The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was immortalized in a song, reminiscent of an old sea shanty, written and performed by Canadian folk singer Gordon Lightfoot. He based his song on “The Cruelest Month,” an article in Newsweek magazine that appeared soon after the November 10, 1975 disaster, and recorded the song in December. A number one hit in both the USA and Canada, the lyrics tell the tale, albeit with some poetic license, of the ship’s demise, but there’s more to the story than the song can encompass…so let’s explore this popular ballad of doomed men.
The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald
©1976 by Gordon Lightfoot and Moose Music, Ltd.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call “Gitche Gumee.”
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.
With a load of iron ore, 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty,
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November gave early.
Gitche Gumee was the Chippewa name for Lake Superior, the largest lake in the world in terms of surface area. Generations past of American schoolchildren would have been aware of the name Gitchee Gumee from the opening lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha: “On the shore of Gitche Gumee/Of the shining Big-Sea Water.” This cultural touchstone is all but defunct, however, as Hiawatha has been dispatched to the happy hunting ground along with the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Indians.
When Lightfoot sings that the lake “never gives up her dead,” that is literally true. Floating is caused by bloating: the decaying bacteria of a dead body inflate it with gas, causing it to rise to the surface. The extremely cold water of Lake Superior inhibits bacterial growth so dead bodies remain on the bottom.
Built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works, the Edmund Fitzgerald was a bulk carrier launched on June 8, 1958, at River Rouge, Michigan. Built at a cost of $8,000,000, the ship was named after the President and Chairman of the Board of Northwestern Mutual Insurance, which had commissioned the ship. Despite Fitzgerald’s profession, he hailed from a family long involved in the shipping industry. He undoubtedly took pride in the fact that his namesake ship was, until 1971, the biggest on the Great Lakes. At 729 feet long (it was one foot less than the legally mandated limit for Great Lakes ships at the time), it could have transported the Statue of Liberty in one piece. Empty, it weighed 13,632 gross tons.
The launching, however, could have been construed as a bad omen. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Edmund’s wife, needed three tries to crack the champagne bottle over the ship’s bow. A half hour elapsed before the ship finally slid into the water (sideways, not bow-first). The ship then pitched and rolled, slamming into the dock and drenching spectators, one of whom died of a heart attack.
Once launched, however,“ Big Fitz” easily broke existing tonnage records. The 26,116 tons of cargo it carried on its last voyage were marble-sized taconite pellets (processed iron ore). The ore had likely been mined from the iron ranges of northeastern Minnesota.
The weather on the Great Lakes traditionally took a turn for the worse in November as the shipping season drew to a close. Experienced seamen referred to Lake Superior as “Old Treacherous.”
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin.
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned,
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland.
And later that night when the ship’s bell rang,
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?
“Some mill in Wisconsin” was the town of Superior, a port at the western end of Lake Superior just across from Duluth, Minnesota. The ship actually picked up the cargo at the Burlington & Northern docks in Superior, not at a mill. The loading of the ore carrier was key to the stability of the vessel. An uneven load could spell doom in rough seas. At the outset of the two-day trip, however, the sea was calm.
The Captain, Ernest M. McSorley, had 44 years of experience as a mariner. He had served as captain on Great Lakes ships since 1951. He was 63 years old, and with his wife was in a nursing home after suffering a stroke, he was planning on retiring after one last run.
The Captain’s immediate subordinates were also “well seasoned.” First Mate John H. McCarthy, a longtime associate of the Captain, was 62. Like the Captain, Wheelsman John D. Simmons, 62, was also planning to retire after the voyage. Chief Engineer George Hall was 60. Wheelsman John J. Poviach, the baby of the group, was a mere 59. The rest of the crew was comprised of men in all age groups. If you’re wondering, the youngest was watchman Karl Peckol, who was only 20.
When Lightfoot says the ship was bound for Cleveland, he’s not wrong, but he’s leaving out the fact that the ship was initially headed for Zug Island on the Detroit River (the cargo was headed for a steel mill; the output was likely earmarked for an automobile factory), after which it would continue down the Detroit River to Lake Erie and then eastward to Cleveland, where it was to lay over for the winter.
The ringing of the ship’s bell was likely no surprise to anyone within earshot as gale warnings had been issued on the evening of November 9. Even a colossus like the Edmund Fitzgerald would feel the effects.
The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound.
When a wave broke over the railing.
And ev’ry 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 freezin’ rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind.
The “witch of November” was a regional nautical term for the strong winds and towering waves that resulted from the collision of cold air coming down from the north with warm air coming up from the south. At that time of year freezing rain, sleet, and snow were not unusual on Lake Superior, the northernmost Great Lake. Thunder Bay, a port on the Canadian side of the Lake, typically gets its first frost soon after Labor Day.
