The Edmund Fitzgerald

The image is from

Background Before the Story

Our story about the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald is one I remember hearing about as a kid, through Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “Edmond Fitgerald.” I thought it was a great story till I asked my mom and she told me she remembered hearing about that horrible accident in the news. Imagine my little kid brain going all Minion and screaming, “Whaaaaat!?!!” Okay, that may not have physically happened, but I am telling y’all it did in my head. Then I got older and looked into it a bit, of course, I didn’t have the understanding of ships growing up in Colorado, but it struck me as odd and left me with more and more questions. How! There were so many things that went wrong on one trip, surely the hand of fate was involved, there was just too much to wrap my mind around. Naively I thought in 30 or so years they will know what happened exactly and why the Fitz sank. Silly, silly girl that I was, I believed science and technology would do this and they have, kinda, but not completely. Over 45 years later and we know what happened to the Fitz but not everything that lead up to it sinking, nor exactly how.

Before we get into the story of the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald there are a few other things we should cover so that more about the disaster will make sense, (The weather, how Lake Superior is more like a sea than a lake, and some basic nautical terms.) For those that are familiar with these items might not be as important, but for those of us unfamiliar with ships, and sea travel these will help us to get a bit more understanding. Then we will go over the ship’s history, the timeline of events, and let’s finish up with some theories.

Lake Superior

Lake Superior is huge and I do mean huge, if you were to stand on one side you can not see the other side of the shore! Lake Superior is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world (I found conflicting information some articles say it is the largest and others say it is, the third-largest, so I will error on the side of caution). The surface area of Lake Superior is 31,700 square miles and is larger than the areas of Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island combined. By volume, it has more water than all the other Great Lakes and is only second to Russia’s Lake Baikal. One source states that there is enough water in Lake Superior to flood all of North & South America a foot deep! It is because of its size that Lake Superior does not behave like a lake at all, it’s more like a sea. When I heard this reference I had a hard time understanding it until I researched the lake itself. The Ojibwe people call Lake Superior, Gitche Gumee, which means Big Sea. Suddenly it makes more sense to me the size of the ships and freighters that can sail there.

There is a saying about Lake Superior not giving up her dead, this is true due to the temperatures. Typically Lake Superior is not warmer than 38 degrees, so bodies don’t decompose or build up gases that would make them rise. Thanks, Gordon Lightfoot. As a seven-year-old, I wanted to understand those lyrics, but now as an adult, maybe I shouldn’t have been listening to that? Different era, different time. Heck, this is probably a small part that made me fascinated with all things grim, dark, and spooky.

Weather on the Great Lakes

A 20-foot wave. This image is courtesy of

Typically shipping is stopped in the wintertime due to ice and the lake freezing and this happens around the middle of November through January of each year. Weather is what sets the exact dates and that tends to vary from year to year. But, there have been a few times Lake Superior has completely frozen over, it doesn’t happen every year and there are storms like the one that happened on November 9-10 of 1975. Which was very intense. I found some sources that stated that the storm that had occurred, happens every 5 to 10 years, but this information wasn’t consistent (so let’s just go with occasionally.) It is my understanding that the storms in November tend to be very volatile on the Great Lakes and Lake Superior in general. The bad storms in November are often referred to as November Gales and can have hurricane-force winds.

Nautical Verbiage for the Layman or Land-Lover

The list of terms below is not an all-inclusive list and some of the terms I have tried to generalize so that laymen can understand. I have tried to include verbiage that is pertinent to the story of the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald.

  • Stern– the back of a ship or aircraft
  • Bow – front of a ship or aircraft
  • Starboard – right side of a vessel
  • Port – left side of a vessel
  • List – a tilt to one side
  • Aground – onto or on a shore, reef, to the bottom a body of water
  • Bottom-Out – the contact of a ship and the sea bottom, often resulting in the sinking of a ship
  • Hull – the structure of a ship, the outside walls
  • Shoal – a very shallow place in a body of water
  • S.S. – steamship or States Ship
  • Lock – an enclosure similar to a canal with gates at each end used to raise or lower ships/boats as they pass from one level to another
  • Knot – any of various units of distance used for sea and air navigation based on the length of a minute or an arc of a great circle of the earth and different because the earth is not a perfect sphere
  • Hard-Water-Captain – a captain who would sail a ship no matter how dangerous; a so-called, “fearless captain” Ernest McSorely was called a hard-water captain
  • Gale – strong air current
  • Freighter – a ship used chiefly to carry freight

S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald History

The S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald was commissioned on February 1st, 1957, by The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance company. The Fitzgerald was to be the flagship of their fleet. It had plush accommodations, multiple chefs on board, who were able to handle banquets, and provided for multiple dining halls. When the ship was commissioned the intent was to have the largest, at the time, enormous cargo holds. The Fitz set records and then broke them many times in her life.

