The Edmund Fitzgerald

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Of all the shipwrecks in The Great Lakes, and there are many, none are more famous than the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The mystery of its sinking, the total loss of life, and the iconic song by Gordon Lightfoot have helped to keep it in modern day minds, long after it sank.

Now, the ship was American, it sank in Canadian waters, and it has become an iconic part of Canadian lore. For that reason, this week, I am looking at the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The story of the Edmund Fitzgerald begins in 1957 when Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company began to invest in iron and minerals. The company would contract the Great Lakes Engineering Works to build a ship for them that was within a foot of the maximum length allowed for passage through the Saint Lawrence Seaway, which was soon to be completed. This would be the first investment of its type by an American life insurance company.

The first laker ship to be built to the maximum St. Lawrence Seaway size, it cost $7 million to build, about $50 million today, and measured at 225 metres long, 23 metres wide, with a 7.6 metre draft. Capable of carrying 26,000 long tons of cargo, it was the biggest ship on the Great Lakes and quickly earned the title of Queen of the Lakes. The propeller alone weighed 27 tons and was 19 feet in diameter.

For the workers who would be on the ship, they were treated to luxurious interiors unusual for a freighter of the time. Deep pile carpeting, tiled bathrooms, drapes over portholes and leather chairs in the guest lounge were just some of the items that made the lives of the crew easier. The galley contained two dining rooms, and there was even air conditioning in crew quarters.

As for the name, that comes from the president and chairman of the board for Northwestern Mutual, Edmund Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s grandfather had been a lake captain, and his father owned a drydock company that built and repaired ships.

The day prior to its launch, Ken Garland, the mechanical superintendent of Great Lakes Engineering Works, would state quote:

“We are sure proud of her! Isn’t she beautiful? Isn’t that a dandy-looking stern?”

Garland would say of the upcoming launch of the ship quote:

“I won’t sleep tonight, that’s how worried I am. None of us will sleep. It isn’t that we really expect anything to go wrong, but there’s always that chance.”

On June 7, 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was launched in a ceremony in front of 15,000 people. Perhaps as a sign of its later disaster, the launching event had several problems. For one, it took Elizabeth Fitzgerald, the wife of Edmund, three tries to break a champagne bottle over the bow. Then, there was a delay of 36 minutes in the launching, and once launched the ship created a wave that hit spectators and then the ship hit the pier before righting herself. One man watching the launch would suffer a heart attack and later died. Some said it looked as though the ship was trying to climb right out of the water.

For the next 17 years, the ship would work through the Great Lakes, earning the name of the Titanic of the Great Lakes. By the time 1975 came along, the ship had done 748 round trips of the Great Lakes and covered a distance equal to 44 trips around the world.

Frederick Stonehouse would write of what it was like for guests on the ship, quote:

“Stewards treated the guests to the entire VIP routine. The cuisine was reportedly excellent, and snacks were always available in the lounge. A small but well-stocked kitchenette provided drinks. Once each trip, the captain held a candlelight dinner for the guests, complete with mess-jacketed stewards and special clamdigger punch.”

The ship was also seen as one of the safest on the Great Lakes during its first decade. In 1969, the ship received an award for running eight years without time off for worker injury.

Things began to change slowly after that point. In 1969, she would run aground, and in 1970 she collided with the SS Hochelaga. That same year, she struck the wall of a lock, then did so again in 1973 and 1974. Also in 1974, she lost her original bow anchor in the Detroit River.

Then came November 1975, when the ship would pass into legend.

On Nov. 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin. Commanded by Ernest McSorley, she was heading towards Zug Island, Michigan, carrying 26,116 long tons of taconite ore pellets. At the same time, a November Gale was predicted to hit the Great Lakes, but it was expected to pass south of Lake Superior by 7 a.m. on Nov. 10.

By 7 p.m. on Nov. 9, gale warnings were issued for all of Lake Superior and the Edmund Fitzgerald, along with the Arthur M. Anderson that was travelling the same route, altered their routes northward to take advantage of the shelter of the Ontario shore.

