Among modern-era shipwrecks, the loss of the 729-foot bulk freighter Edmund Fitzgerald has retained the public’s fascination for nearly 40 years.
The “laker” went down on Lake Superior in a gale Nov. 10, 1975, while carrying more than 26,000 tons of taconite ore pellets from Superior, Mich., south to the steel mills.
No distress call was received when the Fitzgerald sank about 7:30 p.m. in heavy snow, hurricane-force winds and seas exceeding 30 feet. All 29 hands were lost.
Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot immortalized the tragedy with his 1976 ballad "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
Click play for a tribute to the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The “Fitz” was built by Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, Mich., on the Detroit River. The vessel was launched June 7, 1958.
At 729 feet, it was the largest freighter on the Great Lakes at that time. She was powered by a 7,500-shp Westinghouse Electric Co. double reduction-geared, cross-compound steam turbine and two coal-fired Combustion Engineering water tube boilers.
Although no distress call was received on that fateful night, Capt. Ernest McSorley, who had commanded the ship for three years, had indicated by radio that he was having difficulty and they were taking on water. She was listing to port, and only two of three ballast pumps were working. She had lost her radar, and damage to ballast tank vent pipes was noted. He was overheard on the radio saying "don't allow nobody on deck."
Click play for the last radio transmission from the ship.
The ship was lost 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Mich. — the site of the Whitefish Point Light Station and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society conducted underwater expeditions to the wreck in 1989, 1994 and 1995. At the request of family members of the crew, the ship’s 200-pound bronze bell was recovered July 4, 1995. The bell is on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial.
Of note is that Nov. 7 marked another anniversary in the history of the infamous “Gales of November” on the Great Lakes.
One hundred years ago, from Nov. 7 to 10, the “White Hurricane” raged across the lakes, resulting in a dozen major shipwrecks and an estimated 250 lives lost. It remains the largest inland maritime disaster in U.S. history.
The unique and powerful nature of the storm caught even the most seasoned captains by surprise. Two low-pressure centers merged and rapidly intensified over Lake Huron, and periods of storm-force winds occurred over a four-day period.
Vessels at the time withstood 90-mph winds and 35-foot waves, but whiteout conditions and an accumulation of ice on the ships turned a dangerous situation into a deadly one.
— Rich Armstrong