‘Titanic of the Great Lakes’: The ship whose mysterious and sudden sinking gave life to other ships

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'Titanic of the Great Lakes': The ship whose mysterious and sudden sinking gave life to other ships

He was suddenly drowned. No call for help, no signal.

Investigators said the Edmund Fitzgerald battled winds of up to 60 miles per hour and waves as high as 25 feet in the last hour, and may have been hit by three towering waves called ‘The Three Sisters’. There will also be waves.

But this freighter, which made its maiden voyage on September 24, 1958, had known the Great Lakes of North America for seventeen years.

At 729 feet (222 m) long and weighing 13,600 tons, the ship was the largest then plying the lakes and was hence nicknamed ‘The Big Fitz’ or ‘Mighty Fitz’. Yes, it was also given the name ‘Titanic of the Great Lakes’.

Titanic

The ship typically carried taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota to iron ore plants in Detroit, Michigan, Toledo, Ohio, and other locations.

Mark Thomson writes in his book ‘Queen of the Lakes’ that the ship often broke its own records and set the seasonal cruise record six times.

‘Captain Peter Pulsar was known to play music day and night and entertain the fans while talking about the ship on the intercom. The ship’s size, performance and ‘DJ Captain’ made Edmund Fitzgerald a favorite among sailing enthusiasts.

By Mall Brother ship standards, the Fitzgerald’s interior was luxurious. Checkered carpet, tiled bathroom, curtains and leather chairs in guest lounge. It had two guest rooms for passengers. Air-conditioning was extended to the staff quarters, which had more amenities than usual.

The passengers of this ship would travel on board as guests of the company.

Frederick Stonehouse writes in his book that ‘guests were treated like VIPs. The food was excellent and snacks were always available in the lounge. Drinks were served from a small but well stocked kitchen. After each voyage, the captain would host a candlelit dinner for the guests.

In 1969, Edmund Fitzgerald received the Safety Award for eight consecutive years of safe travel. After a few minor accidents over the next two to three years, the ship lost its original anchor in the Detroit River in 1974. None of these accidents were considered serious or unusual.

As of November 1975, Edmund Fitzgerald had logged more than a million miles in the Great Lakes, making an estimated 748 circumnavigations, writes Joseph McNeese in his book. This distance is equal to about 44 cycles around the world.

Michael Schumacher writes in his book that freshwater ships are designed to last more than half a century, and Fitzgerald had a long life left.

Edmund Fitzgerald, photo courtesy of S.S. EDMUND FITZGERALD ONLINE
The last trip
On November 9, 1975, Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin, for a steel mill near Detroit, Michigan.

The ship was captained by Ernest M. McSorley on this trip and had 28 other people on board.

Amy Tikkanen of Encyclopedia Britannica writes that Edmund Fitzgerald soon made radio contact with the ship Arthur M. Anderson, about 15 miles (24 km) behind.

Then on November 9th itself, a tornado warning was issued for Lake Superior, known for severe storms in November. Early the next morning, when a severe storm warning was issued, the two ships agreed to change course, taking the more northerly route normally used in severe weather.

Titanic

However, the direction of the winds changed so that the ship started heading towards the center of the storm. As the day wore on, the storm grew worse. Winds reached 70-75 knots per mile and waves rose 25 feet (8 m). McSorley even said it was one of the ‘worst storms’ he had ever seen.

Around 3:15 on the afternoon of November 10, Anderson’s captain saw Fitzgerald pass dangerously close to Caribou Island.

Ship, Edmond Fitzgerald, Photo courtesy of the UNITED STATES COAST GUARD
About 15 minutes later, Fitzgerald reported to Anderson that he had sustained minor damage and was listing (leaning to one side), even though he had turned on his pumps.

McSorley also told Anderson to stay close to Fitzgerald while slowing down.

At about 4:10, Fitzgerald told Anderson that both of his radars were down and requested guidance.

An hour later Fitzgerald reported another ship, Evaphorus, was listing badly.

At 7:10 p.m., Fitzgerald spoke to Anderson again. At the time, McSorley said, “We’re fine, just like old shoes drifting along with the water.”

In 2015, Mark Brash narrated this conversation on his radio program ‘The Night of the Drowning of Edmund Fitzgerald’.

But these were Fitzgerald’s last words, he said.

Some 10 minutes later, Fitzgerald disappeared from Anderson’s radar.

The Fitzgerald suddenly sank at a depth of 530 feet (160 m) in Canadian waters. Less than 20 miles (32 km) from the joint refuge of Ontario, Canada and Michigan, USA at Whitefish Bay, which he could cover in just over an hour.

The cause of Fitzgerald’s sinking has not been definitively determined, although various hypotheses have been proposed. Whatever the reason, the accident happened very quickly.

With a net worth of $24 million, the Edmund Fitzgerald’s financial loss was the largest in Great Lakes sailing history.

In addition to the crew, 26,116 tons of taconite were sunk with the ship.

‘Lake Superior never returns its dead’
Owners Northwestern Mutual and operators Oglebe Norton Corp. paid more than $800,000 to the crew before the investigation ended after lawsuits filed by families of the crew members.

The ship’s 200-pound bell is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point after being recovered on July 4, 1995.

Schumacher and Stonehouse write that the popularity of Edmund Fitzgerald’s impression and historical narrative has spawned a kind of ‘cottage industry’ at the event’s ‘ground zero’, from Minnesota to Whitefish Point.

Here, jewelry, t-shirts, coffee mugs and dishes related to the ship are sold to commemorate the loss.

Ontario singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote, composed and recorded the song ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ for his 1976 album ‘Summertime Dream’.

Lightfoot’s song is an anthem in the region. He has a line that says ‘Lake Superior never brings back its dead.’

This indicates that none of the 29 crew members were found dead.

Families of the missing crew told the SS Edmund Fitzgerald Online website that Lightfoot often attended prayer services for the ship and crew members.

In May of this year, the bell was rung 30 times at Mariners Church in Detroit. 29 times in memory of Fitzgerald’s crew, and 30 times in memory of Lightfoot, who died on 1 May 2023, aged 84.

Mark Thomson writes that at least 240 ships sank in the area in the years between the loss of the Innocent in 1816 and the accident in 1975, but the Fitzgerald was the largest.

The accident and its nature led to major changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices, including mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more ships. Bar inspections were included.

Titanic
There was a big change in the thinking of the sailors.

Joe Warren was on board the Arthur M. Anderson during the storm of November 10, 1975. He has written in his book that his method changed. “Believe me after that,” he said, “when a storm came, we immediately dropped anchor.” Because we knew that big people can drown here.

Mark Thomson wrote that ‘Since Fitz’s departure, some captains tend to anchor rather than sail out into a severe storm. But there are still many who like to describe themselves as ‘bad weather sailors’.

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