At 1 a.m. on Nov. 10, the Edmund Fitzgerald reported winds of 96 km/h and waves were reaching 10 feet high. At that same time, McSorley reduced the ship’s speed because of the conditions. The captain of the Wilfred Sykes, who was listening to the radio conversation between the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Arthur M. Anderson would say he was surprised to hear that McSorley reduced speed. According to Captain Dudley Paquette, McSorley said over the radio quote:

“We’re going to try for some lee from Isle Royale. You’re walking away from us anyway. I can’t stay with you.”

At 2 a.m., the gale warning was upgraded to a storm warning with winds as high as 93 km/h.

By 3 a.m., the Edmund Fitzgerald was pulling ahead of the Arthur M. Anderson. Around this time, the two ships began to hit the centre of the storm and shifting winds that would drop in speed suddenly as the wind direction changed from south to northwest.

By 2 p.m. the next day, the Arthur M. Anderson was reporting heavy snow that reduced visibility and the captain lost sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was 26 km ahead.

At 3:30 p.m., Captain McSorley radioed the Arthur M. Anderson to state the ship was taking on water and he had lost a fence railing and two vent covers. The ship was beginning to develop a list and the six bilge pumps were running continuously to discharge water. McSorley then stated he would slow the ship down so that the Arthur M. Anderson could catch up.

At 4: 10 p.m. Captain McSorley radioed the Captain Jesse Cooper on the Arthur M. Anderson to state that he had a radar failure and asked the captain to keep track of him as he was now going blind on the water.

The captain of the Arthur M. Anderson began to direct McSorley towards Whitefish Bay. McSorley then radioed the coast guard to find out if the Whitefish Point light and navigation beacon were operational and he was told they were inactive.

Captain Cedric Woodard of the Avafors would state after the disaster the heard McSorley say on the radio not to allow anyone on deck and quote:

“I have a bad list. I have lost both radars and am taking heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I have ever been in.”

By this point, ships were logging sustained winds of 107 km/h, with waves as high as 25 feet, including rogue waves as high as 35 feet.

At 7: 10 p.m., the Arthur M. Anderson radioed the Edmund Fitzgerald of an upbound ship and asked how the ship was doing. Captain McSorley would respond quote:

“We are holding our own.”

This was the last message to ever come from the Edmund Fitzgerald. No distress signal was heard. About 10 minutes later, the Arthur M. Anderson could no longer reach the Edmund Fitzgerald by radio, and she had disappeared from radar.

According to some news reports, a white flare was seen in the area of the Edmund Fitzgerald soon after that last message.

In the preliminary inquiry a few weeks after the sinking, Captain Cooper would state quote:

“The radar, the sea return, the centre of the scope, was just a white blob and the Fitzgerald was disappearing into the sea.”

At 7:39 p.m., Captain Cooper on the Arthur M. Anderson radioed on the distress frequency to state he could not pick up the Edmund Fitzgerald. He then contacted the upbound ship, the Nanfri, and was told that she could not pick up the ship on radar either.

At 9:03 p.m., Captain Cooper reported the Edmund Fitzgerald missing to the coast guard. With no search and rescue vessels that could handle the waves, the coast guard told the Arthur M. Anderson to turn around and look for survivors. At 10:30 p.m., all commercial vessels in or around Whitefish Bay were told to assist in the search. The SS William Clay Ford, the SS Hilda Marjanne and the Woodrush all attempted to look for survivors. The SS Hilda Marjanne would have to turn back do the weather though.

The Canadian Coast Guard and the Ontario Provincial Police began a three-day search along the beaches of Lake Superior to find any sign of the ship.

Debris was found along the beaches and on Lake Superior, including lifeboats and rafts, but no crew was ever found.

Jere Bennett of the Coast Guard would state quote:

“There is a lot of debris, but we haven’t found anything that’s a part of the ship, only things that would have been washed off. We are assuming the ship has sunk.”

A life raft would be found from the Edmund Fitzgerald a few days after the ship disappeared, but it contained no trace of the missing crew.

Helicopters involved in the search also saw a large oil slick near the last position of the ship.

With her sinking, the Edmund Fitzgerald took 29 crew with her beneath the waves, ranging from 20-years-old, to 63-years-old. The ship had joined 240 other ship that had sunk at Whitefish Point since 1816.

The ship’s value was listed at $24 million, making it the greatest financial loss in the history of the Great Lakes.

