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American History: the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

Early Misfortunes

  • During the christening ceremony it took three tries to break the bottle of champagne on the ship's bow.
  • The first voyage was delayed over thirty minutes because the crew could not remove all of the lines holding her to the dock.
  • Once the ship was free of the lines it crashed into the pier.
  • The ship ran aground in 1969.
  • in 1970 the ship was involved in a collision with the SS Hochelaga
  • The ship also has repeated history of running into the walls of lochs; happening in 1970, 1973, and 1974.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald

On June 8 1958 the Edmund Fitzgerald was lunched into the waters of the Great Lakes. At that time she was the largest ship to sail the waters of the Great Lakes. The Edmund Fitzgerald was a freighter that carried iron ore to various port cites along the Great Lakes. Not only was this ship one of the largest it was often the fastest, often making record time for her deliveries.

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was well known in the cites along the Great Lakes. The Captain, Peter Pulcer, often would play music through the ship's intercom system when they would get close to land or entertain bystanders with information about the ship as she would pass through ports. This free entertainment paired with her size and speed made her a popular vessel amongst ship watchers.

With a length of 730 feet, a width of 75 feet, and a depth of 25 feet she was the largest vessel to sail the Great Lakes until 1959 when the SS Murray Bay was launched. The Edmund Fitzgerald could hold just over 26,000 tons of cargo. What is interesting about the Edmund Fitzgerald is that when she was originally built she was designed to burn coal for fuel but in the early 1970s she was redesigned to burn oil.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was considered to be a luxurious freighter. The crew enjoyed air-conditioned staterooms and a galley outfitted with two dining rooms. In addition to her luxury the Edmund Fitzgerald was considered to be one of the safest freighters on the Great lakes; receiving several awards for crew safety.

The Final Voyage

The Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin early in the afternoon of November 9, 1975. She was fully loaded with a little over 26,000 tons of iron ore. Her destination was a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan. She was captained by Ernest McSorley. With a weather forecast considered normal for the time of year and area, a winter storm to pass just south of the lake, the captain ran the ship at full speed, roughly 16 miles per hour.

Another ship, the SS Wilfred Skyes, left the same port a few hours after the Edmund Fitzgerald. What is interesting about this fact is that the captain of the Wilfred Skyes predicted that the storm would pass directly over the lake instead of going to the south. With this in mind the Wilfred Skyes took a safer route along the northern part of the lake instead of going through the middle like the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Wreck

Early in the morning of November 10, 1975 Captain McSorley reported winds of 60 mph and waves of 10 feet. It wasn't until an hour later that the National Weather Service upgraded the area to a storm warning. The Edmund Fitzgerald experienced near hurricane force winds until she sunk below the icy waters.

The Edmund Fitzgerald pulled ahead of the only ship in sight around 3 in the morning, and by the afternoon it had started snowing and the Anderson lost sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Roughly half hour after the Anderson lost sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald it received a radio call saying the Edmund Fitzgerald was taking on water and had suffered damages. The Edmund Fitzgerald developed a list and began pumping water out of her haul. The Edmund Fitzgerald slowed their speed so that the slower Anderson would be able to assist them.

Shortly after 4 in the afternoon the Edmund Fitzgerald reported losing radar capabilities and requested the Anderson to assist them. The Anderson attempted to guide the Edmund Fitzgerald to Whitefish Bay, where waters were safer. Captain McSorley contacted the US Coast Guard to inquire about the lighthouse and beacon but did not indicate that he was in distress. It was not until a little while later that McSorley told the Coast Guard that he was taking on water, had a bad list, and was without radar.

The Anderson reported winds over 86 miles per hour and encountered rouge waves of 35 feet. The last radio contact between the Anderson and the Edmund Fitzgerald came around 7:10 that evening. The Anderson inquired about how the Edmund Fitzgerald was fairing in the ailing conditions, the Captain replied that "they were holding their own". Ten minutes later the Anderson could no longer hail the Edmund Fitzgerald nor could they locate her on radar.

The Crew

There were 29 people aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald the night she sunk. All of them perished that night. The youngest aboard was just 21 and the oldest, Captain McSorley, was 63 and ready to retire.

