The story of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank in a freak storm on Lake Superior in November 1975, killing twenty-nine crew, is legend, thanks in part to a Gordon Lightfoot song that most Canadians over forty can recite from memory. Numerous niche publications have been written about the ship’s fateful voyage, including Frederick Stonehouse’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, from 1977, William Ratigan’s Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals: Including the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, from 1994, and Elle Andra-Warner’s Edmund Fitzgerald: The Legendary Great Lakes Shipwreck, from 2009. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the sinking, Michael Schumacher, who once wrote a biography of the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, published Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, in 2005. Schumacher has now edited The Trial of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a volume of transcripts from the United States Coast Guard hearings into the wreck. Together, his two works make for a definitive account of a tragic story that has made its way into Canadian folklore, with one crucial missing piece: we still don’t know for sure what happened and why on the night the ship went down.
Legends resist facts. They grow from the imagination. Throw more facts at a legend and it can dissolve, lose all romance, grow commonplace. The facts of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald were lost with the ship, which simply disappeared off the radar in the early evening of November 10, 1975. There are clues and conjecture, enough to fill the new volume with testimony from experts and eyewitnesses, but without a conclusion the imagination takes over.
“The ship,” as Lightfoot sang, “was the pride of the American side.” Built in 1957, it was as long as two football fields and as wide as three lanes of highway — the largest freighter on the Great Lakes. The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company owned the boat, which it named for the company’s president and CEO, whose grandfather, John Fitzgerald, had been a laker captain. In June 1958, with 15,000 people watching, the new ship was christened in Milwaukee — eventually. Edmund’s wife, Elizabeth, had to swing a champagne bottle against the bow three times before it broke. By maritime superstition, this was a bad sign.
On November 10, the Edmund Fitzgerald sailed from Superior, Wisconsin, with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets, a low grade of iron ore, bound for Whitefish Bay and the Soo Locks on the eastern side of Lake Superior. It would then pass Sault Ste. Marie and head to Detroit. The cargo was carefully distributed to prevent “hogging”— when a ship bends in the middle like a pool noodle — which huge lakers were prone to do. The captain was Ernest McSorley, a sixty-three-year-old skipper thinking of retirement. The crew were all American, mostly from Ohio and Wisconsin. The youngest was Karl A. Peckol, a twenty-year-old watchman. Forecasts called for poor weather but nothing, Schumacher writes in Mighty Fitz, that McSorley and the Fitzgerald hadn’t seen before — or so he, the crew, and all others involved told themselves.
At this point, fact begins its dance with folklore. What do we actually know, despite all predictive measures, about weather? What does history say about the demands of commerce and the imperative to build larger and more elaborate means to deliver it? The outcome of the next twenty-four hours is unlikely and yet inevitable: the storms came, bringing 150-kilometre-per-hour winds, ten-metre swells, and a blizzard. Trailing the Fitzgerald was another laker, the Arthur M. Anderson, captained by Bernie Cooper. Cooper and McSorley kept in contact by radio.
McSorley held his course. The Fitzgerald, he told Cooper, was “rolling some,” but nothing to cause alarm. Waves broke over the length of the ship, but it was nothing like “green water”— what mariners call water so deep on the deck that it nearly submerges the ship. The storm worsened. McSorley made his call: he would pass through a channel between lake islands and aim straight to Whitefish Bay, still four or five hours away. The big problem, as both captains knew, was that McSorley risked grounding on Six Fathom Shoal. Another problem, as they would soon learn, was that the lighthouse at Whitefish Point, a crucial beacon under the circumstances, had gone down.
What occurred next, in lieu of facts and the testimony of survivors, since there were none, is dispatched quickly and chillingly in Lightfoot’s song:
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck, sayin’
“Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya.”
At 7 p.m., a main hatchway caved in, he said,
“Fellas, it’s been good to know ya.”
Two giant waves bore down on the Anderson, heading to the Fitzgerald. Later, Cooper would wonder “if those two seas might have been the ones.”
“We are holding our own,” McSorley reported by radio. That was the last anyone would hear from the Edmund Fitzgerald. Crew on the Anderson lost sight of the Fitzgerald ’s lights. Boats could sometimes go missing in a storm and then show up, as Schumacher writes, “battered but safe, in calmer waters.” Cooper could only hope that this would be the case with the Fitzgerald. But the Titanic of the Great Lakes would never turn up.
There is a strange romance tied to shipwrecks. In 1875, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the English poet and Jesuit priest, wrote about the SS Deutschland, a steamship that sank that year, killing, among others, five Franciscan nuns in political exile. “O Christ, Christ, come quickly,” he has one of them shout in near ecstasy, in the face of the storm that would sink their ship off the southeast coast of England. In 1924, the Swiss writer Robert Walser found himself “riveted” by Albert Bierstadt’s The Burning Ship. “Beneath the water, unknown mountain chains extend,” he wrote of the 1869 oil painting, calling out the special, unseen dangers of the sea. And then there’s Lightfoot: “Superior, they said, never gives up her dead.” The romance helps to elevate meaning, of course. Without it, the facts of a maritime tragedy can be horrifyingly mundane.
The Fitzgerald hit Six Fathom Shoal and broke open. Cooper believed this is what happened and told as much to U.S. Steel, the company that owned the lost cargo. But then a lawyer for U.S. Steel told Cooper, in a recorded telephone conversation, “I don’t want you guessing.” In other words, don’t break a seaman’s cardinal rule by questioning another captain’s motives. Also, don’t speculate when there is capital — and litigation — at stake. But only questions were available. The lake gave up few clues: two broken life rafts and a wooden stool. Later, imaging and deep-water photography revealed the wreck, with the bow and the stern resting fifty metres apart, but offered no proof of what had brought it there.
If it wasn’t the shoal, then perhaps hogging did cause the Fitzgerald to break in two — not unlike the Carl D. Bradley and the Daniel J. Morrell, which had recently been lost on the Great Lakes. Or maybe the ship had been taking on water through broken hatchways and was slowly sinking even before a rush of green water — the result of the rogue waves that first struck the Arthur M. Anderson. Does it matter? Both of Schumacher’s books, one a smartly constructed dramatic narrative and the other a wonk’s compilation of supporting documents and testimony (a bit like a DVD’s special extras), go to great lengths to tell us that, yes, it matters, especially if we want to understand how human choices and human motives are sometimes, or even always, upended by circumstances.
Why did the Edmund Fitzgerald leave Superior, Wisconsin, on November 9, fully laden and heading into bad weather? Because, from the point of view of Captain McSorley, the crew, and the owners, to do otherwise would have been ludicrous: they were all able to convince themselves that it won’t be that bad. We have heard too much of this talk recently, in the context of COVID‑19. No sense to keep busting the economy over what might happen.
Expeditions to the wreckage have brought back not just photos but, at the suggestion of surviving family members, the ship’s bell. Today, it is on display at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, in Whitefish Point, Michigan, near where the ship itself was supposed to pass but never did. At the bottom of Lake Superior, divers replaced the original with a replica, engraved with twenty-nine names, that acts as a tombstone.
In his famous song’s last stanza, Gordon Lightfoot sang:
In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed,
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral.
The church bell chimed till it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.
In July 1995, newly installed at the museum, the ship’s bell tolled twenty-nine times. Then it rang once more, for all other sailors lost at sea. Ritual is simple. Stories are complicated. But sometimes they meet, even collaborate. Much is known about the Edmund Fitzgerald except what, ultimately, happened. Ritual, the balm for human grief, helps fill in the blank space.