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was 729 feet long, that is almost two and a half football fields in length, or to put it another way, she was just shy of being an eighth of a mile long. She was built by Great Lakes Engineering Works and her engine was made by Westinghouse Electric Corporation. She sailed for 17 years until she sank. In freighter years the Fitzgerald was still very young as most ships like her were expected to last 60 to 70 years.

The image is from USA Today

The launch of the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald almost didn’t happen, and if superstitions are to be believed, the launch was a tell-tale sign of things to come. The actual breaking of the champagne across the bow by Mrs. Fitgerald took three tries, then the launch itself took another three tries, and when the S.S. Fitzgerald did make its way into the water, that was something else too. I have posted a brief video below of the launch that is a mash-up of videos about this. One final takeaway about the launch was a spectator died of a heart attack there on the dock. When the ship hit the port side dock it caused damage, some pretty serious damage too. The actual christening date was June 8, 1958.

September 13, 1958, is when the actual seaworthiness trials began. The first voyage of the Fitzgerald was on September 24, 1958. The first internal and external damage occurred, since the Fitzgerald was declared seaworthy, when the Fitzgerald hit the ground near the Soo Locks on September 6, 1969. on April 30, 1970, the Fitzgerald collided with the S.S. Hochelaga. The Fitzgerald then sustained damage when it hit a lock wall on September 4, 1970. During the winter maintenance in Duluth, Minnesota the Fitzgerald was converted from running on coal to running on oil in the winter of 1971-1972. In 1972, Captain Ernest McSorley takes command of Edmund Fitzgerald. In May of 1973, the ship was damaged again by hitting a Soo Lock wall. On January 7, 1974, the Fitzgerald loses its bow anchor on the Detroit River.

The Fitzgerald hauled taconite pellets (iron ore) as its cargo traveling from Duluth, Minnesota to places like Detroit, Michigan. Loading of the ore would take between four and a half hours up to six and a half hours, typically. On November 9, 1975, the loading was started around 8:30 A.M. and the Fitzgerald departed the Burlington Northern Railroad, Dock 1 with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets headed for Detroit at 2:20 P.M. The National Weather Service issues gale warnings for the area at 2:39 P.M. Then around 4:15 P.M. the Fitzgerald spots the Arthur M. Anderson some 15 miles behind it.

  • 1 A.M.

    November 10th, 1975, a winter storm developed over the Fitzgerald and Anderson ships. In response, they changed their course to the “Northern route.”

    National Weather Service upgrades the forecast to a Storm Warning with winds o 35 to 50 knots and waves 8 to 15 feet high.

  • 3 A.M.

    The Anderson changes course slightly and notes northeast winds at 42 knots.

    The Fitzgerald pulls ahead of the Anderson and remains so for the rest of the voyage.

  • 7 A.M.

    Fitzgerald calls the company office to report delayed arrival for worsening weather. The ship is about 35 miles north of Copper Harbor.

  • 1 P.M.

    Fitzgerald is 11 miles northwest of Michipicoten Island. The Anderson is about 20 miles northwest of the island and reports 20-knot winds and 12-foot waves.

  • 1:40 P.M.

    Fitzgerald radios Anderson to talk weather and course changes. Captain McSorley reports his ship is “rolling some.” The Fitzgerald cuts closer to Michipicoten Island while Anderson cuts more west to take rising seas from astern.

  • 2:45 P.M.

    Anderson changes course to avoid the Six Fathom Shoal area north of Caribou Island. Fitzgerald is about 16 miles ahead. Heavy snow begins to fall and the Fitzgerald is lost from sight. It’s the last time the ship would be seen by human eyes.

  • 3:20 P.M.

    Anderson records 43-knot winds and 12 to 16-foot waves.

  • 3:30 P.M.

    Fitzgerald calls Anderson to report damage and to say the ship would slow to let Anderson catch up. Minutes later, Coast Guard issues directions for all ships to find Safe anchorage because the Soo Locks have been closed.

    McSorley: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till {sic} I get to Whitefish?”

    Cooper: “Charlie on that Fitzgerald. Do you have your pumps going?”

    McSorley: “Yes, both of them.”

  • 4:10 P.M.

    Fitzgerald radios the Anderson to request navigational help.

  • 4:30 P.M.

    Fitzgerald passes three to five miles east of the Caribou Island.

  • 4:39 P.M.

    National Weather Service revises the forecast again, predicting northwest winds 38 to 52 knots with gusts up to 60 knots and waves 8 to 16-feet.

  • 5:30 p.M.

    Fitzgerald is advised by Swedish ship Avafors the Whitefish Point beacon and light are disabled by power failure.

    Avafors: “Fitzgerald, this is the Avafors. I have the Whitefish light now but still am receiving no beacon. Over>”

    Fitzgerald: “I’m very glad to hear it.”

    Avafors: “The wind is really howling down here. What are the conditions where you are?”

