The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald

In 1975 a Witch of November wrecked the Lake Superior freighter, the Edmund Fitzgerald. Exactly how and why the ship was lost remains a mystery.

The Great Lakes are made up of five large bodies of water: Lakes Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario, and Superior. These "inland seas" cover over 90,000 square miles and supply one-fifth of the world's fresh water. Superior is the largest of the lakes and covers the greatest surface area of any freshwater system on Earth and is the third largest in volume. The lake's shoreline is close to 2800 miles long and it's the coldest and the deepest of the 5 Great Lakes, the greatest depth measuring at over 1300 feet. The Chippewa Indians call Lake Superior "Kitchi-gummi" meaning "great-water". French explorers were the first Europeans to discover it, naming the lake, "le lac superieur", meaning upper lake.

Lake Superior is one of the busiest shipping lanes in North America and is connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence Seaway. More than 1000 ships travel its waters each year landing either in the port of Duluth in the United States or Thunder Bay in Canada. Iron ore (taconite) and coal are two of the many types of cargoes, some transported all the way to Europe and beyond. Lake Superior is also large enough that it has considerable effect on the weather, especially when winds blow across its surface. Duluth sees over 50 days of fog between spring and fall and sometimes during a particularly cold winter the entire lake will freeze over. Another weather phenomenon common to the region, and particularly to Lake Superior, are the sometimes vicious "northeasters", gales that occur mostly in November and are formed when intense low pressure systems pass over the lake, creating hurricane-force winds that churn up huge waves. Locals refer the these storms as "the witch of November" or sometimes "the gales of November". It's little wonder that the bottom of Lake Superior is littered with the skeletons of no less than 350 ships, most of them falling victim to the temperamental November "˜witch'. The most famous shipwreck, as well as the most baffling, is the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Edmund Fitzgerald was built by Great Lakes Engineering Works out of Ecorse, Michigan and was launched on June 7, 1958. At the time she was one of the largest lake vessels of her kind at 729 feet long, 75 feet wide and with a cargo capacity of 27,500 tons. Her 7500 horsepower engines were built by Westinghouse Electric Corporation and helped the ship set various shipping records. Her proud captain was named Earnest MacSorley, and on that fateful day of November 9, 1975 the veteran sailor had little idea that less than 24 hours later he, his 29 man crew and his ship would be swept to the icy bottom of Lake Superior by a vicious and unpredictable northeaster.

Gale warnings had already been issued when MacSorley steered the Edmund Fitzgerald, loaded down with taconite, out of Superior, Wisconsin's docks shortly after 2PM. MacSorley reported to the captain of another ship, the Anderson, his intention of steering closer to the shore. By staying nearer to the northern shoreline the potential of encountering large waves decreased. Meanwhile what looked like a typical November storm was intensifying, all the important ingredients about to come together over the waters of Lake Superior. By early morning of November 10, heavy rain was falling and winds were gusting from the Northwest in excess of 60 mph as the storm tracked toward Canada. It continued pummelling the Anderson and the Edmund Fitzgerald and a little after 3PM that same afternoon, MacSorley reported his ship was suffering damage and a list. The Anderson's captain agreed to stay close until the Edmund Fitzgerald reached the calmer waters of Whitefish Bay.

But less than a half hour later the storm intensified, wind gusts clocking in at over 100 miles per hour. Shortly thereafter MacSorley again reported in to the Anderson, saying he'd lost all radar. Both ships continued on through the worsening conditions, the Anderson keeping track of the Edmund Fitzgerald on her radar screen. By early evening, at around 7PM, meteorologists believe that storm's pressure reached its lowest point. This combined with energy from the jet stream, created a series of enormous waves that first hit the Anderson and then the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Anderson sustained damage but survived the onslaught. Immediately her captain radioed the Edmund Fitzgerald to warn the crew of what to expect. The last words that came from Captain MacSorley were, "We are holding our own". Ten minutes later the big freighter had disappeared from all radar screens - the "˜witch' had claimed yet another victim.

An investigation by the Coast Guard suggested that the Edmund Fitzgerald had likely suffered enough initial damage that she began taking on water, enough to cause a considerable list. Already unstable, she was unable to ride out the onslaught of the massive waves once the northeaster worsened and she foundered, plunging to the bottom of Lake Superior with enough force to snap her in half. The Edmund Fitzgerald now lies rusting under 550 of water. None of the sailors bodies were ever recovered, only the ship's bell during a 1994 submarine expedition. The bell now resides in the memorial wing of the Whitefish Point museum. And the controversy and mystery of exactly how and why the Edmund Fitzgerald sank, lives on.

Canadian balladeer, Gordon Lightfoot, summed up the demise of "˜America's Pride' with this stirring closing verse from his haunting ballad, "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"...

"In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,

In the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral"

The church bell chimed till it rang 29 times

For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee".

"Superior", they said, "never gives up her dead

When the "˜Gales of November' come early!"

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