The fateful voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald

The Edmund Fitzgerald is about to be launched at the Great Lakes Engineering Shipyard in River Rouge just prior to her launching in June 1958.

Fierce autumn storms on the Great Lakes have claimed their victims for centuries. Thousands of vessels have sunk and countless lives have been lost. Native Americans and the French voyageurs in turn mourned their dead. The first recorded tragedy was the sinking of the Le Griffin, belonging to the explorer LaSalle, with a load of furs in autumn of 1680.

Perhaps the most famous of the lakes’ tragedies was immortalized by singer Gordon Lightfoot:

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
of the big lake they call 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 26,000 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

On Nov. 8, 1975, in the Oklahoma panhandle, the beginnings of a storm stirred the air. Picking up force, the storm moved through Iowa and Wisconsin. On Nov. 9, gale warnings were issued for Lake Superior.

By 2:15 p.m. on Nov. 9th, a giant lakes freighter had filled her cargo hold with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets in Superior, Wis., and was on her way south to Detroit, as an uneventful shipping season ran down. That vessel was the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The route the Edmund Fitzgerald was to take on its last voyage.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was christened June 8,1958 and launched (sideways) June 17 into the Detroit River. It was named after the new board chairman of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, whose grandfather and five great uncles had been ship captains.

The company had commissioned her to be built by Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, which took on 1,000 men for the job. Mrs. Edmund Fitzgerald cracked the champagne bottle across the ship’s bow at the christening. Airliners, military craft, two helicopters passed overhead at the launch while yachts, sailboats, fishing boats, tugs, scows and 17 freighters assembled on the river. At 729 feet long, she was at that time the largest freighter on the great lakes. With a 75-foot beam and a depth of 39 feet, she had a load capacity of almost 30,000 tons. The vessel weighed 13,632 tons and cost $8.4 million.

The furnishings and design of the staterooms and dining room were the height of nautical fashion, with a down-cushioned sofa sectional and linen draperies across panoramic windows in the lounge. The windows overlooked nearly two city blocks of cargo hatches to the stern.

The massive propeller offers a sense of the scale of the big ship.

By 1975, the Fitzgerald was showing an average amount of wear for a ship on the Great Lakes. She had passed a rigorous two-month inspection (required yearly) in the spring of 1975, and had passed the Coast Guard out-of-water inspection (necessary every five years) in the spring of 1974. She was certified as seaworthy and safe for operation. An Oct. 31 inspection uncovered routine seasonal damage to the cargo hatches, but the Fitzgerald was granted permission to operate as long as the repairs were complete before the 1976 season.

There were 29 men aboard on that November day, captained by Ernest McSorley, 63, of Toledo. High water in the lakes since 1969 had prompted the U.S. Coast Guard to allow owners to load their ships to a greater depth and the Fitzgerald was no exception. She was loaded three feet deeper than had been considered safe in 1969, making her deck three feet closer to the water line.

The wind in the wires made a tattletale sound
and a wave broke over the railing
and every man knew as the captain did too
twas the witch of November come stealing

The Fitzgerald came within 20 miles of the vessel Arthur Anderson, under the helm of Captain Jessie B. Cooper, near Two Harbors, Minnesota. The Anderson was also loaded with taconite pellets. The captains commiserated by radio over the storm’s increasing intensity, and at 2:am Monday, the morning of the 10th, they decided to change course and take the northern route along Superior’s north shore. This would put them in the lee of the Canadian shoreline, which hopefully would protect them from the gale force winds which were whipping up the seas.

At 7 a.m. Captain McSorley contacted his company to report that weather would delay his arrival at the Soo Locks. The Anderson was following the Fitzgerald at a distance of nearly 16 miles and keeping in contact.

Winds were high, and getting worse. Waves were eight to 10 feet in the early afternoon and increasing in power and size as the day wore on.

The Arthur M. Anderson was guiding the Fitzgerald after the doomed ship’s radar went down.

      As heavy snow began to fall, visibility became nil and the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s view. Waves reached 12 to 16 feet, whipped by winds gusting up to 90 miles per hour at the Soo Locks, which were shut down. The Coast Guard issued an emergency warning: all ships were to find safe harbor. By 6 p.m. the crashing waves were 25 feet high.

By Captain Cooper’s reckoning, the Fitzgerald passed closer to the Caribou Island Six Fathom Shoal than he would have taken his own vessel.