    Fitzgerald: (Undiscernible shouts overheard) “DON’T LET NOBODY ON DECK!”

    Avafors: “What’s that, Fitzgerald? Unclear. Over.”

    Fitzgerald: “I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”

    Avafors: “If I’m correct, you have two radars.”

    Fitzgerald: “They’re both gone.”

  • 6 P.M.

    Anderson was struck by two five-foot waves.

  • 7:10 P.M

    Anderson calls Fitgerald with navigation instructions. The ship is about 10 miles behind the doomed freighter.

    Anderson: “Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”

    Fitzgerald: “Yes, we have.”

    Anderson: “Fitzgerald, we are about 10 miles behind you and gaining about 1 1/2 miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target ten miles ahead of us. So the target would be nine miles on ahead of you.”

    Fitzgerald: “Well, am I going to clear?”

    Anderson: “Yes. He is going to pass to the west of you.”

    Fitzgerald: “Well, fine.”

    Anderson: “By the way, Fitzgerald, how are making out with your problem?”

    Fitzgerald: “We are holding our own.”

    Anderson: “Okay, fine. I’ll be talking to you later.”

  • 7:15 P.M.

    Fitzgerald disappears from Anderson’s radar.

  • 7:22 P.M.

    Captain Cooper called the Fitzgerald again, there was no answer. He then contacted the other ships in the area by radio asking anyone had seen or heard from the Fitzgerald. The weather had cleared dramatically by his written report.

All of the 29 Crew Were Lost

While I would have liked to put together a nice memorial for all the crew, I ran across a video on youtube that does a much better job than I could have.

Theories of Why the Mighty Fitz Sank

There are theories galore, some are the ones listed below and combined, but the absolute truth is – we don’t know for sure. We can theorize but since there were no survivors we will never truly know what made the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald sink. I will give a list of the most popular theories, then I will give my limited opinion and I would love to hear yours as well.

  • A wave engulfed the ship, pushing the front of the ship underwater. the ship then hit the ground and broke in two.
  • Waves lifted both the ends of the ship (the bow and stern), but the center of the ship containing the cargo was not held by a wave, so the overload forced the center downward, sinking and/or breaking the ship in two.
  • Bottoming out/grounding. This could have happened near Six Fathom Shoal.
  • Faulty hatch covers. **this theory has been disproven by research and Expeditions**
  • Previous structural damage may have caused the sinking.
  • Huge waves swamped the ship and it sank. Many people call these huge waves the Three Sisters. These waves are so big they can be detected on radar. The first wave hits and covers the decks with water that isn’t fully drained when the second wave hits and causes more water to go across the decks with extreme weight. Then the third wave hits and the increased weight and force of each hit causes the ship to capsize and sink.
  • A huge wave rode up between the two swells and the ship snapped in half.

My opinion is it was a combination of things that caused the Mighty Fitz to sink. I don’t think it was just one or two, it was more than that. Captain Cooper reported two large waves hitting the Anderson just minutes before the Mighty Fitz was lost from radar. Captain Cooper was not sure if a third wave hit his ship, this I get, his hands were full just trying to keep his own ship afloat. I favor the idea of the Three Sisters hitting the Mighty Fitz, and I think due to her size, it is very possible, this made the ship list to one side, Captain McSorely previously reported more extreme. With the ship being in more shallow waters the bow of the ship hit the bottom twisted the stern enough that it snapped. For me, this would make sense, why there wasn’t that much iron ore spilled between the pieces and why the stern portion of the ship was found to be upside down near the bow portion that was right side up. I think previous damage, age, and the ship being loaded to warm weather levels. This all leads to why the ship broke apart. I am also owning the fact that I don’t know anything about ships or freighters, and I am not a structural engineer; I am a land-loving person who understands cause and effect. That doesn’t mean I am an expert. What I will say, is there was a great many things that went wrong to make this tragedy happen. My opinions are only about the ship itself and nothing about the 29 crew that were lost.

What are your opinions? Does anyone with sailing experience want to chime in? If I need to make corrections to anything I have posted please educate me on the where, how, and why I should, so I can learn from it and continue to make better content for all the Grim Folk reading. I will also ask that all comments be respectful to one another and to the families that were affected by the sinking of the S.S. Edmond Fitzgerald.

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All pictures and videos used in this blog are done so under the Fair Use Act I have tried to give credit to all originators.

22 Photographs Cataloging the Edmund Fitzgerald Disaster and the Dives to Rediscover the Wreckage

The Storm that Sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald

4 responses to “The Edmund Fitzgerald”

  1. “YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN, 29 COMPLEMENT of S.S. EDMUND FITZGERALD: At the going down of the SUN-on Lake Superior, and in the MORNING; WE WILL REMEMBER THEM, WE WILL REMEMBER THEM!!!” Sincerely…Brian CANUCK Murza, W.W.II Naval Researcher-Published Author, Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada.

    Liked by 1 person

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