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45 years ago: S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald sinks in Lake Superior

Fitzgerald sank on the evening of Nov. 10, 1975

Edmund Fitzgerald (Photo/Greenmars)
Edmund Fitzgerald (Photo/Greenmars)

It has been 45 years since the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in Lake Superior.

Why was the Edmund Fitzgerald so significant?

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was considered the largest and fastest Great Lakes ship. It set multiple records for the largest season-hauls. Built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works in River Rouge, Mich., the ship launched in 1958.

It was the first lake freighter built to the maximum St. Lawrence Seaway size. The Fitzgerald carried ore between mills in Minnesota and iron works in Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland. It had a capacity of 26,000 tons.

Why was it named Edmund Fitzgerald?

The ship was named after the President and CEO of its owner, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. According to a Los Angeles Times obituary, Edmund Fitzgerald, who died in 1986, was a civic leader in his hometown of Milwaukee. He was credited with helping to establish the city's Performing Arts Center, port facility, and Amtrak station. He was also the grandson of a Great Lakes boat captain.

Fitzgerald was initially opposed to having the freighter named in his honor and the Northwestern board approved the name when he was out of the room. However, his son-in-law told the L.A. Times that the honor became "the proudest moment of his life."

What happened to the ship?

The Fitzgerald sank on the evening of Nov. 10, 1975 during a particularly rough storm on Lake Superior. There are no survivors or witnesses to the shipwreck.

According to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, the Fitzgerald's Captain Ernest McSorely reported problems around 3:30 p.m. that afternoon in a radio message to the S.S. Arthur Anderson: "Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have a fence rail down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I'm checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?"

The last contact with the Fitzgerald took place at 7:10 p.m. The Fitzgerald crew reported that the ship was "holding our own." Just five minutes later, the Anderson's radar lost the Fitzgerald's signal. Another call to the Fitzgerald at 7:22 p.m. went unanswered. Around 10:00 p.m. the Anderson's crew discovered the Fitzgerald's lifeboats and other wreckage, but no sign of survivors.

When was the wreckage found?

A Coast Guard underwater vessel discovered the Fitzgerald's wreckage on May 20, 1976 about 535 feet below Lake Superior's surface. Divers recovered the ship's bell in 1995. The wreckage is considered a grave site by the family members of the crew and, as such, the Canadian government has declared it a heritage site. That status prevents divers from visiting the wreckage without permission.

Who were the men killed in the shipwreck?

The entire crew of 29 perished in the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Captain Ernest M. McSorley Michael E. Armagost Fred J. Beetcher Thomas D. Bentsen Edward F. Bindon Thomas D. Borgeson Oliver J. Champeau Nolan S. Church Ransom E. Cundy Thomas E. Edwards Russell G. Haskell George J. Holl Bruce L. Hudson Allen G. Kalmon Gorden Maclellan Joseph Mazes John H. McCarthy Eugene O'Brien Karl A. Peckol John J. Poviach James A. Pratt Robert C. Rafferty Paul M. Rippa John D. Simmons William J. Spengler Mark A. Thomas Ralph G. Walton David E. Weiss Blaine H. Wilhelm

In Detroit, Reverend Richard Ingalls, then the pastor of Mariners’ Church on Jefferson Avenue, came to the church in the cold, dark pre-dawn hours November 12 to commemorate the loss of lives, the worst ever on the Great Lakes, by solemnly ringing the church “brotherhood bell” 29 times, an act immortalized in Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

What impact did this tragedy have on Great Lakes shipping?

A Coast Guard inquiry into the wreck resulted in several recommendations to improve safety for Great Lakes shipping vessels.

Also see: The storm that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald


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