Remembering the Edmund Fitzgerald

The St. Clair ore freighter passes through the Soo Locks on the St. Mary's River in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. The ore freighter is similar to the Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank Nov. 10, 1975, and is the subject of local programs and a special beacon lighting at Split Rock Lighthouse in Two Harbors this month. (Photos by Pamela O’Meara/Review staff)

The Edmund Fitzgerald’s No. 2 lifeboat washed ashore with a split in the front from the nor’easter that sank the freighter. The faded name is still visible. (Photos by Pamela O’Meara/Review staff)

The Whitefish Point Light Station stands at one of the busiest shipping lanes in the Great Lakes. The Fitzgerald often passed by and on the fateful night of Nov. 10, 1975, in a terrible storm, the light and radar clicked off on the light station as the Fitzgerald was heading that way. Soon after, the ore freighter sank near there. (Photos by Pamela O’Meara/Review staff)

When the gales of November took down the ore freighter

For years I’ve heard the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior in a storm but I didn’t know the details until my recent trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where I went through the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, visited two maritime museums along Lake Superior and heard lots of stories.

My trip began with a narrated sunset cruise through the Soo Locks, where I watched a giant freighter slowly passing through with inches to spare.

The Fitzgerald passed through these same locks dozens of times on its way to the steel mills around Chicago and Detroit.

“The worst sea”

On the fateful morning of Nov. 10, 1975, the Fitzgerald, the largest freighter on the Great Lakes at the time, departed from Superior, Wisconsin, in calm waters, heading to Detroit with 26,116 tons of taconite.

The experienced captains of both the “Fitz “and the closely following Anderson were aware a storm was coming up and decided to take a slightly different course across Lake Superior, staying close to the Canadian border until they could turn southeast to the shelter around Whitefish Point along the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

They stayed in radio communication as the weather deteriorated.

The violent storm that came up was the worst in decades with winds clocked at 80 mph and gusting to 98 mph with 30- to 35-foot waves. The Whitefish lighthouse’s fresnell light that helped direct ships safely around the point for almost 150 years clicked off that night, as did the radar signals.

At 5:30 p.m. the Fitzgerald captain Ernest McSorley reported by radio to Captain Bernie Cooper on the Anderson, “We are taking heavy seas over our decks. It’s the worst sea I’ve ever been in. We have a bad list and no radar.”

Suddenly, the captain of the Anderson felt a lurch as two huge waves engulfed his ship and drove the bow of his ship down under. Then it bobbed up.

Afterwards, the captain said, “I watched those two waves head down the lake towards the Fitzgerald, and I think those were the two that sent him under.”

The Fitzgerald went down under in the cold, deep water off Whitefish Point at about 7:15 p.m. The search for survivors began almost right away but only some debris was found, including empty lifeboats. The Fitz had joined at least 240 other shipwrecks in that area.

Museums bring fateful night to life

A few days later, a U.S. naval plane equipped to detect magnetic abnormalities discovered the remains of the Fitzgerald. The ore freighter had apparently hit nose down and broke in two.

Over the years, just a few dives have been undertaken, and in one, the diver found the remains of a crew member wearing a life jacket.

I learned much of this in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, at the Museum Ship Valley Camp, located in an old steam-powered freighter that came by tugboat from Duluth and is permanently docked there.

Inside the mysterious, rusty old hull that used to carry iron ore and coal, two battered lifeboats recovered from the Fitz are on display.

Boat No. 2 was split in the front and boat No. 1 was broken in half during the powerful nor’easter. The faded name and lifeboat numbers are still legible on the sides.

Also featured are models and paintings of what the waves must have looked like, and a movie explaining what probably happened that stormy, tragic November night.

In addition, the nearby more modern Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum and Whitefish Light Station in Paradise, Michigan, tells more of the story.

The museum features the 195-pound bronze bell from the Fitzgerald. It was retrieved from the bottom of the lake in 1995 at the request of surviving families and is now polished and gleaming. A replica bell inscribed with the names of the dead was then lowered into its place.

Treasure hunters banned from site

The elaborate Newtsuit diving system worn by the diver who retrieved the bell and explored the area of the wreck is also in display. A Canadian law now protects the “watery graves” of many shipwrecks from unauthorized dives.

Gordon Lightfoot and family members of the men who died on the Fitzgerald have visited the shipwreck museum, and people come from all over the world to learn about the wreck Lightfoot made so famous, explained site manager Terry Begnoche.

This museum highlights many other shipwrecks, as well, telling their stories with photos, drawings, text and artifacts in an attractive series of displays. Included are the shipwrecked Daniel Morrell, where Dennis Hale was the only survivor in 1966, and the Comet, which sank in Whitefish Bay in 1875.

Bells still toll for the Fitz

On Monday, Nov. 10 bells will be rung in several Great Lakes towns and in Detroit to commemorate the sinking of the S.S. Fitzgerald.

Many people will recall Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

After visiting these museums, I dined at Fitzgerald’s Restaurant in the town of Eagle River on the edge of the Lake Superior shipping lane where the Fitz used to pass by.

I gazed out the picture window searching for ore boats and imagined seeing the Fitzgerald heading to Detroit. I recalled how a friend said he watched the Fitz pass through Duluth harbor many times when he was a child.

Looking at the magnificent sunset, my mind rolled over all I had learned about the terrible storm that sank the ore freighter and the crewmen whose remains will forever be at the bottom of Lake Superior.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at or at 651-748-7818.

To see more photos click the gallery link below.

Edmund Fitzgerald commemorative beacon lighting

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10

Where: Split Rock Lighthouse, 3713 Split Rock Lighthouse Road, Highway 61, Two Harbors.

What: This popular annual event commemorates the 1975 sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald and the death of its 29 crew members.
The lighthouse fog signal building and visitor center will be open from noon to 6 p.m. A film about the Fitzgerald will be shown in the visitor center continuously throughout the afternoon.
At 4:30 p.m. the lighthouse will close temporarily while the names of the crew members are read to the tolling of a ship’s bell. Following the ceremony, the beacon will be lighted and the tower once again opened for visitors to tour.
This is the only opportunity each year when visitors can climb to the top of the tower after dark and see the beacon lighted and revolving.

Fee: $7; free for Minnesota Historical Society members.

For more info: call 218-226-6372.

Split Rock Lighthouse film and discussion

When: 1 to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 12

Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 Kellogg Blvd W., St. Paul.

What: A viewing and discussion of the new film being shown at the Split Rock Lighthouse visitor center will be held at the Minnesota History Center’s 3M Auditorium.
The 13-minute film features first-person accounts, historic footage and dramatic visual and sound effects. In addition, high-definition footage, including stunning aerial views, brings the lighthouse into the modern day. Lee Radzak, Split Rock Lighthouse historic site manager and Jesse Heinzen, filmmaker, will lead a discussion of the film and a question and answer session.

Fee: This program is free, but does not include museum admission.

Reservations: recommended; call 651-259-3015 or register online.

Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot inspired popular interest in the “Fitz” in his immensely popular ballad, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which he wrote in 1976 as a tribute to the 29 men who died on Nov. 10, 1975 and whose remains will forever lie in the bottom of Lake Superior.

Lightfoot sang:
“ The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’ ...
“The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind. ...
“The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew were in peril.
And later that night when its lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”


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