The gale warning was upgraded to a storm warning in the early morning hours of November 10. Hoping to avoid the worst effects of the storm, Captain McSorley, a renowned “heavy-weather” captain, took a northern route across the lake, thinking that the highlands along the Ontario shoreline might afford the ship some protection.
To compare the storm to a hurricane is not an exaggeration, as Category 1 wind speeds (74-95 mph) were not unheard of on the Great Lakes. With 80 mph winds gusting up to 100 mph, the November 10 storm qualified as a “freshwater hurricane.”
When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough t’feed ya.”
At 7 P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said
Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya!
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril.
And later that night when his lights went outta sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The old cook was likely Robert C. Rafferty (age 62), who had not been scheduled to make the run but was filling in for another cook who had taken ill. Like Captain McSorley and Wheelsman Simmons, Rafferty figured this would be his last run before retirement. There were no survivors to corroborate the cook’s last words, so Lightfoot is putting words in his mouth. Given the sudden demise of the ship (one expert opined that it could have happened in ten seconds), the cook likely had no time to bid farewell to any of his mates.
One suspects that countless sailors, whose doom was more slow-motion than fast-forward, have said “Fellas, it’s been good t’know ya” or words to that effect in many languages over the centuries.
Captain McSorley was in radio contact with Captain Bernie Cooper of the Arthur M. Anderson, another cargo ship following the same route 10-20 miles behind. At 3:30 p.m. Captain McSorley related that he was taking on water and the ship was listing to the starboard side. At 4:10 p.m. the storm knocked out the radar on the Edmund Fitzgerald, so Cooper assisted McSorley by relaying radar reports to him. Cooper had maintained visible contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald but when the storm worsened, that was no longer possible. When the precipitation let up after dark, Captain Cooper scanned the horizon for the lights of the Edmund Fitzgerald but saw only darkness – hence the “lights went outta sight,” and the ship disappeared from the radar screen. The Coast Guard confirmed that the Edmund Fitzgerald was lost. The Arthur M. Anderson – at no small risk, given that the storm was still raging – deviated from the route and began searching for survivors. Consequently, the Arthur M. Anderson is a bit of living history, as it is still in service 46 years after it was entered into the record as the last ship to be in contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Immediately after the wreck, speculation focused on faulty hatches that allowed water flowing over the deck to pour into the hold. Captain McSorley had communicated that his pumps were working hard to expel the water but it was coming in as quickly as it was going out. In his last radio message to the Arthur M. Anderson at 7:10 p.m., the Captain insisted “we are holding our own.” In fact, no S.O.S. was ever sent out, indicating that things went south in a hurry.
Subsequent investigations went beyond the hatches and turned up alternative explanations. Captain Cooper, for example, speculated that the underside of the ship’s hull had been ripped by the infamous Six Fathom Shoals, which were close to the route the ships were following. The seawater and cargo shifting belowdecks as the ship rode the 25-foot waves was another possible explanation. So in his live performances Lightfoot abandoned the hatchway causation. He changed the second line of the above stanza to “At 7 p.m., it grew dark, it was then he said…”
Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her.
They might have split up or they might have capsized;
They may have broke deep and took water.
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters.
Whitefish Bay (not to be confused with a Milwaukee suburb of the same name) refers to a body of water on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula adjacent to the bi-national city of Saulte Ste. Marie (popularly known as the Soo), where ships go through locks to access Lake Huron. The relative safety of Whitefish Bay was the ideal place for the Edmund Fitzgerald to ride out the storm before going through the locks and continuing southward to Port Huron, Michigan, then down the St. Clair River, across Lake St. Clair, and down the Detroit River to Zug Island.
“Putting fifteen more miles behind her” might have made all the difference in the fate of the ship, but why Lightfoot settled on fifteen and not, say, fourteen or thirteen, is anybody’s guess. Of course, at sea there’s no safe place in a storm, but some places are safer than others. Indeed, the Arthur M. Anderson, following the same route, survived the storm, as did ships sailing in the opposite direction.
