The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald

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November 10th was the anniversary of the sinking of the freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald in near-hurricane force winds on Lake Superior in 1975. The disaster was immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot’s epic song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald – one of my all time favorite tunes.

Here’s the backstory…

The ship hauled iron ore pellets for 17 years, typically leaving the port of Superior Wisconsin for Great Lake ports to the east. The day before the disaster, she left Superior with 26 thousand tons of iron ore, bound for Detroit. She was joined on the voyage by another freighter, SS Arthur M. Anderson. A third freighter filled at the port that day, the SS Wilfred Sykes, left the port two hours after the Edmond Fitzgerald – its captain decided to take a route along the north shore of Lake Superior to provide more protection, given his concern that a major storm was brewing. Eleven hours into their voyage, at 1:00 am on November 10, the Edmond Fitzgerald and Arthur M. Anderson were caught in a severe storm, with waves at 35 feet. At approximately 7:10 pm, the Edmond Fitzgerald suddenly sank, about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay near Sault Ste. Marie Michigan – just one hour away from safety. The captain of the Edmond Fitzgerald never sent a distress signal, though he had reported to the Arthur M. Anderson that he was taking heavy seas over the deck and that he had lost his radars. The captain’s last message at 7:10 pm was “we are holding our own.”  Less than ten minutes later, the Arthur M. Anderson lost both radio and radar contact with the Edmond Fitzgerald. 

The captain of Arthur M. Anderson reported this to the U.S. Coast Guard at 7:39 pm. By 9:00 pm, the Coast Guard requested the Arthur M. Anderson to turn around and search for survivors. The subsequent search found debris, but none of the crew was found. The crew of 29 had perished. The Edmond Fitzgerald had become one of at least 240 ships that had sank in the Whitefish Bay area between 1816 and 1975.

Gordon Lightfoot was inspired to write about the disaster after reading about it in a Newsweek article from November 24, 1975 titled “The Cruelest Month.” He agonized over possible inaccuracies with his version of the story, wanting to get everything correct out of respect for the crew. Eventually, his friend and producer Lenny Waronker convinced him to just tell a story, and Lightfoot created his masterpiece. To create the mood while recording the vocal part, he cleared the studio and shut off all the lights except for a small lamp illuminating the paper with his lyrics. He recorded the song in December 1975, and it was released as a single in August 1976, part of his Summertime Dream album. It reached #2 on the Hot 100 chart, and #1 on the Canadian charts.

While not perfectly accurate, the song gets most of it right. The lyrics say that it “left fully loaded for Cleveland” – actually it was scheduled to unload near Detroit, and then head to Cleveland to spend the winter. His reference to “The Maritime Sailor’s Cathedral” in Detroit is actually called the Mariners’ Church of Detroit. He sings of “the musty old hall” – after a parishioner informed him that it is not musty, he changed the lyric while performing in concerts to “in a rustic old hall.” There are a few other nit-picking issues, but by and large the lyrics are true to the event.

In May 1976, the U.S. Navy conducted an unmanned submersible vessel dive at the site and found the wreckage at the bottom of Lake Superior, lying in two pieces at a depth of 530 feet. The first manned submersible vessel dive expedition occurred in 1980, and in 1989, an extended dive led to five hours of videotape of the wreck site. A dive in 1995 led to the recovery of the ship’s bell – it was replaced with a replica bell, and a can of beer was left in the pilothouse by the dive crew. The bell now is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point near Paradise Michigan.

The blog already has two versions of Lightfoot performing the song – I wrote about the Summertime Dream album on my Vintage Vinyl post on July 12, 2017, and I featured Lightfoot on a 70s post on November 19, 2017. So…go to these posts and click on the YouTube links to hear and watch it. For this post, I give to you nearly six minutes of radio chatter between the Arthur M. Anderson and the Coast Guard just after the doomed freighter disappeared. The video shows some of the video of the wreck site. “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumme, Superior they said never gives up her dead, When the skies of November turn gloomy….”


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