Delores Ulrich, the daughter of Captain McSorley, would state quote:

“The sea was his life. He loved his boat. It was their company’s flagship. His whole life was built around the ship.”

Richard Bishop, the first cook on the Edmund Fitzgerald, was supposed to report on the ship just before it left on its fateful voyage, but he was laid up with an ulcer for a month. As he was about to board, his condition flared up again and he had to stay behind. He would state quote:

“I didn’t believe it. I still don’t.”

It would not take long to find the ship. There were reports that a ship was found on Nov. 13, suspected to be the Edmund Fitzgerald, but confirmation would come after sonar equipment was used later in that day.

A spokesman with the coast guard would state quote:

“While the ship hasn’t positively been identified, we are pretty certain it’s the Fitzgerald.”

Confirmation came on Nov. 14 when the Edmund Fitzgerald was discovered 24 kilometres west of Deadman’s Cove, Ontario, in Canadian waters at a depth of 530 feet.

Memorial services would be held for the lost crew soon after. On Nov. 17 in Toledo, Ohio, 450 people came out, including families and friends, to remember the crew. Nearby at the Bay View naval armory, a service was held with a trumpeter playing taps while a wreath was placed on a coast guard vessel. The wreath would be dropped in the water in memory of the crew.

A preliminary report on the sinking would come out only a few days later, stating that the ship had broken in two according to the scans done. The report would also state that the ship had suffered a broken security railing and was taking on water through open vents before going down.

Even after the preliminary hearing and report, officials were no closer to figuring out what happened to the ship than before but structural failure from a large wave was the most commonly accepted reason for the sinking.

The US Navy would take an unmanned submersible to the wreck from May 20 to 28, 1976, where it was found the ship in two large pieces on the bottom of the lake. The bow section was sitting upright in the mud, 52 metres from the stern section, which was capsized at a 50-degree angle from the bow. A large amount of its cargo was scattered around the wreckage.

Four years later in 1980, Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau, took the first manned submersible to the Edmund Fitzgerald. They speculated that the ship had broken up on the surface.

Over the course of the next 15 years, several expeditions would be conducted to the wreck in the hope of determining how the ship had sunk. Fred Shannon would form Deepquest Ltd. and his company would conduct seven dives, taking 42 hours of underwater video of the ship. Shannon’s group would discover the remains of a crew member dressed in coveralls and wearing a life jacket, lying face up on the lake bottom. It was Shannon’s belief that the crew knew there was a possibility of the ship sinking and that a massive structural failure caused the ship to break apart on the surface and sink.

In 1995, Joseph B. MacInnis led several dives to the ship and retrieved the bell from the ship. A replica bell was put in its place on the ship and a beer can was left in the pilothouse of the ship.

There have been subsequent restrictions on diving to the ship. Under the Ontario Heritage Act, dives to the ship require a licence.

Regulations by the Ontario government have put a 500-meter area around the Edmund Fitzgerald, protecting it as a watery grave.

While the weather was the main factor in the sinking, subsequent investigations found that there were other contributing factors.

One was that the National Weather Service had predicted the storm would be south of Lake Superior, and that the NWS failed to accurately predict what wave heights would be on Nov. 10. Navigational charts were also found to be inaccurate and were based on Canadian surveys done in 1916 and 1919. Those surveys revealed that a shoal ran 1.6 kilometres farther east than shown on the charts, and this may have resulted in the ship foundering on the shoal during the storm.

In the 1976 preliminary inquiry, Captain Albert Jacovetti would state quote:

“The shoals react upon ships. The ships take a beating. The shoals cause them to roll and pitch, shake and vibrate. It is more turbulent.”

The lack of watertight bulkheads has also been listed as a contributing factor in the sinking and many believe that if the cargo holds had watertight subdivisions, the ship would have made it to safety in Whitefish Bay. 

There are several theories as to why the ship sank or broke apart on the surface.

In 2005, computer simulations were run that showed the Edmund Fitzgerald sinking at the eastern edge of the area of high wind where the winds were hitting 80 km/h in excess. The simulation showed that everyone in 100 waves reached 36 feet in height, and every one in 1,000 reached 46 feet. With the ship heading east-southeast, those waves would have caused it to roll heavily.

