"We Are Holding Our Own"

“We Are Holding Our Own”

Anchor of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, Dossin Museum, Detroit

Anchor of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, Dossin Great Lakes Museum, Detroit

On a stormy November evening 42 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.

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on the Detroit River in 1960 (Detroit Historical Society photo)

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald on the Detroit River in 1960 (Detroit Historical Society photo)

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; this website is an excellent resource.

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:

Students built a Lego model of the Edmund Fitzgerald on display at the Shipwreck Museum, at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula

A Lego fan admires a model of the Edmund Fitzgerald, built of the interlocking blocks by Kalamazoo teacher John R. Beck, that was on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula.


Mariners Memorial, Traverse City – Noon, Friday, November 10

Annual tribute at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy of Northwestern Michigan College.

Working on Great Lakes Freighters in the 20th Century, East Lansing, 12:15 p.m.-1:30 p.m., Friday, November 10

The Michigan State University Our Daily Work, Our Daily Lives Brown Bag Series features Frank Boles, Clarke Library, Central Michigan University and Author of Sailing Into History: Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews Who Sailed Them, at the MSU Museum Auditorium.

Lost Mariners Remembrance, Detroit – Dossin Great Lakes Museum, 6-8 p.m., Friday, November 10

Several years ago following the River Rouge ceremony I was able to chat at the River Rouge Bar & Grill with Fred Shannon, a scuba diver who has explored the Fitzgerald site, and Pam Johnson, daughter of the cook on the ill-fated voyage

Several years ago, following an Edmund Fitzgerald ceremony along the Detroit River, I was able to chat at the River Rouge Bar & Grill with Fred Shannon, a scuba diver who has explored the Fitzgerald site, and Pam Johnson, daughter of the cook on the ill-fated voyage

The annual Lost Mariners Remembrance honors all those who have perished on the inland seas. In addition to the Edmund Fitzgerald tribute, this year’s program focuses on the loss of the tug Admiral and its consort tanker-barge Cleveco in Lake Erie in December of 1942.

There will be a lantern vigil at the Fitzgerald‘s anchor outside of the museum, and Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock will perform, followed by the solemn dispatch of a memorial wreath to the Detroit River. Admission is charged in addition to State Park vehicle fee.

NOTE: This program is SOLD OUT. Please contact Casie at 313.833.1801 for wait list information.

Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Ceremony, Paradise – 7 p.m., Friday, November 10

The seasonal Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Lake Superior reopens just for this annual tribute, with the main gallery open “by donation” from Noon-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.

Memorial Roll Call and Bell Ringing Ceremony, Rogers City – 1 p.m., Saturday, November 11

Annual Edmund Fitzgerald recognition at the Great Lake Lore Maritime Museum.

The Fitzgerald Tragedy, Detroit – 2 p.m. Saturday, November 11

The 60-minute documentary will be screened at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum’s Fall Film Series.

Mariners’ Church, Detroit – 11 a.m., Sunday, November 12

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.”

Edmund Fitzgerald: What Really Happened? Detroit – 2 p.m., Sunday, November 19

Discover the story of the tragedy at The Outdoor Adventure Center on the Detroit Riverfront.

Program is included in the OAC admission fee.


Beacon Lighting Commemorates Edmund Fitzgerald, Two Harbors – 11 a.m.-6 p.m., Friday, November 10

The seasonal Split Rock Lighthouse opens for this annual tribute that includes a film about the freighter, a solemn ceremony and once-a-year opportunity to climb to the top of the tower after dark. Fee charged.

Mariners’ Memorial Lighthouse in River Rouge, setting for a November 10 Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Service

Mariners’ Memorial Lighthouse on the Detroit Riverfront in River Rouge is near the Edmund Fitzgerald launch site in 1958.

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.

Click here for a brief film clip of the Detroit River launch of the Fitzgerald on June 7, 1958.

Story and photos (unless otherwise noted) copyright Kath Usitalo.