The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

It's the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, and the cause of the disaster remains a mystery.

The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald on the St. Marys River in 1975.

It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm November day when the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald pulled out of port on its final run of the 1975 shipping season, en route from Superior, Wisconsin, to a processing plant on Zug Island near Detroit. Yet the 24-hour forecast was ominous, calling for a storm with the potential to become a nor’easter, which would bring gale force winds and whip up mountainous waves on the Great Lakes.

As it turns out, the Edmund Fitzgerald’s captain, Ernest M. McSorley—a seaman with 44 years of experience—had good reason to be worried about the weather, which began to deteriorate not long after his ship began making its way east. The subsequent storm proved to be as historically noteworthy as it was unrelenting, and the Mighty Fitz—as it was sometimes called—never delivered the 26,000-odd tons of marble-sized taconite pellets it was hauling. On the evening of November 10, the 729-foot ore carrier sank—suddenly and under mysterious circumstances—in a part of Lake Superior known as the “Graveyard of the Great Lakes,” taking the lives of 29 crewmembers.

The Mighty Fitz
On the day it went into service in June 1958 the Edmund Fitzgerald was the most expensive freighter ever built. Commissioned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and constructed by the Great Lakes Engineering Works at a cost of $8.4 million, the Mighty Fitz—named after Edmund Fitzgerald, president & CEO of Northwestern Mutual Life—also held the distinction of being the largest ore carrier on the Great Lakes, with crew quarters and food service befitting its flagship status.

While the Fitzgerald’s launch was accompanied by great fanfare and attended by more than 10,000 people, the events of the day were remarkable in several other respects. Perhaps most notably, during the christening ceremony the champagne bottle did not break on the first try, long considered a bad omen in the maritime community. In fact, Elizabeth Fitzgerald (Edmund’s wife), had to swing the bottle three times before it finally shattered. Then, after the massive vessel slid down the greased launch ramp and into the water it rolled, slamming into the dock on the opposite side of the slip and creating a large wave that doused the assembled crowd.

Nevertheless, for the next 17 years the Fitzgerald had a mostly uneventful career, typically carrying coal from Toledo to Superior, then delivering taconite (from mines near Duluth, Minnesota) to Detroit. Over time it earned a reputation as one of the hardest working ships in the industry, and routinely set tonnage load records, beginning with its maiden voyage in September 1958.

According to Michael Schumacher, author of “Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Bloomsbury), the carrier suffered “only a few mishaps” during that time, the worst of these “occur[ing] on September 6, 1969, when the Fitz grounded near the Soo Locks [which allow ships to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes], causing substantial structural damage…. The following year, the Fitzgerald collided with another ship, the Hochelaga, sustaining minor damage,” he continues, before nothing that on three different occasions, the Fitz hit the walls of the Soo Locks, and also lost an anchor on January 7, 1974. “[A]ll this was small-time stuff,” concludes Schumacher, “certainly nothing to make anyone question the big ship’s well-being.” 

So while Captain McSorely no doubt possessed a healthy respect for the danger inherent in sailing Lake Superior during an unusually bad November storm, he had little reason to suspect that the Fitz might fail to reach its destination. The same could be said of the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson, a 767-foot ore carrier under the command of Captain Jesse (Bernie) Cooper, which was traversing the lake approximately fifteen miles behind the Fitz, bound for Gary, Indiana, with its own load of taconite pellets. In fact, it had been more than twenty years since an ore carrier had been lost on Lake Superior, the 427-foot Henry Steinbrenner having fallen victim to high seas on May 11, 1953.

November 10, 1975
By the early morning hours of November 10 both Captains knew they were facing a storm of considerable strength. After communicating via radio, McSorely and Cooper agreed to change course, both opting for a longer (northern) route, one that would ostensibly provide more protection from the Canadian coast.

Nevertheless, at 3:35 p.m. McSorely called the Anderson to report that the Fitzgerald had suffered significant damage, including “a fence rail down, some vents torn off, and … a bad list.” McSorely advised Cooper that he planned to reduce speed, so the Anderson could “shadow him down the lake.”

