Intense areas of low pressure quickly roll into the Great Lakes, bringing arctic air masses, like we’re seeing right now. The Great Lakes waters are still warm, encouraging storms to intensify, creating dangerous conditions.
It was forty-two years ago today when one of these violent storms blew across the Great Lakes sinking the Edmund Fitzgerald. The wreck occurred just northwest of Whitefish Point in Lake Superior. All twenty-nine crew members were lost as the ship sank in 530 feet of water.
According to Wikipedia, when launched on June 7, 1958, the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship on North America’s Great Lakes, and she remains the largest to have sunk there.
For 17 years Fitzgerald carried taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota, to iron works in Detroit, Toledo, and other Great Lakes ports. As a workhorse, she set seasonal haul records six times, often breaking her own previous record. Captain Peter Pulcer was known for piping music day or night over the ship’s intercom while passing through the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers (between Lakes Huron and Erie), and entertaining spectators at the Soo Locks (between Lakes Superior and Huron) with a running commentary about the ship. Her size, record-breaking performance, and “DJ captain” endeared Fitzgerald to boat watchers.
Carrying a full cargo of ore pellets with Captain Ernest M. McSorley in command, she embarked on her ill-fated voyage from Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, on the afternoon of November 9, 1975. En route to a steel mill near Detroit, Fitzgerald joined a second freighter, SS Arthur M. Anderson.
By the next day, the two ships were caught in a severe storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet (11 m) high. Shortly after 7:10 p.m., Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian (Ontario) waters 530 feet (160 m) deep, about 17 miles (15 nautical miles; 27 kilometers) from Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario—a distance Fitzgerald could have covered in just over an hour at her top speed.
Although Fitzgerald had reported being in difficulty earlier, no distress signals were sent before she sank; Captain McSorley’s last message to Anderson said, “We are holding our own.” Her crew of 29 perished, and no bodies were recovered. The exact cause of the sinking remains unknown, though many books, studies, and expeditions have examined it. Fitzgerald may have been swamped, suffered structural failure or topside damage, been shoaled, or suffered from a combination of these.
Every year, ceremonies are held for the family and friends of the lost crewmen of the Edmund Fitzgerald where a bell tolls 29 times for the 29 men, who ranged from age 21 to 63, who were tragically lost that night.
The public is invited to the annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point Friday at 7:00 p.m. The bell of the ship is rung just once each year, on Nov. 10, in honor of the ship and its men.
Mariners’ Church of Detroit, which celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, will host its annual Great Lakes Memorial at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, November 12.
The memorial coincides with the 42nd anniversary this week of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior.
Reverend Richard Ingalls, the pastor of Mariners’ Church on Jefferson Avenue in 1975, came to the church early November 12 to commemorate the loss of lives, the worst ever on the Great Lakes, by ringing the church “brotherhood bell” 29 times. The act is forever known in Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
In a rustic old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Sunday’s service will honor the memory of the more than 6,000 Great Lakes shipwrecks and the more than 10,000 sailors who have lost their lives in them, including the crew of the Edmund Fitzgerald.