Well, fine.” The mate asked, “Oh, by the way, how are you making out with your problem?” The Fitzgerald replied, “We are holding our own.” Those were the final words anyone ever heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald.
After the snow stopped, the crew on the Arthur Anderson searched the horizon for a view of the Edmund Fitzgerald but did not see anything. They did see three ships coming toward them from the Soo, but not the Fitzgerald. They attempted to contact the Fitzgerald by radio without success. They radioed other ships in the area; no one had seen the Fitzgerald. Captain Cooper called the Coast Guard at 8:25 to report he had lost track of the Fitzgerald on radar and was worried. The Coast Guard did not seem concerned and asked the Anderson to look for a missing 16-foot boat in their area. Ten minutes later, Captain Cooper called them back with a more forceful report that the Edmund Fitzgerald had been in front of them and having some difficulty. “He was taking on water, and most up-bound ships have passed him. I can see no lights as before, and I don’t have him on radar. I just hope he didn’t take a nose dive.”
Due to the heavy seas, the Coast Guard didn’t have many options in terms of boats available to send on search and rescue. The Woodrush got underway after midnight from Duluth, Minnesota. Other Coast Guard vessels couldn’t handle the rough water. The Arthur Anderson turned around in the brutal storm, and the William Clay Ford also joined in the search. The Traverse City Coast Guard dispatched aircraft. They searched for days and found badly damaged lifeboats and two life rafts. They found some cork life preservers, lifeboat oars, a sounding board, propane tanks, life rings, a stool, a stepladder, a boat cover, a searchlight, and some scrap wood. But the probable location of the Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew were not discovered until November 14th.
Five months later, in May of 1976, the Naval Undersea Center provided a cable-controlled underwater recovery vehicle (CURV), and the Fitzgerald was positively identified. They found the bow section right side up and the stern section with a visible name, Edmund Fitzgerald, 170 feet away and upside down. The middle section of the ship is gone – disintegrated. The ship lies 17 miles from Whitefish Bay and just inside the Canadian border.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was holding its own one moment and gone the next – what happened to her and her crew of 29 sailors? The Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation, the Lake Carriers Association, and the National Transportation Safety Board did investigations and reported on their findings.
The Coast Guard Marine Board concluded that a “proximate cause of the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald cannot be determined,” then they went on to say that a probable cause was “the loss of buoyancy and stability which resulted from massive flooding of the cargo hold.” They believed water entered the cargo hold through poorly sealed hatch covers. “As the fury of the storm increased, so too did the amount of water accumulating below decks in the hold. The Fitzgerald slowly sank lower and lower in the water until the line between floating and sinking was passed, and she plunged to the bottom. Based on the hull fractures, one steel expert estimated she was going 35 mph when she hit!”
The Lake Carriers Association disagreed with the results of the Coast Guard investigation. In their letter of September 16, 1977, to the National Transportation Safety Board, they address each of the factors in the Coast Guard’s conclusions and then state: “the lake shipping industry and its professional naval architect advisors can find NOTHING in the available factors to support the Coast Guard’s thesis that the sinking resulted from poor hatch closure procedures. We can’t identify one such factor, whereas such factors do support shoaling as the cause of the sinking.”
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) agreed with the Coast Guard. They said the probable cause of the sinking was flooding of the cargo hold due to “ineffective hatch closures causing loss of buoyancy and stability so that the vessel plunged in the heavy seas.”
The NTSB did acknowledge that the Fitzgerald passed within a few miles of Caribou Island and considered it possible that she could have been damaged from a light grounding, from the effect of the violent seas which would be expected near the shoals, or from the shuddering that the vessel would have experienced as it passed near the shoals. But the inability to establish that the Fitzgerald actually got that close to the shoal caused them to discard that theory, and no underwater survey revealed any damage that would have resulted from hitting a shoal.
Both the Coast Guard and the NTSB give other contributing factors, such as the load line that had been increased from the original recommendations which caused the ship to ride lower in the water, the hatch covers and their maintenance, the hatch clamps not fastened correctly, and the non-watertight bulkheads.
The Lake Carrier’s Association, although they could have some interest in establishing that the hatch covers did not contribute to the sinking, gave some pretty convincing theories concerning the ship’s possible shoaling (or grounding) near Caribou Island. When Captain Cooper reported to his company less than 24 hours after the accident, he said, “I am positive he went over that six-fathom bank! and I know damn well he was in on that thirty-six-foot spot, and if he was in there, he must have taken some hell of a seas. I swear he went in there. In fact, we were talking about it, we were concerned that he was in too close, that he was going to hit that shoal off Caribou, I mean, he was about three miles off the land beacon.” However, there were no records kept to track the route of either the Fitzgerald or the Anderson. The crew of the Anderson provided their recollections which proved to be untenable.
There have been several fact-gathering expeditions to the Fitzgerald. The first to the wreck was Jack Cousteau’s Calypso in September of 1980. Jack Cousteau was not on board; his son led the trip. After that, a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) did an extensive survey. Then when the Shannon Expedition went down in 1994, they photographed remains in a life jacket near the bow. The photographs were never released, but the event caused the families and many others to express concern. In reaction, Michigan lawmakers passed legislation making it illegal to photograph or display a photograph of all or a portion of a decedent located in a human grave. Of course, there are some exceptions, and it doesn’t apply to the Fitzgerald because she lies in Canadian waters.
Frederick Stonehouse has some thoughts about the men who went down with the ship. “If we accept the theory that the bow of the Fitzgerald just dove into a wall of water, that would have destroyed any chance of using the pilothouse radio to call for help. But what of the poor men caught in the stern, or below decks, or in the engine room? They surely would have realized that death was staring them bang in the eye and that there was absolutely nothing they could do about it. How long does it take for an engine room or a sleeping compartment to flood? How many minutes does it actually take to drown under those circumstances? For that terrifying period of time those men certainly would have known what was happening and just how powerless they were to stop it.”
The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is a real tragedy that has become a legend and myth. Although the song by Gordon Lightfoot was meant as a memorial, new generations listen to it and may not realize the song is about a real ship with real men who died and who lay at the bottom of Lake Superior. The wreck’s site is a graveyard – a place to be respected and honored.
“Does anyone know where the love of God goes
when the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
if they’d put fifteen more miles behind ‘em.
They might have split up or they might have capsized
they may have broke deep and took water,
and all that remains is the faces and the names
of the wives and the sons and daughters.”
There are no lack of theories on the demise of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There’s the stress fracture theory – a stress fracture caused by heavy seas twisting and flexing the hull. The Three Sisters theory – a combination of two large waves rolling over the deck of a ship and a third rogue wave that takes the boat to the bottom. What about the theory that aliens abducted the crew and left the ship to flounder? How about the Great Lakes Triangle – a cousin of the Bermuda Triangle? The mystery remains.
- Stonehouse, Frederick. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Avery Color Studios, Inc. Gwinn, Michigan. 1977.
- Charles River Editors. The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald: The Loss of the Largest Ship on the Great Lakes. Kindle
- Schumacher, Michael. The Trial of the Edmund Fitzgerald: Eyewitness Accounts from the U.S. Coast Guard Hearings. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, MN. 2019.