When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
-Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976)
The ship was last seen on radar around 7:15 p.m. All 29 men on board were lost with it, and today, 40 years after the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the cause is still a mystery.
Here's what we do know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and what happened to it that fateful day:
1. IT WAS THE LARGEST SHIP ON THE GREAT LAKES.
The large cargo vessels that roamed the five Great Lakes were known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest ever built. It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. It was christened on June 8, 1958, and made its first voyage on September 24 the same year.
2. THE SHIP WAS OWNED BY AN INSURANCE COMPANY.
Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was contracted to build the ship in 1957 by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, which had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industries. With the commissioning of the Fitzgerald, Northwestern Mutual became the first American insurance company to build its own ship—at a cost of $8.4 million, the most expensive price tag for a freighter at the time, according to Michael Schumacher’s The Mighty Fitz.
3. IT WAS NAMED AFTER THE HEAD OF THE COMPANY.
The chairman of Northwestern Mutual had a long history with the Great Lakes shipping industry. Edmund Fitzgerald’s grandfather captained a ship on the lakes, his father owned a shipyard, and they both had ships named after them. After construction of the Fitzgerald was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed its charter with the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, based in Cleveland.
4. THE SHIP'S MAIN JOB WAS HAULING IRON ORE.
Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally loaded taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.
5. "THE FITZ" WAS WELL-KNOWN EVEN BEFORE IT SANK.
Its impressive size made the ship popular with boat-watchers, and over the years it garnered many nicknames, including “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” “The Toledo Express,” and the unfortunate “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Crowds would watch as the massive freighter moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The “Soo” Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowed the Fitz to reach ports on the lower Great Lakes.
6. THE SHIP RAN INTO A DEADLY STORM ON LAKE SUPERIOR.
November is a brutal month on the Great Lakes. Frequent storms and hurricane-force winds can batter even the toughest-built freighters. On November 9, the Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock in Superior, Wisconsin. It left at 2:30 p.m. A second ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, sailed 10-15 miles behind the Fitzgerald as a precaution, and the two ships remained in radio contact until just after 7 p.m. on November 10.
Gale warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service the previous day, and by the morning of the 10th, the advisories had been upgraded to an official storm warning.
As swells reached 35 feet and winds raged at nearly 100 mph, the ship contacted Coast Guard officials in Sault Ste. Marie and said they were taking on water. Later, a blizzard obscured the Fitz on the Anderson’s radar, but Captain Ernest McSorley, who was on his final voyage before retirement, assured a crew member on the Anderson at 7:10 p.m. that, “We are holding our own.” It was the last anyone heard from McSorley or the Fitzgerald.
7. NO DISTRESS SIGNAL WAS SENT.
After that, there was nothing on the radar. No radio contact. The ship was approximately 15 miles north of Whitefish Point when it seemingly vanished. Captain Cooper, on the Anderson, was in contact with the Coast Guard and made it to Whitefish Point sometime after 8 p.m. with no sign or word from the
8. ALL 29 CREW MEMBERS DIED.
Along with the captain, the other crew members of the Fitzgerald included porters, oilers, engineers, maintenance workers, cooks, watchmen, deck hands, and wheelsmen. Most crew members were from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.
9. THERE IS STILL NO DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION FOR THE SINKING.
The treacherous weather conditions are an obvious factor, but experts differ on what they think specifically caused the accident. Following the wreck, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the tragedy was likely due to faulty cargo hatches, which led to flooding. Predictably, there are still those who harbor other theories, including unsecured hatches, maintenance troubles, massive waves, structural issues, and yes, even aliens. Author and Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse posited that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on too much water before plunging into Lake Superior.
10. THE TRAGEDY WAS IMMORTALIZED BY A CANADIAN FOLK SINGER.
Gordon Lightfoot, who had released 10 albums from 1966 to 1975, was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit.
11. FAMILY MEMBERS REQUESTED A SYMBOLIC MEMORIAL FROM THE SHIP.
The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deployed planes and cutters with magnetic anomaly detectors, sidescan sonar, and sonar survey to find the wreckage. In May, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle was sent to the site, and on May 20, 1976, the ship was spotted 535 below the surface of the lake.
In the decades since, only a handful of people have been able to see the wreck, which lies in two pieces. A pair of divers made their way down in 1995, the same year a crew—with help from the Canadian Navy, the National Geographic Society, Sony, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians—retrieved the ship's bell at the behest of the families of those who were lost. The Canadian government has since prohibited access to the site.
In eerie archival tapes below, you can hear Anderson skipper Jesse Cooper correspond with the Coast Guard, and see video of the wreck.
12. THERE'S AN ANNUAL REMEMBRANCE DAY.
The annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony will take place today at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The recovered and restored bell will toll 29 times for each member of the Fitzgerald's crew, and a 30th for the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.