You may have heard of the haunting melody of the Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot’s international hit, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Lightfoot’s song is much more than just a legend, but a true story, one that has become the most well-known and controversial shipping disaster on the Great Lakes. On November 10, 2020, marked the 45th anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, a Great Lakes bulk cargo freighter that suddenly and mysteriously sank during a severe winter storm on Lake Superior. What happened to the ship and her 29 crew members that suddenly plunged to the bottom of the lake? What is the mystery that lies behind this tragedy?
The Start of the Story
"The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned"
The story begins in 1956. The Northwestern Mutual Life, a large Wisconsin insurance company, announced that they would build the “the largest ship ever to sail the Great Lakes,” naming her after the company’s beloved president, Edmond Fitzgerald. The company needed a humongous floating cargo hold, following heavy investments in the mining and shipping industries around the Great Lakes area. The Edmund Fitzgerald was as long as two city blocks or 222 meters long. It would set numerous records for carrying the largest load in one trip and is estimated to have made 750 round trips across the Great Lakes. The workhorse Fitzgerald, definitely earned its nicknames of “Queen of the Lakes,” “The Mighty Fitz,” and “The Big Fitz.”
The Final Voyage
"And every man knew, as the captain did too
T'was the witch of November come stealin'...
The captain wired in he had water comin' in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"
The Edmund Fitzgerald would begin its final voyage under calm and clear skies. However, the picturesque day would not save them from their fate in 1975. Sailors often called Lake Superior “Old Treacherous” because of its raging storms. As freezing rain and snow pelted the ship, Fitzgerald’s captain Ernest Mcsorley lost sight of the Anderson, whom the Fitzgerald was following. Even Captain Mcsorley, an extremely experienced sailor, began to worry. The lake’s waves rose to 30 feet high and 60/mph winds hammered the ship’s sides.
At around 17:30, Mcsorley reported to the Anderson: “I have a bad list. I have lost both radars, and am taking on heavy seas over the deck in one of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”
Regretfully, at 19:10, Mcsorley’s last radioed words were optimistic, announcing that, “We are holding our own.” Minutes later, the Fitz disappeared from Anderson's radar screen. No distress signal was heard from Mcsorley. (Image left: SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Image courtesy of Clarence S. Metcalf Great Lakes Maritime Research Library of the Great Lakes Historical Society.)
The Shipwreck Site
"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 her"
Land, lake, and air searches spent days trying to locate the ship. Finally, on November 14, 1975, Navy aircraft, equipped with magnetic sensors, found the Fitzgerald. Its hull was broken in two and its midsection had completely disintegrated. The ship was found under 161 meters of Canadian waters, around 27 kilometers west of the entrance to Whitefish Bay. Some debris washed ashore, but no bodies were ever recovered. (Image right: Edmund Fitzgerald Poster. Image courtesy of Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio)
Uncovering the Mystery
"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 the daughters"
Although the cause of the sinking remains a mystery, scientists have discerned four theories to explain the shipwreck:
- Structural Failure: The Fitzgerald had recently undergone structural modifications, perhaps weakening the ship’s hull.
- Shoaling: The path of the ship came dangerously close to the Six Fathom Shoal and Superior Shoal. These shoals are the highest points of the lake, only 20-30 ft below the water’s surface. It is possible that the Fitzgerald hit the shoals, causing water to leak slowly into the cargo holds or ballast tanks until the ship's buoyancy was catastrophically compromised.
- Open Hatch Coverings: The deckhands may have forgotten to seal the topside hatches by bolting watertight covers over them, causing a water breach in the cargo hold.
- Rogue Waves: The most likely explanation is that the ship fell victim to ‘freak’ or ‘monster’ waves. Maritime folklore tells of “the Three Sisters of Lake Superior” which gives a haunting tale of three massive waves that pummel ships in rapid succession.
(Image right: Open Street Map showing the location of the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Ontario is to the right of the image, Michigan is at the left/bottom. Author: Oaktree b.)
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Research Intern, Autumn 2020