On a stormy November evening 40 years ago the crew of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, 29 men who thought they were on the last run of the season, made the last run of their lives.
Wheelsmen. Deckhands. Oilers. Engineers. Porters. Maintenance men. Cooks. Mates. Watchmen. Wiper. Cadet. Captain. Fathers. Brothers. Husbands. Grandfathers. Sons.
All hands were lost when the 729-foot freighter, loaded with iron ore pellets called taconite, was swallowed by Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 en route from Superior, Wisconsin (twin port city to Duluth, Minnesota), to Detroit.
After hours of sailing through the storm, at 7:10 p.m. the Fitzerald’s veteran Captain Ernest M. McSorley radioed the captain of the Arthur M. Anderson, an ore carrier trailing the Fitz by about 10 miles and said, “We are holding our own.”
There was no further communication from and no other sighting of the lake boat, the largest of its kind when it launched on the Detroit River in 1958.
Officially the reason for the sinking of the Fitzgerald in Canadian waters about 17 miles off the Upper Peninsula “remains a mystery,” according to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, where her bell is displayed.
In his 1976 ballad “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot referenced speculation that the crew had been at fault for not correctly battening down the hatches. But Lightfoot later changed that line of his lyrics because a Canadian documentary claims to have proven that the sinking was not the crew’s doing.
Books, videos, articles and additional websites about “Big Fitz” reflect the continuing fascination with the greatest modern shipwreck in U.S. waters, and in November of each year Great Lakers attend ceremonies that recognize not only the Fitzgerald but all mariners lost on Lakes Superior, Huron, Ontario, Erie and Michigan.
Click here to listen to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzerald” while reading about this year’s memorial events:
Annual Edmund Fitzgerald recognition at the Great Lake Lore Maritime Museum.
The annual Great Lakes Memorial Service honors all lost on the lakes at the church on the Detroit River that is referenced in Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Annual tribute at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy of Northwestern Michigan College.
The seasonal Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Lake Superior reopens just for this annual tribute, with several of the compound’s buildings open “by donation” from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., followed by the evening ceremony. Located north of Paradise at Whitefish Point, 17 miles from where the freighter went down, the museum contains the Fitzgerald’s bell, recovered from the deep-water site in 1995. At the bottom of the lake rests a replica of the bell, inscribed with the names of the lost seamen.
Remembering the Fitz, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., and Lost Mariners Remembrance, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit – 6-8 p.m., Tuesday, November 10
Remembering the Fitz is a special daytime opportunity to learn more about the loss of the legendary lake boat through docents, a film, exhibits and chat by Pam Johnson, daughter of the boat’s cook Robert Rafferty.
The annual Lost Mariners Remembrance honors all those who have perished on the inland seas, but on the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald that tragedy will be the main subject.
NOTE: This year’s event is SOLD OUT. See information below for possible ticket availability.
The evening’s events—which will be webcast live at detroithistorical.org— begin with a lantern vigil at the Fitzgerald’s anchor outside of the museum, and Pam Johnson will speak briefly about “The Edmund Fitzgerald Family.”
Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock will perform “Ballads of the Great Lakes Mariners” followed by the solemn dispatch of a memorial wreath to the Detroit River. Live webcast at: detroithistorical.org Admission charged in addition to State Park vehicle fee.
Although this program is SOLD OUT, any released tickets will be available on a first come, first served basis the night of November 10 at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. Doors to the museum will open at 5:30 p.m., with limited seating available for the simulcast. As always, there is no charge if you wish to view only the outdoor portion of the program, the Memorial Wreath Ceremony, which starts just after 7 p.m. and will include an Honor Guard and movements of the Honor Flotilla on the Detroit River. Please call 313.833.1801 with any questions about the event.
The location of this service on the Detroit River at Belanger Park is about halfway between where the Edmund Fitzgerald was built in 1957-58 and Zug Island, the ore carrier’s destination in November of 1975.
The River Rouge Historical Museum will be open from 2-3 p.m. prior to displays opening in a heated tent at Belanger Park from 4:30-6 p.m.
“The 40th Anniversary of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” features Jim Spurr speaking on “Ice Water Mansions,” Lake Superior shipping including video of the lost Fitzgerald. Admission charged.
Panel discussion about Great Lakes shipping by State Archeologist Dean Anderson and two faculty of Michigan State University, complementing the MSU Museum exhibit “Iron Hulls and Turbulent Waters: Ore Boats, Workers and Great Lakes Shipping” (exhibit runs through January 24, 2016).
The Forest Roberts Theatre at Northern Michigan University presents a cast of 11 men in a stage reading of the play by NMU Professor of Theatre Arts Dr. Shelley Russell, who describes the work as “A historical drama that combines what is known about the Fitzgerald tragedy with what has been theorized and what seems likely, given the circumstances.”
Tickets are free and available at the theatre box office or at the door that evening.
Speakers, videos, tours and exhibitors focus on the Edmund Fitzgerald at the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
The seasonal Split Rock Lighthouse reopens for this annual tribute that includes a film about the freighter, a second film about Great Lakes shipwrecks, a solemn ceremony and once-a-year opportunity to climb to the top of the tower after dark. Fee charged.
Story and photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Kath Usitalo.
But wait, there’s more:
Read “The Legend Lives On,” Susan R. Pollack’s story in Experience Michigan magazine about the Edmund Fitzgerald and her encounter at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum with Fran Gabor, niece of one of the lost sailors.
For more about the Fitzgerald, spend time exploring the extensive information at S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online the website maintained by Timothy McCall.
Forty years after the sinking of the Fitzgerald, untold stories emerge: Read about the memories of Great Lakes seamen, including one who knew and worked with Captain McSorley, at BoatNerd.com