McSorley’s radar went out so he slowed his ship to allow the Anderson to catch up and guide him. He was unable to pick up the Whitefish Point radio beacon or see its light. The Fitzgerald also had two vents damaged, he reported, and was listing.

At 7:10 p.m. the Anderson radioed the Fitzgerald to warn of another vessel nine miles ahead, but they assured McSorley that on present course the ship would pass by to the west. The first mate of the Arthur Anderson signed off by asking, “How are you making out with your problem?” The Fitzgerald replied: “We are holding our own.”

It was the last contact with the ship.

The snow was letting up and the Anderson crew began sighting other ships. None were the Fitzgerald. The 729-foot mammoth was missing.

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 ’em.

The Anderson recovered this piece of a lifeboat from the Fitzgerald.

A search was launched. Aircraft and patrol boats crisscrossed the area. The Arthur Anderson had turned around to search and the William Clay Ford and the Hilda Marjanne joined in. The latter had to turn back because of dangerous seas. The Anderson discovered a piece of one of Fitzgerald’s lifeboats. A life preserver was found. Another lifeboat, a raft, a stepladder. There were no bodies found, hardly any trace of the huge ore carrier. The search continued for three days.

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
in the maritime sailor’s cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang 29 times
for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald

Down in Detroit on Tuesday morning, the bell at Mariner’s Church tolled 29 times, once for each of the lost crew.

On November 14 a Navy plane located the wreck.

It was just 17 miles from its safe harbor destination of Whitefish Point, 530 feet down on the bottom of Lake Superior. The vessel was in two huge sections on the lake’s floor, the metal torn and twisted from the force of the impact.

There was never a definitive report on the cause of the Fitzgerald wreck. A Coast Guard report suggesting that the hatches had not been closed properly was rejected. Popular speculation held that in passing so close to the Caribou Island shoal, the extra three foot’s depth load allowed the hull to scrape the shoals whose depth was misreported on navigational charts at the time. Some believe that the towering rolling waves caused the steamer to break in two.

The Edmund Fitzgerald will never be raised, nor its crew recovered. It remains an underwater monument not only to its crew but to all those who sail the Great Lakes, a monument to courage and the spirt of adventure that leads men to the sea.

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

The Crew:
Ernest M. McSorley, 63, Captain, Toledo Ohio
John H. McCarthy, 62, Mate, Bay Village, Ohio
James A. Pratt, 44, second mate, Lakewood, Ohio
Michael E. Armagost, 37, third mate, Iron River, Wisconsin
Thomas Bentsen, 23, oiler, St. Joseph, Michigan
Thomas D. Borgeson, 4l, maintenance man, Duluth, Minnesota
John D. Simmons, 60, wheelsman, Ashland, Wisconsin
Eugene W. O’Brien, 50, wheelsman, Toledo, Ohio
John J. Poviatch, 59, wheelsman, Bradenton, Florida
Ranson E. Cundy, 53, watchman, Superior, Wisconsin
William J. Spengler, 59, watchman, Toledo, Ohio
Karl A. Peckol, 20, watchman, Ashtabula, Ohio
Mark A. Thomas, 2l, deck hand, Richmond Heights, Ohio
Paul M. Rippa, 22, deck hand, Ashtabula, Ohio
Bruce L. Hudson, 22, deck hand, North Olmsted, Ohio
David E. Weiss, 22, cadet, Agoura, California
Robert C. Rafferty, 62, steward, Toledo, Ohio
Allen G. Kalmon, 43, second cook, Washburn, Wisconsin
Frederick J. Beetcher, 56, porter, Superior, Wisconsin
Nolan F. Church, 55, porter, Silver Bay, Minnesota
George Holl, 60, chief engineer, Cabot, Pennsylvania
Edward F. Bindon, 47, first assistant engineer, Fairport Harbor, Ohio
Thomas E. Edwards, 50, second assistant engineer, Oregon, Ohio
Russell G. Haskell, 40, second assistant engineer, Millbury, Ohio
Oliver J. Champeau, 4l, third assistant engineer, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Blaine H. Wilhelm, 52, oiler, Moguah, Wisconsin
Ralph G. Walton, 58, oiler, Fremont, Ohio
Joseph W. Mazes, 59, special maintenance man, Ashland, Wisconsin
Gordon F. MacLellan, 30, wiper, Clearwater, Florida

Ships captains, family members and friends of the crew of the Fitzgerald attend a memorial service at Mariners Church in Detroit in 1988. A ship’s bell was rung 29 times, once for each crewmember.

By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News