Shipwreck Museum Of Great Lakes

Many lives have been lost on Lake Superior. The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum is one of two original lighthouses situated on her shores. It dates back to 1849.

Lake Superior is a lake of beauty and splendor, though her moods change swiftly. Called Gitche Gummee by the Chippewa, the lake was one that they greatly respected. Gale force winds can blow in unexpectedly, especially in November. These raging winds bring waves that are sometimes as high as thirty feet. Lake Superior demands that all who sail on her, whether it be small craft or giant ships, take much care while on her waters. She has claimed many lives.

Whitefish Point, Michigan has the only remaining active lighthouse along the southeast shore of Lake Superior. It marks the heavily traveled approach to the Soo Locks and Whitefish Bay. In 1970, the Coast Guard automated the Light Station. A resident lighthouse keeper was no longer needed. Instead, the dwelling houses became the home of the Great Lake Shipwreck Museum. This area is known as the Shipwreck Coast because more than half of the 550 wrecks that have sunk into Superior's murky waters have occurred here.

The Great Lakes Historical Society is a group of divers who are researching the wrecks along the coast. They opened the museum in 1986. It is the only museum that is solely dedicated to shipwrecks of the Great Lakes.

Lake Superior's unrelenting fury makes it the most treacherous of the Great Lakes. Throughout the museum and theater, visitors can see the maritime legends come to life. Artifacts and exhibits tell the stories of ships and men who went up against Superior and lost their lives to its menacing waters.

Some of the earliest ships lost to Superior were sailing schooners of the 1800's. The museum devotes a separate display to each ship and tells heart-wrenching tales of ships and men who have been lost in Superior's deep, cold waters and raging storms. The darkened interior has soft music and special sound effects of blaring foghorns and crying sea gulls. Theatrical lights make the experience so life like that many visitors say fear slithers along their spines. A thrilling experience to say the least.

The most recent ship lost to Superior's raging fury was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The 729-foot freighter nicknamed "The Pride of the American Side" left Superior, Wisconsin on November 9, 1975. The Fitzgerald had set many records in her day and was the first ship to carry more than a million tons of ore through the Soo Locks between Lake Superior and Lake Huron. Her cargo on November 10, 1975, was 26,116 tons of taconite, which are small iron ore pellets. She was bound for Detroit, Michigan and was under the command of Captain Ernest McSorley. After leaving port, the Fitzgerald was in contact with another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson. Her captain was Jessee Cooper. She was bound on a similar route as the Fitzgerald, her destination being Gary, Indiana. The two captains discussed the threatening weather and kept in contact by radio.

Ten days earlier, the Fitzgerald's yearly inspection documented damage to coamings that prevent water from leaking into the cargo hold through twenty-one cargo hatches on the ship's main deck. This problem was not corrected and may have played a part in the events of the Fitzgerald's last voyage.

During the month of November, the Great Lakes are often hit by furious, raging storms. On November 10, 1975 a "Norther" blew in. It was the most vicious storm that the area had experienced in years. Waves were reported as being as high as thirty feet with winds up to ninety-six miles per hour.

During the afternoon, the Fitzgerald contacted the Anderson and reported she had developed a list. Late in the afternoon, she made contact with another ship, the Avafor. It was reported at the time that the Fitzgerald was listing badly and had lost both of her radar screens. She also reported that her deck was being hit by gigantic waves.

At 7PM, the Anderson again made contact with the Fitzgerald and had her on their radar. The Fitzgerald informed the Anderson "We are holding our own." Those were the last words ever heard from the Fitzgerald. Approximately fifteen minutes later, she disappeared from the Anderson's radar. The Fitzgerald's sinking had been rapid.

The Coast Guard mounted a search for the Fitzgerald to no avail. Enough substantial evidence was never gathered to show whether the ship broke on the surface water, on impact when striking the lake bottom, if structural damage was involved, if she just took a nosedive and plunged into the lake because of the raging waves, or for that matter why she had been taking on water. What could have happened to make a ship the size of the Fitzgerald sink so fast that her crew didn't have time to send out a distress call? Did it have something to do with the damaged coamings?

At the time of the Fitzgerald's demise, the lighthouse beacon on Whitefish Point wasn't working. The Fitzgerald was only about fifteen miles from safe harbor at Whitefish Bay when she sank. Twenty-nine men lost their lives. The Captain and the entire crew were lost.

The sinking of the Fitzgerald and the loss of her crew has caused much controversy. Many questions still remain unanswered today. The answers lie in the cold, clear depths of Lake Superior and though several diving expeditions have explored the wreck, including one by the late Jaques Costeau, no explanation for the tragedy has ever been found.

Possibly the fate of the Fitzgerald would have faded in time, but in 1976, Canadian balladeer and songwriter, Gordon Lightfoot, released the song, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Its eerie music and astonishing lyrics etched the fate of the Fitzgerald and her crew in the maritime history of the Great Lakes.

In 1995, the Fitzgerald's bell was recovered from the wreck. It is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. A replica bell was cast and engraved with the names of the twenty-nine crewmen who lost their lives on that fateful November night. It replaced the original bell on the Fitzgerald in her watery grave. This monument to honor those men has added some closure for the families who lost fathers, husbands and sons in the tragedy.

Gordon Lightfoot, in his 1976 ballad sang, "In a musty old hall in Detroit they all prayed in the maritime sailor's cathedral. The church bell chimed "˜til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald." What a lovely tribute to the Fitzgerald's crew.

I will never forget the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. At 7PM, exactly the time that the Fitzgerald sank, my mother and daughter were in a horrific car accident. Though they survived, the night of November 10, 1975 is forever etched on my memory.

The original light at the site of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum was one of two original lights on the Great Lakes. It dates back to 1849 but was replaced in 1861 with an eighty-foot tower with skeletal braces.

The Whitefish Point Light Station is now fully restored and open for tours. Visitors step back in time to an era when lighthouses were maintained by the keepers and their families. The lighthouse reflects life during the turn of the 20th Century. The lighthouse and museum are open from Memorial Day to mid October on a daily basis. Hours of operation are from 10AM to 6PM. There is an admission fee.

For more information contact the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society at 906-635-1742 or 1-800-635-1745.

If you are ever in Michigan be sure to see both of these great sites. The Museum is a great experience and one that you don't want to miss.

Sources:

Lyrics of The Edmund Fitzgerald (c) Gordon Lightfoot

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