“When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin’…Fellas, it’s too rough t’feed ‘ya”……At seven p.m., a main hatchway gave in, he said…..Fellas, it’s been good t’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 ‘is lights went outta sight…..came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
“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 ‘er, …….. They might have split up or they might 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.”
– From the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, released in 1976.
On todays date, November 10, in 1975 the 729-foot freighter S.S.Edmund Fitzgerald sank during a storm on Lake Superior. So named for the chairman of the Northwestern Life Insurance Co. which financed her construction, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest and fastest ship on the Great Lakes at the time of her launching in June of 1958. She was carrying a heavy load of iron ore pellets from Superior, Wisconsin to Detroit, Michigan and carried a crew of 29 men, under the command of Capt. Ernest Mc Sorley (Pictured, below).
The ship had departed on November 9th. By early on the morning of the 10th, the Fitzgerald had entered a storm that was producing gale-force winds of over 60 MPH, and waves over 15 feet high, By around 2:00 a.m., another ship, the S.S. Arthur Anderson was near enough that her captain, Jessie Cooper, could see Fitzgerald about 15 miles away from him. The two captains discussed the storm’s power, and elected to alter course and head for the Canadian shore and the safety of Whitefish Bay – on the Canadian/ Michigan boarder where they would find shelter from the high winds. But the passage was proving too much for the Fitzgerald. At 3:30 a.m., Capt. Mc Sorley radioed Capt. Cooper that Fitzgerald was damaged, and listing to one side. By 4:10, a.m. the radar systems on board the Fitzgerald failed as did those at Whitefish Bay, leaving her traveling blind, but for assistance from the Anderson. At 7:10 a.m., the Anderson radioed to the Fitzgerald to ask about her condition. “We’re holding our own.” came the reply. It was the last word to be received from the damaged vessel. At 7:15, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the S.S. Anderson’s radar view in an area of heavy rain and was not seen again. A search was launched, but no survivors were found. On November 17th, the wreck was located just 17 miles from Whitefish Bay beneath 530 feet of
water. All of the 29 crew were lost. The Coast Guard concluded that the ship was sunk when water from the heavy storm waves flooded her compartments through loose hatch covers. But the finding is disputed by many who are familiar with the wreck. One theory, supported by Capt. Cooper of the “Anderson” is that Fitzgerald likely touched rocks in a shoal area causing damage to her bottom, causing her to taking in water and slowly sink despite having her ballast pumps in full operation.
Gordon Lightfoot Immortalizes the Loss of the Fitzgerald in Song
Not long after the sinking, singer Gordon Lightfoot read about the tragedy, and was moved to write a song about it as a memorial to the men who were lost – part of which is quoted above. The song rose to great popularity, ultimately becoming a Top Ten hit on the song charts. This writer can remember the song being played on radio regularly during the ’70’s. The tale it told was one of the things that got me so interested in history – and the stories it tells. One of the “wives and the sons and the daughters” of whom the song spoke was Pam Johnson, daughter of Robert C. Rafferty, who was steward on the Fitzgerald when she was lost. Mrs. Johnson, when asked why the wreck of the Fitzgerald stands out among all of the other wrecks on the Great Lakes said: “The wreck stands out most because of Gordon Lightfoot’s song.” Thus, we have another example to go with the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (painted by Picasso, TIH April 26) and the Mutiny on the HMS Bounty (filmed by three different directors, TIH April 28) – of a moment in history that would quite likely be a little-known footnote being brought into fore of popular memory by an artistic portrayal.
For more about the storms and gales of the month of November please log onto “Today in History’s” annex or sister site — cleverly named “Today in History II” — to read about “The Storms of November”, an article which I previously had published on “Suite 101” but which they dropped from their exalted roles for reasons which remain as mysterious as the gales of November….
The web address for the specific article is: http://todaysstoryinhistory.blogspot.com/2012/05/storms-of-november.html
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“Marine Casualty Report – S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Sinking in Lake Superior“- U.S. Coast Guard Marine Board of Investigation Report Report No. USCG 16732/64216
“Edmund Fitzgerald Fact Sheet” – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers U.S. Government Printing Office: 1991-545-160.
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Music and Lyrics by Gordon Lightfoot, 1976.
“The Edmund Fitzgerald, the Song of the Bell” by Kathy-Jo Wargin, Sleeping Bear Press, Chelsea, Michigan, 2003.