Lightfoot’s assertion that she ship “might have split up” was borne out by subsequent searches. Sonar surveys indicated two large pieces of wreckage on the bottom. A robot submersible with a video camera verified the split in 1976. Three mini-submarine inspections (in 1989, 1994, and 1995) conducted by the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society took a closer look at the remains (the front section was rightside-up, the rear was upside-down) and noted the spread of iron ore on the bottom. The remains suggested the ship likely nosedived (i.e., the bow of the ship had crested over a large wave and then plunged straight down). The vessel might have split up due to the stress of the roller-coaster waves and the cargo and water shifting in the hold. Twenty minutes before the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the radar screen, Captain Cooper, then ten miles behind, had ridden out two such waves (he estimated them at 35 feet) and almost suffered a similar fate. Lucky for him, the Arthur M. Anderson was still watertight and at 647 feet (the ship has since been elongated) it was 82 feet shorter than the Edmund Fitzgerald, which should have lessened the stress amidships.
Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion.;
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams;
The islands and bays are for sportsmen.
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her,
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered.
In this stanza it seems Lightfoot feels duty bound to invoke all five Great Lakes, lest listeners assume that Lake Superior is an egregious exception. Created by glaciers during the ice age, the Great Lakes are often referred to as inland seas, and oceangoing vessels (known as “salties”) are also at home on the Great Lakes. Each lake has a lengthy roster of shipwrecks. All totaled, the Great Lakes have experienced approximately 7,500 shipwrecks with 30,000 victims.
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the “Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.”
The church bell chimed till it rang 29 times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call “Gitche Gumee.”
“Superior,” they said, “never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early.”
The Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral was an informal name for the Mariners’ Church of Detroit built in 1849. Indeed, immediately after the disaster “the brotherhood bell” was rung 29 times. More recently, services were conducted and the bell again was rung 29 on November 10, 2020, to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the wreck.
In later years a veteran seaman protested to Lightfoot that despite the age of the old hall, it was not musty, so Lightfoot changed “musty” to “rustic” in his live performances.
The ship’s 200 lb. bronze bell was recovered during the 1995 mini-submarine expedition and replaced with a new bell engraved with the names of the victims. The original bell is now exhibited in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Michigan. Not surprisingly, an assortment of merch is available in the museum gift shop. In addition to caps, coffee cups, books and DVDs, an Edmund Fitzgerald Lego kit is available.
The ship’s bow anchor was recovered and is on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit. The remains of the ship lie at a depth of 535feet, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, but there’s nothing to see here, folks. Sitting within Canadian waters, the Canadian government officially declared the area a gravesite, hence off limits to divers. Alarm buoys have been deployed to alert the Canadian Coast Guard to any violators.
So much for Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad. The wealth of books, articles, and documentaries on the Edmund Fitzgerald evinces the ghoulish fascination of the subject for mariners and landlubbers alike , but after 46 years, does it have any meaning for the contemporary manosphere?
It’s no surprise that the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald was headline news in its day. This was understandable, as it was – and still is – the largest ship ever to sink on the Great lakes. The wreck could have been interpreted as the comeuppance of hubris: man was not made to build ships this big! Nature has the last word on all seagoing vessels, from rowboats to behemoths. Then again, it could be simply fate – nautical noir! At sea as on land, if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time…
Like the Titanic, the sheer size of the Edmund Fitzgerald boggled the mind. The ship was something of a celebrity, as crowds would gather at the Soo locks whenever the ship was present. Naturally, the ship’s demise drew more attention than the sinking of a lesser freighter would have attracted. The disaster was a reminder that despite an experienced crew and modern technology, sailing was still hazardous – not as perilous as when Odysseus and his contemporaries set sail, but still dangerous.
One might wonder why there has never been a feature film about the Edmund Fitzgerald. After all, filmmakers love to flash “Based on a true story” at the beginning of a movie, and given the capabilities of CGI today, it would seem to be a story just waiting to be told. Of course, the loss of life on the Edmund Fitzgerald was much less than on the Titanic, but that’s not the only reason we don’t have a feature film about it.
For one thing we know what did in the Titanic. Surviving passengers saw the iceberg sideswipe the ship. Despite an exhaustive investigation, no official explanation was ever put forth as to why the Edmund Fitzgerald went down. A feature film that left that question unanswered would not satisfy an audience. You can’t just offer clues; you have to come to a conclusion.
More than that, however, is the relative unimportance of the crew members. The Titanic had a surfeit of elites on board. Also, it’s a period piece (the waning days of the Edwardian Era, to be exact), with lavish costumes and décor. More to the point, there were women on board, so that evokes the chivalrous “women and children first” response when it comes time to queue up for the lifeboats. The men on the Edmund Fitzgerald didn’t have enough time to man the lifeboats. Aside from the few men on the bridge, the rest were confined to quarters and likely died there. That finality eliminates any drama as to who will survive and who won’t. (In one of the mini-sub voyages a dead body was observed on the bottom near the wreckage but it was never identified; at least, the name was never made public.)
