XVIII: Transportation

S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

            Sometime after 7:00 p.m. on 10 November 1975, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald mysteriously sank in the icy waters of Lake Superior. Although only one of approximately six thousand shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, the disappearance of the boat known as the Fitz captured the attention of the nation because of the mysterious circumstances and the fact that the disappearance left no wreckage and no bodies.

            At the time it was built in 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the biggest ship to sail fresh water and remained the largest vessel to sail the Great Lakes until 1971. The 729-foot freighter weighed 13,632 tons, and its engines generated 7,000 horsepower. Named after the president of Northwestern Mutual Insurance, the company built the freighter to ship processed iron ore. The company spent eight million dollars to build the Fitz which in turn brought pride and financial rewards to the company. It broke a variety of shipping records for the amount of ore it carried.
            Prior to leaving dock in Superior, Wisconsin, the Edmund Fitzgerald had been inspected and loaded with 26,000 tons of ore in the form of taconite pellets destined for Detroit, Michigan. It also carried lifeboats and preservers for more than the twenty-nine crew members and was equipped with the necessary communication and radar systems, including back up systems.
            Deemed seaworthy by the inspector, the ship departed on 9 November with clear weather, although a storm was moving northeast from the Oklahoma Panhandle. Sailors experienced many severe storms on Lake Superior, yet in November cold arctic winds could collide with warm southern winds to create even more dangerous conditions. The Edmund Fitzgerald was not alone on the lake. The Arthur M. Anderson followed the Fitz during much of the storm. At the height of the storm, winds reached an estimated seventy miles per hour, and ten to thirty foot waves battered the ships. Unlike the Anderson, however, the Edmund Fitzgerald began taking on water soon after the storm hit the lake on 10 November. Later the Fitz lost main radar and back up radar systems. Visibility was low due to the storm, so the crew of the Anderson followed aiding the other ship’s crew. Ernest McSorley, the captain of the Fitz, radioed that his ship was taking on more water, but did not seemed panicked. Yet within a few hours, McSorley’s ship dropped off the Anderson’s radar.
            The Coast Guard, despite the storm, initiated a search effort immediately, turning up no sign of the ship. A series of investigations starting that November and continuing until 1995 led investigators to a site near Whitefish Bay, Michigan. The Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board both postulated that it took on water through the hatches. Advocates of another theory argue that a wave phenomenon called the “Three Sisters,” or three big seas, pummeled the freighter in three successive waves with ten million pounds of water; considering that the ship already had fifty-two millions pounds of cargo with additional flooding, the Fitz could not withstand the weight of the extra water. Although research dives have provided more data concerning the condition of the ship, the cause of the wreck has not been definitively determined.
            Investigators have determined, however, that the freighter probably went down too fast for the crew to escape and they may have remained trapped alive in a pocket of air. Even if they had been able to access rescue boats, their survival was unlikely since Lake Superior is the coldest of the Great Lakes. The water rarely gets above 40 degrees Fahrenheit even in the summer. The combination of storms and cold water make surviving a shipwreck on the lake nearly impossible. The families of the twenty-nine crew members requested that the 1995 effort to recover the bell of the ship be the last trip to the Edmund Fitzgerald and that the area be considered a cemetery.
            The sinking of the Fitz fascinated people at the time and for the next two decades. The manner of its disappearance, the reasons for its sinking, and the lack of witnesses and survivors have shrouded the event with mystery. In 1976 the singer Gordon Lightfoot memorialized the ship in a ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and since then numerous books and documentaries have also been produced. The sustained interest in the causes led to the use of the latest underwater technology as it came available.
Alexandra Kindell
Iowa State University
Hugh E. Bishop, The Night the Fitz Went Down (2000); Andrew Kantar, 29 Missing (1998); Joseph MacInnis, Fitzgerald’s Storm (1998); Frederick Stonehouse, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald (1977).