The Anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Nov. 10th marks the 34th Anniversary of her sinking



In the evening of November 10th, 1975, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, a large tanker/freighter on Lake Superior sank, sometime after 7 p.m.  All hands were lost, 29 in total, and the ship came to rest on the bottom of Lake Superior in 530 feet of water.  It is one of the best known maritime disasters on the Great Lakes, though that might be thanks in some part to Gordon Lightfoot and his song about the incident that’s so catchy that most people would give a cash advance to get it out of their heads once stuck there.

The pride of the American Side

The ship was commissioned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee in February 1957, who contracted Great Lakes Engineering Works, or River Rouge, Michigan, to build a freighter, and the contract stipulated she had to be the largest ship on the Great Lakes.  In August of that year, her keel was laid, and the following June, she was christened the Edmund Fitzgerald, after the President and Chairman of Northwestern, Edmund Fitzgerald.  (Partly for brownie points and partly because Fitzgerald’s father had been a lake freight captain.)  She was 729 feet long, 75 feet wide, and almost 40 feet tall, and was the largest ship on the lake for over a decade.

The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

On November 10th, the Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior Wisconsin, with a full load (her capacity was just under 27 tons) of taconite (a rock which contains high amounts of iron) destined for Zug Island (near Detroit), when she and a ship that was following her, the Arthur M. Anderson, encountered a heavy storm with extremely rough waters, including waves up to 35 feet in height and near zero visibility due to heavy snow.  Both ships were advised by the Coast Guard to find safe harbor, and on the way to Whitefish Bay, she began to take on water.  Just before 6 p.m., her captain, Ernest McSorely, reported waves washing over the deck.  Just after 7 p.m., he reported the ship and crew were “holding our own.” Minutes later, all contact was lost.  A search for the survivors found nothing aside from lifeboats and debris.  All 29 hands were reported as lost, and the bell at the Mariner’s Church in Detroit was rung 29 times, once for each lost.

What was the cause?

Since she broke apart, it was thought she was torn up on the surface, though the two pieces lie too close together for that to have been the cause.  The hypothesis that fits best (as per that ubiquitous and infernally addictive website, Wikipedia) is that the Fitzgerald was hit by a series of rogue waves, a documented but little understood phenomenon, and in a series is called “3 sisters.” The first and second battered the ship and importantly the hatches, which led to the third sinking her.  The Arthur M. Anderson reported at least 2 abnormally large waves hitting her.  Rogue waves are known to exist, and to happen, yet their cause isn’t universally understood as yet.  It might give one pause to commemorate both the Veterans this week, and also those sailors who lost their lives on the Edmund Fitzgerald, and maybe a few installment loans for research into how to survive a rogue wave could go to good use.

Other recent posts by bryanh