The Edmund Fitzgerald, impressive though it was (albeit, 154 feet shorter than the Titanic) , was, after all, a working vessel, not a luxury liner. As amenities go on cargo ships, the Edmund Fitzgerald was as good as it got in 1975, but there was no ship’s orchestra, no champagne, no haute cuisine, no formal attire, no deckchairs, no shuffleboard, no glamor, no glitz. The ship transported cargo, not passengers, and no one will shed a tear over the loss of iron ore, no matter how many tons of it sink to the bottom.
Ah, but there were people on board the Edmund Fitzgerald, 29of them. There’s your human interest, right? Well, not quite. There were no women on board the Edmund Fitzgerald. In some quarters today the loss of 29 men might evoke a response of “Good riddance.” Given the likelihood (as near as I can determine) that they were all white men, some might say “Double good riddance.” Of course, the mothers, wives, sisters, and other female relatives of the men likely missed them, but that’s not enough to hang a story on. Even today a news report headlined “Edmund Fitzgerald Sinks in Storm, Women Most Affected” is difficult to imagine.
Supposedly, James Cameron, director of Titanic, was pondering a script about the Edmund Fitzgerald. Given his clout in the industry, he certainly could get such a project started if he wanted to, but I think I know why he didn’t. Cameron’s films are big on female empowerment (in addition to Titanic, the Terminator series, the Avatar series, the Abyss, and Aliens) and it would take some heavy-duty “reimagining” to work that theme into the storyline.
The Edmund Fitzgerald story hearkens back to a time when heavy industry ruled the economic roost. No one uttered the phrase “post-industrial,” much less “the information age,” or “the digital age.” Today the swath of port cities on the shores of the Great Lakes is often referred to as the Rust Belt. Former industrial powerhouses like Detroit and Cleveland are now the butt of jokes. (The best of the bunch: When asked to describe what his hometown of Detroit was really like, famed writer Elmore Leonard responded it was like Cleveland without the glitter.)
In 1975, however, the factories were humming. Port cities were thriving. Raw materials came and went, finished products came and went, either by ship, rail, or truck. There were plenty of good-paying jobs, most of them held by men.
Today with longshoremen and truckers in short supply and empty shelves becoming the new normal, the key role of men engaged in shepherding the raw materials of nature to the needful (and not so needful) things in retail outlets is now obvious. The process is largely invisible to end product users. As far as the average consumer is concerned, goodies are spun out of thin air and elves stock the shelves after the stores close. The employee operating the scanner in the check-out line is the only worker visible in the entire process. And with more and more home delivery, stuff just shows up on your front porch as if by teleportation.
Of course, there are still freighters plying the Great Lakes and there are still men working on them. There’s no mystique to these jobs; it’s just a matter of moving stuff – albeit lots of stuff – from Point A to Point B. Such male-dominated employment is not in fashion today. One suspects, however, that even the shipping industry is subject to affirmative action policies. Admittedly, it is hard to imagine a masculine-presenting transgendered individual sailing on a cargo ship or unloading one. There is no Good Ship Lollipop on the Great Lakes.
I don’t know if women aboard ship is still considered back luck, but ships have always been in touch with their feminine side. In fact, if ships had the gift of speech, they would not need to announce that they preferred “she” and “her” as pronouns. Through the ages, sailors have typically referred to their ships with female pronouns. They often speak fondly of their vessels, past and present, just as one might of old girlfriends.
Explanations for this nominal gynocentrism abound. One is that a ship was like a mother, sheltering the men from harm. Another relates to the ancient Greeks invoking the protection of goddesses and sometimes portraying them on figureheads. More recently we have the tradition of women christening ships with bottles of champagne. Freud theorized that the inner space below the deck was analogous to a womb. An intriguing concept, but I don’t think there’s a gynecologist alive brave enough to refer to a patient’s uterus as a cargo hold.
The longstanding gynecic traditions involving ships will likely prove difficult to uproot, but never fear, they’re working on it. Speaking on behalf of unfairly gendered ships worldwide, the Associated Press and the New York Times style books both recommend ‘it” and “its” over “she” and “her.” What? No, ze, zir, or zem?
Curiously, like other ships named after men, the Edmund Fitzgerald was not immune from female pronouns. A progressive pundit might conveniently conclude that the gender fluidity of the Edmund Fitzgerald was ahead of its time and is worthy of imitation by humans. To which, one might respond that perhaps the fate of the Edmund Fitzgerald is the ultimate result of such sophistry.
Can’t help but wonder…if the fed guv keeps pushing the genda-benda agenda, will a trans troubadour one day chronicle the sinking of the ship of state?