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1975: Sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The SS (Steam Ship) Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior during a storm on November 10, 1975, her entire crew of 29 perished, and no bodies were recovered.  When launched on June 7, 1958, she was the largest ship on North America’s Great Lakes, and she remains the largest vessel to have sunk there.

SS Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial at Whitefish Point, Michigan

SS Edmund Fitzgerald was an American “Laker”, a bulk carrier vessel that travels the Great Lakes of North America, designed to carry bulk cargoes of materials from mines and fields to industrial cities/plants for processing.  Measuring 729′ long, 75′ at the beam and 25′ draft. , she was capable of carrying 13,632 GRT (Each GRT = 100 cubic ‘)

SS Edmund Fitsgerald underway in 1971

For 17 years, Fitzgerald carried taconite iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota,  to iron works in Detroit, Toledo, and other Great Lakes ports.  Loading Fitzgerald with taconite pellets took about four and a half hours while unloading took around 14 hours. A round trip between Superior, Wisconsin, and Detroit, Michigan, usually took her five days and she averaged 47 similar trips per season.   As a workhorse, she set seasonal haul records six times, often breaking her own previous record.

Carrying a full cargo of ore pellets with Captain Ernest M. McSorley in command, she embarked on her ill-fated voyage from Superior, Wisconsin,  near Duluth, on the afternoon of November 9, 1975.    En route to a steel mill near Detroit, Fitzgerald joined a second freighter, SS Arthur M. Anderson.  By the next day, the two ships were caught in a severe storm on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves up to 35 feet high.

Shortly after 7:10 p.m., Fitzgerald suddenly sank in Canadian (Ontario) waters 530 feet deep, about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontatio – a distance Fitzgerald could have covered in just over an hour at her top speed.  Although Fitzgerald had reported being in difficulty earlier, no distress signals were sent before she sank;  Captain McSorley’s last message to Anderson said, “We are holding our own.”

The exact cause of the sinking remains unknown, though many books, studies, and expeditions have examined it.  Fitzgerald may have been swamped, suffered structural failure or topside damage, been shoaled, or suffered from a combination of these.   Extreme weather and sea conditions play a role in all of the published theories regarding Fitzgeralds sinking, but they differ on the other causal factors.

The sinking led to changes in Great Lakes shipping regulations and practices that included mandatory survival suits, depth finders, positioning systems, increased freeboard, and more frequent inspection of vessels.

The National Transportation Safety Board map of probable course of Edmund Fitzgerald and Arthur M. Anderson

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot (HD w/lyrics)  6:39′

The disaster is one of the best-known in the history of Great Lakes shipping.  Gordon Lightfoot made it the subject of his 1976 hit song  “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitgerald” after reading an article, “The Cruelest Month”, in the November 24, 1975, issue of Newsweek.

The Cruelest Month – Edmund Fitzgerald Newsweek, November 24, 1975

 

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Nov 10 2020

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