“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead When the skies of November turn gloomy”
The cold, wet winds of a northern November ripped across the faces of the crew as they boarded the Edmund Fitzgerald. Loaded to the gills with enough iron-ore pellets to make nearly 27,000 cars, or a small skyscraper, the ship was heading for Lug Island, just outside of Detroit, but no one was happy about it.
Storms were brewing across the 31,700 square mile Great Lake called Superior, but Captain McSorely trusted his vessel and the 28 person crew that manned it, so he planned a northerly course instead of a more typical one in hopes of being protected by the Canadian shoreline.
On November 9th, 1958 at 4:30pm, the Edmund Fitzgerald, trailed by another ship named the Arthur M. Anderson, set out. According to Cleveland.com, they planned to meet up near Whitefish Point, Michigan to ride out the bad weather and regroup before finishing the trip.
One of those those ships is still in service today. The other would never again reach land.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was well known to boat watchers and steel companies alike, having set many seasonal haul records through her time in the water while playing loud music over the intercom to entertain those one the banks of the many rivers and ports she entered.
At 729 feet, she was larger than most boats and gave those who saw and worked on her feelings of invincibility, feelings that undoubtedly lead to the now-infamous decision to cut through the stormy night instead of waiting out the weather.
Around 7pm on November 9th, gale warnings were issued. By the early hours of November 10th the gales were a full force storm, gusts of wind reaching 50 knots and while waves of 12 to 16 feet tossed the enormous ship and began imparting fatal damage.
“The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound And a wave broke over the railing And every man knew, as the captain did too T’was the witch of November come stealin’ The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait When the gales of November came slashin’ When afternoon came it was freezin’ rain In the face of a hurricane west wind”
At 3:30pm on November 10th, Captain McSorley radioed Bernie Cooper, captain of the Anderson, saying the Fitzgerald was listing (taking on water and leaning heavily to the side). The storm continued to strengthen, with wind gusts reaching 70 knots and the waves reaching 18 to 25 feet.
At 7pm, the Anderson was hit with two enormous waves that nearly capsized the boat and drove the bow deep into the water. Somehow, it was able to stay upright, but Cooper believed it was those waves that put the final nail in the coffin of its travel partner.
The Fitzgerald’s final transmission came at 7:10pm the night of its demise. It was a simple message to the Anderson which read:
“We are holding our own”
“When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya” At seven PM, a main hatchway caved in, he said “Fellas, it’s been good to 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 his lights went outta sight Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
There are many theories on what exactly caused the Fitzgerald to sink. It could have been flooding of the cargo hold. It could have been tipped over by the waves, or perhaps its numerous heavy trips had taken its toll on the craft and it was no longer able to withstand the bombardment of waves and broke apart.
All that is known for sure is every man aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald died on November 10th, 1958 around 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point. Had they been able to make it there before the storm worsened, many experts believe they would have been safe.
“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 her They might have split up or they might have 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”
The tragedy of this shipwreck was captured epically and beautifully in Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”, whose lyrics have been providing color to this article throughout.
Sadly, Gordon passed away earlier this year at the age of 84 years old, leaving behind decades of beautiful music, but none as striking and as important as his ode to brave sailors who went down with their ship 48 years ago today.
For those men, and the man who forever etched their story in the fabric of history, let’s crank up this song and have a beer in their honor.
“In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed In the maritime sailors’ cathedral The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down Of the big lake they called Gitche Gumee Superior, they said, never gives up her dead When the gales of November come early”