Edmund Fitzgerald

How Much of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is True?

Fact or Fiction: Edmond Fitzgerald
16 July 2023







Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” memorialized the Great Lakes freighter and her crew forever in song. Lightfoot’s inspiration was an article that misspelled the ship’s named as “Edmond”, which he felt was disrespectful to the 29 crewmen who died aboard the ship. Many people’s knowledge of the Edmund Fitzgerald comes primarily from Lightfoot’s song, but how much of it is fact and how much is fiction? Let’s go through the song together and find out for ourselves!

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down 
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee 
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead 
When the skies of November turn gloomy

With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more 
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty 
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed 
When the gales of November came early


Lake Superior is indeed called Gitche Gumme, but the spelling varies based on which Ojibwe language school you attend. The name roughly translates to “Shining Big-Sea-Water” and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is credited with popularizing the name in his 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha

The freighter was carrying a load of 26,000 tons, but it was technically taconite that she was carrying. Although taconite is an iron formation, where iron materials are interlaid with quartz, chert, or carbonate – in other words, it is not pure iron. But that is semantics, let’s move on to the next verse.

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

Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms 
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland 
And later that night when the ship's bell rang 
Could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'?


SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald was not “coming back from some mill” (although it was departing from Wisconsin) as freighters are not loaded at mills, they are loaded at docks. But again, semantics. 

The Edmund Fitzgerald really was bigger than most. In fact, she was built to the maximum size the St. Lawrence Seaway allowed. Measuring 730 feet (222.5 meters) long, 75 feet (22.9 meters) wide, and with a 25 foot (7.6 meter) draft, the Edmund Fitzgerald could carry a cargo of 26,000. Her impressive size earned her the title Queen of the Great Lakes (that is, until the Murray Bay was launched in September 1959, with her keel length being just one foot longer than the Edmund Fitzgerald). The Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest on the Great Lakes at the time she was built, and she remains to be the largest to have sunk there! 

Her destination was not Cleveland, but rather Zug Island (located near Detroit, Michigan).



The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound 
And a wave broke over the railing 
And every man knew, as the captain did too 
T'was the witch of November come stealin'

The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait 
When the gales of November came slashin' 
When afternoon came it was freezin' rain 
In the face of a hurricane west wind


Shortly after 3:30 pm on November 10 Captain McSorley, who was captaining the Edmund Fitzgerald that fateful night, did report that the Edmund Fitzgerald has lost a fence railing, in addition to two vent covers. 

When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin' 
"Fellas, it's too rough to feed ya" 
At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said 
"Fellas, it's been good to know ya"

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


b5cbae4c0ed5e6c20d0cdbf9aa72c3d789b2d95a 00Captain McSorely had reported that the ship was taking on water, but this was not the Edmund Fitzgerald’s last transmission. At about 7:10 pm, a nearby ship called Arthur M. Anderson radioed to notify the Edmund Fitzgerald of an unbound ship nearby, also inquiring how she was faring in the rough weather. Captain McSorely radioed back that “We are holding our own.” 10 minutes later, the Arthur M. Anderson was unable to reach the Edmund Fitzgerald by radio or to see her on radar. No distress signal was ever received. 

Upon learning that no crew error had been involved in the sinking, Lightfoot began to sing “at 7 pm it grew dark, it was then…” rather than singing that a main hatchway gave in. This change was only for live performances, and the copyrighted lyrics remained the same. 

Does any one 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 

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

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was located about 17 miles away from Whitefish Bay, and she did indeed attempt to reach it that night. However, upon radioing to ask whether the Whitefish Point light and navigation beacon were working, the US Coast Guard reported back that both were inactive. This could have made her journey into Whitefish Bay more dangerous. Captain McSorely radioed other ships in the Whitefish Point area to inquire about the functionality of the light and navigation beacon and heard back that the light was working but the radio beacon was not. 

At this point, the Edmund Fitzgerald had already developed a “bad list”, lost both her radars, and was taking on water. According to Captain McSorely’s radios, that November storm had resulted in “one of the worst seas I have ever been in.” Other ships reported winds of over 50 knots, and waves as high as 25 feet. The Arthur M. Anderson reported rogue waves as high as 35 feet. 

There are many theories for what might have caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to sink, including rogue waves (as they had been reported by other ships in the area). The exact cause of the sinking is still debated, but exploration of the wreckage has revealed that the stern and bow rest relatively close to each other, meaning that the ship splitting up can be ruled out. In Lightfoot’s defense, this exploration happened after the song was recorded.



Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings 
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion 
Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams 
The islands and bays are for sportsmen 

And farther below Lake Ontario 
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her 
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know 
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed 
In the maritime sailors' cathedral 
The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times 
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald 

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down 
Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee 
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead 
When the gales of November come early


The “musty old hall” Lightfoot refers to is not called the maritime sailor’s cathedral, but rather the Mariner’s Church of Detroit. According to a live recording of the song, Lightfoot states that a parishioner of the church had insisted to him that the church is not musty. Since then, Lightfoot sang the line as “in a rustic old hall…”

After Lightfoot’s death in 2023, the Mariner’s Church rang its bell 29 times for the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald and an additional 30th time for Lightfoot himself.  


Alexander StoringBy Jessica Sadlowski

Museum Assistant, Summer 2023


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