Another hypothesis is that there was a rogue wave, which would have been much higher than the other waves. Three rogue waves, now called The Three Sisters, were reported near where the Edmund Fitzgerald was when it sank. Each of these waves was believed to be 33 per cent higher than the normal waves. If the ship was hit by these three waves in succession, the first wave would have put a large amount of water on the deck. Unable to drain away the water before the second wave hit, more water was put on the deck. The third wave then added onto the previous two waves, swamping the deck with far too much water.

Captain Cooper on the Arthur M. Anderson would state his ship was quote:

“Hit by two 30-to-35-foot seas about 6:30 p.m., one burying the aft cabins and damaging a lifeboat by pushing it right down onto the saddle. The second wave of this size, perhaps 35 feet, came over the bridge deck.”

He would say later in an official report quote:

“Then the Anderson just raised up and shook herself off of all that water barrooff, just like a big dog. Another wave just like the first one or bigger hit us again. I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald and I think those were the two that sent him under.”

He then added there was possibly a third wave that hit the ship, and then continued on in the direction of the Edmund Fitzgerald, around the same time the ship sank. With the Edmund Fitzgerald already having a list, and moving slower than normal, would have allowed the water to remain on deck longer than usual.

The structural failure hypothesis adds to this by stating modifications to the ship’s winter load line allowed for larger waves to cause a stress fracture in the hull. One maritime historian, Frederick Stonehouse, stated after viewing video footage of a survey in 1989 that due to the extent of the cargo wreckage at the work site, the stern likely floated at the surface for a short time, spilling its cargo out into the lake, which meant the two sections did not sink at the same time.

In 1977, it was theorized that the sinking was caused by ineffective hatch closures, which resulted in water from the waves getting into the cargo hold. The flooding continued throughout the day until it caused a fatal loss of buoyancy for the ship and the Edmund Fitzgerald would suddenly sink without warning. It is believed by many, including the crew’s families and labor organizations that this theory is unfounded. One friend of Captain McSorley, and a long-time sailor on the Great Lakes, Lyle McDonald would say that the claim hatch covers were not closed properly was a slur on the honor of McSorley. He would say quote:

“As a commercial fisherman on Lake Superior, I have lived the day and night of the Edmund Fitzgerald many, many times.”

In the first preliminary inquiry in 1975, there was a testimony from Lt. William Paul with the Marine Inspection Office who stated that four hatches did have small fractures caused by loading and unloading of cargo. He would say quote:

“It was nothing serious enough to hold the vessel for major repairs.”

Following the sinking, several lawsuits were launched by families, including two widows of the crewmen who filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Northwestern Mutual and its operators. Another $2.1 million lawsuit was filed.

The company would pay compensation to the families of the crewmembers 12 months in advance of official findings of the probable cause of the sinking, on condition of confidentiality.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and the subsequent US Coast Guard investigation, resulted in many recommendations to changes in shipping practices on the Great Lakes. This included having survival suits required on ship in each crew’s quarters, with strobe lights fixed onto life jackets. A LORAN-C positioning system was implemented on the Great Lakes in 1980, followed by GPS in the 1990s. Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons would be installed on all Great Lakes vessels for accurate location information in the event of a disaster. The NOAA would also revise its method for predicting wave heights. Navigational charts for Lake Superior were also improved to provide greater accuracy and detail.

There are several tributes to the sinking in both Canada and the United States. The ship’s bell, retrieved from the wreck, is engraved with the names of the 29 who lost their lives in the disaster. At the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit, an anchor from the ship that was lost on an earlier trip is on display. Artifacts from the wreck are also on display in several museums in communities along Lake Superior on the American and Canadian sides.

In 2015, the Royal Canadian Mint commemorated the Edmund Fitzgerald with a silver coin.

By far, the most famous tribute to the ship and its sinking is courtesy of Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot would state he was inspired to write the song after seeing the name of the ship misspelled two weeks after the sinking in Newsweek. He felt this dishonored the memory of those who died, so he crafted the song. The song, released in August 1976, became a massive hit in Canada and the United States. It would reach number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and is the second-most successful single of Lightfoot’s career.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, CBC, Wikipedia, The Windsor Star, Edmonton Journal, Kingston Whig Standard, Ottawa Journal, Ottawa Citizen, The Sault Star, Montreal Star, Shipwreck Museum,

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