  • Michael Armagost
  • Fredrick Beecher
  • Thomas Bentsen
  • Edward Bindon
  • Thomas Borgeson
  • Oliver Champeau
  • Nolan Church
  • Ransom Chudy
  • Thomas Edwards
  • Russell Haskell
  • George Hall
  • Bruce Hudson
  • Allen Kalmon
  • Gordon MacLelland
  • Joseph Mazes
  • John McCarthy
  • Ernest McSorley
  • Eugenie O'Brien
  • Karl Peckol
  • John Poviach
  • James Pratt
  • Robert Rafferty
  • Paul Riippa
  • John Simmons
  • William Spegler
  • Mark Thomas
  • Ralph Walton
  • David Weiss
  • Blaine Wihelm

The Search for Survivors

As soon as the Anderson lost contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald the caption contacted the US Cost Guard. However, it was some time later before he was able to make contact. In the mean time he attempted to hail other ships nearby. None of them reported seeing the Edmund Fitzgerald on their radar.

The US Coast Guard requested the Anderson and all available vessels in the Whitefish Bay area to look for the Edmund Fitzgerald and search for survivors. In all the search lasted for three days and involved aircraft. The searchers recovered debris and lifeboats but they never found any bodies.

A few days after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank it was found on the bottom of Lake Superior just 17 miles from Whitefish Bay.

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The Song

In 1976 Gordon Lightfoot wrote 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'. This song goes through the timeline of the last few hours of the Edmund Fitzgerald's last voyage. There are a few lyrics that are not accurate, mainly because most of the actions of the crew are unknown because of the few radio transmissions and because none of the crew survived. Lightfoot also as agreed to use new lyrics when performing the song live as there has been no indication of crew error that resulted in the sinking of the ship.

In the End

It is possible that we will never know exactly how the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. The Captain of the Anderson reported rouge waves in the area, having several hit his vessel and head in the direction of the Edmund Fitzgerald. It is possible that several of these waves hit the Edmund Fitzgerald in session and lead to her rapid sinking. It is also possible that wind and waves of the storm were simply too much for the Edmund Fitzgerald to handle and caused her to capsize. There is also a theory that there was structural damage in the haul of the ship that eventually lead to her demise.

However, since there was a lack of transmissions detailing exactly what was going on in her final hours it is not clear what exactly happened in that time. Even still, the lack of survivors means that we will never know for sure how the ship sank. Though, I will argue that the sinking must have happened very quickly and been a surprise for Captian McSorley. The last transmission the Edmund Fitzgerald made was to the Anderson and it stated that 'We are holding our own.' If the captain knew the ship was going to founder why would he withhold that information from the only person responding to his radio calls? Further more the Anderson was close enough to possibly rescue crew members from either the sinking ship or the icy waters. This prospect of saving the lives of his crew alone should have been enough for McSorley to alert the Anderson to the life threatening situation if he was indeed aware of it.

In the Mariner's Church in Detroit, Michigan the bell chimed 29 times the day after the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. It is tradition for the bell to toll for each life lost at sea. If this wreck happened today the bell would ring out 30 times; one for each life lost and the last toll for all those who have ever been lost at sea.

May those who lost their lives that night ever rest in peace.

Further Reading

If you would like to read more on the rich history of the Edmund Fitzgerald my sources would be excellent places to start:

© 2014 isharkbait


Laura Schneider from Minnesota, USA on March 11, 2014:

Awesome article! Did you know that there is also an excellent theater play about this sinking? It's called "10 November" and it's told from the perspective of the crew—very powerful and moving play, I highly recommend seeing it or reading it if you ever have the opportunity.

Awesome article—I look forward to reading more of your work.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on January 25, 2014:

Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" played through my head as I read your detailed story here. Fascinating. Enjoyable read.

isharkbait (author) from Virginia Beach, VA on January 23, 2014:

I haven't read it, I will have to look for it. I love watching documentaries on the Titanic, though sometimes they give me the chills. Its very interesting to see how many things went wrong that night.

I have a lot of coworkers that go wreck diving, since there are so many in my area. The pictures they take are amazing. There is so much history at the bottom of the ocean.

Danida from London on January 23, 2014:

Very interesting hub! I've always been fascinated by ships and although I'm scared to go on one (blame Titanic), I love learning about how they work and the history of famous ones.

It's unfortunate how there are so many shipwrecks though. Have you read the book that predicted the wreck of the Titanic? It's called Futility and was published in 1898, 14 years before the Titanic sank. There are some crazy coincidences there.

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