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Feb. 21, 2003

The Wreck of the Century on the Great Lakes: The Edmund Fitzgerald


The wreck of the steamer, the Edmund Fitzgerald, on Nov. 10, 1975 has been called the "shipwreck of the century" on the Great Lakes, because of her size and the mystery surrounding its sinking. Gordon Lightfoot's song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," which rose to the top of the music charts, helped to immortalize the story, as have numerous books and an Imax movie.

In the mid-1950s an insurance company in the U.S. wanted to build and lease a super bulk carrier that would make them a lot of money. The carrier would be a few inches short of the 750-foot (218 metre) locks on the new St. Lawrence seaway. It would be 75 feet (22.5 metre) wide, with a twenty-seven foot (11.7 metre) draft and would carry 26000 tons of iron ore at sixteen miles an hour. It would weigh over 13000 tons, cost 8 million dollars and be the largest man-made object ever dropped into fresh water at the time. The ship would be state-of-the-art in every aspect including safety. The ship was named after Edmund Fitzgerald, the CEO of the insurance company.

The 749-foot bulk carrier The Edmund Fitzgerald, loaded with 26 000 tons of iron ore.

In 1960 the Arthur B. Homer, a sister ship, was launched, but the Fitzgerald remained the flagship. In 1967 the Fitzgerald carried 30 000 tons in a single trip, breaking the record and followed it up with three other similar loads. The Fitzgerald made forty-five trips a year back and forth to the Detroit area from the west end of Lake Superior. Improvements were constantly made, including changing her from coal to oil. By November 1975, in her seventeenth year of service, she had completed 748 round trips over a million miles of water.

On Sunday November 9, 1975 as the Fitzgerald went through its five hours of loading and departed Superior Wisconsin, the weather reports were becoming extremely ominous, with extremely high winds forecast. The Fitzgerald and another leviathan, the 767-foot Arthur M. Anderson which left from another port, headed east, across the north shore of Lake Superior where the wind was somewhat less powerful.

With the Fitzgerald slowly pulling ahead of the Anderson, the winds were building tremendously. By mid-morning on the 10th the Fitzgerald turned south towards Whitefish Bay at the entrance to Sault St. Marie. The storm was centred just ahead near Michipicoton. According to the Anderson, Captain McSorley was not unduly concerned. As they passed between Michipicoton and Caribou Island the winds pushed the Fitzgerald close to the shallow and dangerous Six Fathom Shoals.

An early newspaper report of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975.

At about 6:30 p.m. the Captain of the Anderson, which was a few miles behind the Fitzgerald, reported two huge waves of over thirty-five feet that rolled over the full length of the Anderson. He wondered how the Fitz would take those waves ahead of him. There is no record of what happened to the Fitzgerald, but conjecture has created a scenario. There is evidence that the Fitzgerald's radar was washed out and that the light out at Whitefish Point was not functioning. It is thought that the Fitzgerald was leaking from hitting the Six Fathom Shoals, and took the huge waves that the Anderson had taken. The 13 000 ton Fitzgerald with a 26000 ton load plummeted 500 feet to the lake bottom, leaving the stern temporarily out of water. As the cargo shifted and air was compressed, hatches exploded and hull plates were ripped apart. All of the crew was killed by the force of the sinking or died in the frigid waters. As word spread of the Fitzgerald's disappearance from radar, the Anderson as it entered Whitefish Bay was asked to turn around and go back to provide assistance. It did, and stayed until the next morning with no sign of any survivors.

Word spread like wildfire that the unbelievable had happened -- radio, television and newspaper spread the news. The sinking was investigated in detail but there was disagreement as to the cause, partly because no one of the twenty-nine crew had survived. In the 1980s, a massive diving operation recorded the damage and added details to the event. No wreck has had more written about it. Such books as "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1995) "The Gales of November" (1997), and "The Night the Fitz Went Down" (2000) are recent examples providing details that this space does not provide. As Gordon Lightfoot states, "all that remains is the faces and names of the wives and the sons and the daughters."

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