What really happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald?

Published: December 2, 2020

restored and colourized photo of the Edmund Fitzgerald shhip Photo by Greenmars/ Wikimedia Commons

“We are holding our own.”

Unfortunately, the final words transmitted from the Edmund Fitzgerald during the early evening of November 10, 1975 inaccurately assessed how the freighter was managing a terrifying storm. Within five minutes, the ship disappeared from radar, beginning its descent to the floor of Lake Superior. It wasn’t until the following May that its remains were found, by which point the mystique surrounding its demise was already growing.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald has many factors that make it linger in the public consciousness while other nearby shipwrecks faded into history. Lake Superior is the largest, coldest, and most remote of the Great Lakes, and fierce November storms have created anxiety for generations of sailors. There’s the ship itself which, for over a decade, was the largest freighter to regularly run across the Great Lakes, making it a favourite of ship watchers. There’s the mystery of what exactly caused it to sink, inspiring many armchair detectives. And there’s the Gordon Lightfoot song, which put a human face on a tragedy that took the lives of all 29 men aboard.

The ship’s final run left Superior, Wisconsin on November 9, 1975 with a load of 26,000 tons of iron ore pellets bound for Zug Island in southwest Detroit. The Arthur M. Anderson was a few miles behind, and they kept radio contact until the end. Despite choosing a route along the north end of the lake to avoid the storm, the ships ran into four-metre-high waves and low visibility from high winds, snow, and spray.

What happened around 7:15 p.m. on November 10 is still debated. The official United States Coast Guard report blamed faulty hatch covers for massive flooding in the cargo hold. Other theories include a sudden hatch failure, damage when the ship ran across a shoal, too much cargo, existing structural problems, and waves pushing the ship under. The ship broke in half by the time it reached the bottom of the lake. Elements of the ship have been retrieved for public display, such as the 200-pound bell that you can see at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

black and white photo of the Edmund Fitzgerald ship
Photo by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

The incident left an impression on Gordon Lightfoot, who had long been fascinated by the legends and mysteries of shipwrecks. Hearing about the wreck on television, he first wrote the melody for his song, which was inspired by sea shanties. He wrote the lyrics after reading Newsweek’s coverage, especially their opening line: “According to the legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee ‘never gives up her dead.’” Released during the summer of 1976, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” exemplified Lightfoot’s storytelling ability, captivating listeners and gaining plenty of radio play across North America, which was unusual for a six-minute single. Over the years, numerous relatives of the victims have expressed their appreciation to Lightfoot for the song.

cove of the wreck of the edmund fitzgerald single by gordon lightfoot
Reprise Records, 1976

Annual memorial services continue to be held at the Mariners’ Church in Detroit. Reflecting on why the story continues to have an impact on those living around the Great Lakes, church rector Rev. Jeffrey M. Hubbard told the Detroit Free Press that “hearing the story of the brave men who lost their lives resonates with people.”

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