In the month November, we’re celebrating ships & shipping on the Great Lakes and remembering those who have lost their lives on these freshwater seas. There’s probably no better place to start than Michigan’s most famous shipwreck and the song that memorialized it in this feature by Bob Garrett of the Archives of Michigan.
â€œDoes anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?â€
Gordon Lightfoot recorded those words in 1976. His song, â€œThe Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,â€ became a hit. Its mournful, haunting lyrics â€“ such as those quoted above â€“ captured listeners’ imaginations. They wondered about the ballad’s eponymous ship and how it met its end.
â€œThe Pride of the American Sideâ€
The Edmund Fitzgerald was built at the Great Lakes Engineering Works at River Rouge, Michigan. When it launched in 1958, it and its sister ship, the Arthur B. Homer, were the Great Lakes’ largest carriers (The Fitzgerald was 729 feet long, with a gross tonnage of 13,632.). It was named after the president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Northwestern Mutual owned the Fitzgerald and chartered it to the Oglebay Norton Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Edmund’s wife, christened the ship.
â€œWhen the Gales of November Came Earlyâ€
On November 9, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald sailed from Superior, Wisconsin. It was loaded with 26,116 long tons of taconite pellets and bound for Detroit. It seemed a routine departure.
One day earlier, however, a storm had generated over the Oklahoma panhandle. That storm was heading north. As it continued toward Lake Superior, it became increasingly intense.
Shortly after 7:00 a.m. on November 10, the Fitzgerald contacted the company office. It reported that its arrival at the Soo Locks would be delayed. The unfavorable weather caused the ship to change course. It headed toward Lake Superior’s northern shore. It then proceeded southeastward, following the shore (The normal route â€“ along the lake’s southern shore â€“ was faster but left a ship more exposed during a gale.).
By 1:00 p.m. on November 10, the Fitzgerald was eleven miles northwest of Michipicoten Island. It later passed west of the island’s West End Light and then headed to the north and east of Caribou Island. At sometime past 7:15 p.m., the ship vanished. Later that month, its wreckage was found underwater and positively identified.
â€œThey might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water.â€ â€“ Gordon Lightfoot
In fact, no one knows exactly why the Fitzgerald sank. None of the twenty-nine crew members survived to tell their story. The wreckage itself is in 530 feet of water, and much of it is buried in mud.
Available evidence includes the Fitzgerald‘s weather reports and the testimony of people who were in the general area, serving on other ships. One of these ships â€“ the SS Arthur M. Anderson â€“ was following the Fitzgerald that day. The Fitzgerald was in communication with the Anderson, although not always within its sight. The testimony of the Anderson‘s crew has been especially crucial, although at some points, witnesses also seem to contradict each other.
In 1977, the Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation issued a report. The Board concluded that there was insufficient evidence to determine the cause of the Fitzgerald‘s sinking. It also stated, though, that the â€œmost probableâ€ cause was flooding of the cargo hold. It suggested that hatch covers were perhaps improperly sealed. These assertions were met with some controversy.
Other explanations have been proposed. The Fitzgerald may have been grounded by shoals near Caribou Island. It may have encountered abnormally large waves. Perhaps a previous structural failure weakened the ship.
Ultimately, we may never know. The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald may forever stand as one of the great â€œmysteries of the deepâ€ â€“ a mystery that will continue to captivate future generations.
Fitzgerald’s Storm: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Dr. Joseph MacInnis
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Frederick Stonehouse
You may also be interested in this photo and account of the launch of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Michigan in Pictures.