Editorial note: Kevin Price, Publisher and Editor in Chief of US Daily Review, grew up in Michigan, and the story of this ship is the story of every Michigander and every person raised near the Great Lakes. We are grateful for Jennifer Williams for reminding us of this.
Jennifer L. Williams, Contributor, USDR.
November 10, 1975 – the iconic song by Gordon Lightfoot highlighted the then modern-day sinking of the ore carrier, the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Fitz went down on Lake Superior, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan. In 1975, the almost 20-year old ship had seen her share of storms. As she left Duluth down bound to Cleveland with a full load of taconite, she would be headed into a storm that end the lives of her 29 crew members and send her into legendary status with Lightfoot’s highly dramatized and haunting song. For those of you who do not live on the Great Lakes, our winter gales can bring seas of frightening proportions; as vicious as you will find anywhere on the globe. While the whys and hows of what happened to the Fitz on that fateful night continues to be debated today, we can be assured of two things: one, whatever happened (loss of buoyancy due to water in the hold from leaking hatch covers or bottoming out on Six Fathom Shoal or both) was fatal and two, it happened so quickly that the crew had no time to send a distress call. Smaller ships, such as the Arthur M. Anderson, made it that night. Not only did the Anderson survive, she turned around in the face of hurricane-force winds to search for the Fitz
“He was holding his own”, said Captain Jesse “Bernie” Cooper of the Anderson in a conversation with the Coast Guard. “We cannot raise him.” The Coast Guard then asked the Anderson to come about and search for the Fitz. “The seas out there are tremendously large…we’ll be lucky to make 2 – 3 miles an hour going back out there,” replied the Cooper. “I’m going to take a hell of beating out there…you do realize what the conditions out there, don’t you?” “
“Fairly certain the…uh…that the Fitzgerald has gone down…we can only ask the masters to do the best without hazarding their vessels. The vessel you are searching for is the Edmund Fitzgerald”, replied the Coast Guard at Whitefish Point in a broadcast. They had no ships in the area and launching an aircraft in the weather conditions was impossible. In the pitch black of the night, on a frigid and frightening Lake Superior, ship captains monitored this conversation, knowing if they made the relative safety of Whitefish Bay, they might ride out the storm. I cannot imagine what it was like on the bridges of the vessels that night as they listened to the discussion. Fear must have gripped them. The Great Lakes shipping community is very tight and many men served with one another. If they did not know the Fitz’s captain, Ernest M. McSorley personally, they knew him by reputation.
One ship monitoring the conversation was the Wilfred A. Sykes, under Captain Dudley J. Paquette. The Sykes had loaded her cargo across from the Fitz. She took a different route, closer toward the lee side of the Canadian coast to try to avoid the worst of the storm. The Fitz and the Anderson joined up around 5 p.m. on the evening of November 9th, traveling together at a fairly constant speed of about 14 ½ miles per hour. The two ships altered their course to head northward to roughly the same track as the Sykes. The faster Fitz eventually overtook the Anderson and moved ahead. As the storm center passed over Lake Superior, the winds shifted. By the middle of the afternoon of the 10th, the Fitz was in trouble. She radioed the Anderson that she developed a list and that lost two vent covers and was taking on water. The Anderson eventually lost sight of the Fitz in the blinding snow. McSorley informed Cooper that his radar was down and he needed navigational assistance. By the early evening, sustained winds were 58 mph with gusts over hurricane force and seas were running 25 feet. The last communication from the Fitz came around 7:10pm when McSorley reported to Cooper upon being asked about his problem, “We are holding our own.” She sank minutes later
The Fitz sits in 530 feet of water at the bottom of Lake Superior. Her hull broke apart at some point, either on the surface or as the weight of her cargo and weakened hull sank or when she hit bottom. The forward section with the fully loaded taconite ore and the suspicious hatch covers landed upside down, preventing examination in order to determine if faulty or improperly sealed hatch covers broke open. The aft section, including the bridge, landed upright. Her bridge is a crumpled mess. The Fitz is so remembered because she is the last freighter to sink on the Great Lakes. All of her load and time records vanish in the haze of history, overshadowed by her tragic end. It wasn’t merely the loss of a ship; the 29 men, including a Great Lakes Maritime Academy cadet who was to be married, were family. The Great Lakes maritime community collectively mourned the loss and was once again reminded of the hazards of their chosen occupation. The families who lost fathers, brothers, uncles, and sons – they have theories but no real answers.
For further reading, I recommend Gales of November: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Robert J. Hemming, Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher, Edmund Fitzgerald: The Legendary Great Lakes Shipwreck by Elle Andra-Warner, and Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Frederick Stonehouse.
Jennifer Williams is adjunct faculty in American History at Ashland (OH) University and the American Public University System. She is also the teaching chef for the New Day Family Resource Center in Sandusky, Ohio. Her interests are photography and curling. She lives with her family in Norwalk, Ohio.