Before long, the Fitzgerald incurred an additional problem, as the 60-70 mph winds (with gusts up to 90 mph) blew both radar antennas off its pilothouse roof, necessitating the assistance of the Anderson, which promised to help navigate. Meanwhile, the Anderson was struggling too, and around 6:30 in the evening, two gigantic waves rolled over its decks, the second hitting the bridge deck, approximately 35 feet above the water. “I don’t know,” said Cooper after-the-fact, “but I’ve often wondered if those two seas might have been the ones [that sank the Fitzgerald].”

Minutes later the Fitzgerald’s running lights disappeared from view and the ship vanished from radar. There was no distress call before it went down, and it wouldn’t be until the following May before the wreckage was definitively located, photographed, and filmed. In the days after the Fitz went missing, rescuers found little more than two broken lifeboats, a pair of 15-man inflatable rafts, 20 lifejackets, and oars from the boats. No survivors—and no bodies—were found.

The Edmund Fitzgerald Controversy
In the years since at least five theories have been advanced as to what caused the Fitzgerald to sink, all of which are recounted on the 2008 DVD The Edmund Fitzgerald Controversy (Southport Video Productions). The most widely accepted theory—and the one subscribed to by Mark Gumbinger, the DVD’s producer—is that the Fitzgerald (drawing 27 feet of water and heaving in the heavy seas) touched bottom on a shoal, inflicting catastrophic damage on her hull.

“I think she bottomed out either on Caribou Island shoal, or one of the other shoals in that area,” said Gumbinger in a recent phone conversation with Failure.

This view is also shared by Fred Stonehouse, author of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Avery Color Studios), who believes that after the ship hit bottom “she staggered off into deeper water [and’ simply began to fall apart, until she finally suffered a cataclysmic collapse and very suddenly plunged to the bottom … breaking in two when she struck the soft mud bottom.”

Yet others subscribe to the notion that a rogue wave broke the vessel in half on the surface, or “hit an unidentified floating object—referred to as a UFO—like a shipping container, which could have flooded the ship’s side tunnels,” contends Great Lakes diver Kimm Stabelfeldt in an interview featured on the DVD.

For his part, Great Lakes historian Wes Oleszewski believes the ship “took a nosedive, submarined, and then hit the bottom still under power with the stern still on the surface,” a view reminiscent of that of historian C. Pat Labadie, who says “the bow probably plunged under and totally separated from the stern, and that the stern remained afloat briefly … long enough, however, to empty its contents on top of its submerged bow.”

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
Despite the magnitude of the loss, the wreck probably wouldn’t be well remembered outside the Great Lakes region if not for Gordon Lightfoot. In the wake of the disaster, the Canadian folk singer—already world famous thanks to hits like “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” and “Carefree Highway”—penned and released “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which reached #2 on the U.S. charts.

“I believe that the Fitzgerald is still in everybody’s memory because of the Gordon Lightfoot song,” contends Stabelfeldt, noting that the tune receives airplay every November. The sentiment is echoed by Gumbinger, who says, “One could argue that without it the ship wouldn’t be as famous as it is today.”

However, locals have also done much to preserve the memory of the Fitzgerald and its crew. The day after the Fitzgerald was lost, Mariners’ Church of Detroit rang its bell 29 times, and each November the church holds a memorial service remembering the thirty-thousand individuals who have been lost on the Great Lakes, many on the southern shore of Lake Superior near Whitefish Point, where more ships have been lost than any other part of the lake.

Additionally, this year [2010] Fr. Richard Ingalls, Jr., rector at Mariners’ Church, will preside over a memorial service at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, in which the names of the 29 crew members will be read and the Fitzgerald’s 200 lb. bronze bell (which was recovered in 1995) will be tolled.

There is something different about Lake Superior as compared to the other Great Lakes, maintains Gumbinger, beyond the fact that it’s the largest freshwater lake (by surface area) in the world. “It’s often said that Superior ‘never gives up her dead,’ [thanks to the consistently low temperature of the water, which inhibits bacterial growth and keeps sunken bodies from surfacing], and I think that’s a true statement,” he says. “It’s a cold, deep, relentless lake. Getting in trouble on Lake Superior is easy to do.”

Purchase The Edmund Fitzgerald Controversy at edmundfitzgerald.com

See also:
Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics for “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” as well as the cover jacket of the single.