SS Edmund Fitzgerald

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Coordinates: 46°59.91′N 85°06.6′W / 46.9985°N 85.11°W / 46.9985; -85.11

The SS Edmund Fitzgerald in the St. Mary's River during May 1975.
Name: SS Edmund Fitzgerald
Owner: Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company
Operator: Columbia Transportation Division, Oglebay Norton Company of Cleveland, Ohio
Port of registry: Flag of the United States.svg United States
Ordered: February 1, 1957
Builder: Great Lakes Engineering Works of River Rouge, Michigan
Yard number: 301
Laid down: August 7, 1957
Launched: June 8, 1958
Christened: June 8, 1958
Completed: June 7, 1958
Maiden voyage: Sept. 24, 1958
Identification: Registry number US 277437
Nickname: "Mighty Fitz"
"The Fitz"
"The Big Fitz"
Fate: Lost in a storm on 10 November 1975 with all hands
General characteristics
Class and type: Lake freighter
Length: 729 ft (222.2 m) oa
Beam: 75 ft
Height: 38 ft
Depth: 39 ft
Installed power:

As built:

  • Coal fired Westinghouse Electric Corporation Steam Turbine 2 cylinder @ 7,500 SHP

After refit:

  • Conversion to oil fuel and the fitting of automated boiler controls over the winter of 1971-72.
  • Carried 72,000 U.S. gallons (60,000 imp gal; 273 m³) fuel oil
Propulsion: One 19.5 ft diameter propeller
Speed: 14 knots
Crew: 29

SS Edmund Fitzgerald (nicknamed "Mighty Fitz," "The Fitz," or "The Big Fitz") was an American Great Lakes freighter launched on June 8, 1958. At the time of her launching, she was one of the first boats to be at or near maximum "St Lawrence Seaway Size" which was 730 feet (220 m) long and 75 feet (23 m) wide. From her launching in 1958 until 1971 the Fitzgerald continued to be one of the largest boats on the Great Lakes.[1]

On November 10, 1975, while traveling on Lake Superior during a gale, the Fitzgerald sank suddenly in Canadian waters approximately 17 miles (15 nmi; 27 km) from the entrance of Whitefish Bay at a depth of 530 feet (160 m). Although she had reported having some difficulties before the accident, the Fitzgerald sank without sending any distress signals. Her crew of 29 perished in the sinking with no bodies being recovered. When the wreck was found, it was discovered that the Fitzgerald had broken in two.

The sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald is the most famous disaster in the history of Great Lakes shipping.[2] The disaster was the subject of Gordon Lightfoot's 1976 hit song, "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald".


On February 1, 1957, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin contracted Great Lakes Engineering Works (GLEW), of River Rouge, Michigan, to design and build a taconite bulk carrier laker for Northwestern. The contract contained the stipulation that the boat be the largest on the Great Lakes. GLEW laid the keel on August 7 of that year, and some time between then and her christening and launch on June 7, 1958, Northwestern announced their decision to name the boat for its President and Chairman of the Board, Edmund Fitzgerald, whose father had been a lake captain.[3][4]

The completed vessel had a capacity of 26,600 short tons (24,100 t). Her large cargo hold loaded through twenty-one watertight hatches, 11.6 by 54.1 feet (3.5 by 16.5 m) of 516-inch (7.9 mm) steel. The boat's boilers were originally coal-fired, but would be converted to burn oil during the 1971-72 winter layup. With a length of 729 feet (222 m), she met the demanding stipulation of the contract and until 1971 was the largest boat on the Great Lakes.[5]

Over 15,000 people attended the Fitzgerald's launch. The event was troublesome. When Mrs. Edmund Fitzgerald christened the boat by smashing a champagne bottle over the bow, it took her three swings to break the bottle. The launch was delayed 36 minutes while the shipyard crew struggled to release the keel blocks. Upon launching sideways into the water, the boat crashed violently into a pier.[6]


Sea trials for the Fitzgerald began on September 13, 1958 and were completed one week later. Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company handed the operation of the boat to the Columbia Transportation Division of the Oglebay Norton Corporation. For the next 17 years the Fitzgerald carried taconite from mines near Duluth, Minnesota to iron works in Detroit, Toledo and other ports. The Fitzgerald ran aground in 1969 and collided with the S.S. Hochelaga in 1970. Following the collision with the Hochelaga, she struck the wall of a lock later that same year. In 1973, as well, the Fitzgerald struck a lock's wall. During 1974, the Fitzgerald again struck a lock's wall along with losing her original bow anchor in the Detroit River.[4]

Final voyage and wreck

File:Edmund Fitzgerald Trackline.jpg
NTSB report probable tracks of Edmund Fitzgerald and Arthur M. Anderson. (Click to enlarge)

Fitzgerald left Superior, Wisconsin on the afternoon of Sunday, November 9, 1975 under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley. She was en route to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan, with a full cargo of taconite.[7] A second freighter, Arthur M. Anderson, destined for Gary, Indiana out of Two Harbors, Minnesota, joined up with Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, being the faster ship, took the lead while Anderson trailed not far behind.[8]

Crossing Lake Superior at about 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph), the boats encountered a massive winter storm, reporting winds in excess of 50 knots (93 km/h; 58 mph) and waves as high as 35 feet (11 m). Because of the storm, the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie were closed. The freighters altered their courses northward, seeking shelter along the Canadian coast. Later, they would cross to Whitefish Bay to approach the locks.

Late in the afternoon of Monday, November 10, sustained winds of 50 knots were observed across eastern Lake Superior. Anderson was struck by a 75-knot (139 km/h; 86 mph) hurricane-force gust. At 3:30 pm Fitzgerald radioed Anderson to report a minor list developing and top-side damage including the loss of radar.[9] Visibility was poor due to heavy snow, and the Coast Guard warned all ships to find safe harbor.[10] Two of the Fitzgerald's six bilge pumps were running continuously to discharge shipped water. The lighthouse and navigational radio beacon at Whitefish Point had also been knocked out by the storm. Fitzgerald was ahead of Anderson at the time, effectively blind; therefore, she slowed to come within 10 miles (16 km) range so she could receive radar guidance from the other ship.[9] The Anderson was soon after notified by the Coast Guard that the Soo Locks were closed due to the storm and all ships were advised to find safe anchorage.

For a time Anderson directed the Fitzgerald toward the relative safety of Whitefish Bay. At 5:45 pm, Captain McSorley radioed another ship, Avafors, to report that Fitzgerald was suffering a bad list, had lost her radars, and had seas washing over her decks. McSorley described the situation as, "One of the worst seas I've ever been in."[9]

The last communication from the doomed ship came at approximately 7:10 pm, when Anderson notified Fitzgerald of an upbound ship and asked how she was doing. McSorley reported, "We are holding our own." A few minutes later, she apparently sank; no distress signal was received. Ten minutes later Anderson could neither raise Fitzgerald by radio, nor detect her on radar. At 8:32 pm, Anderson was finally able to convince the U. S. Coast Guard that the Fitzgerald had gone missing. Up until that time, the Coast Guard was looking for a 16 foot outboard lost in the area. The United States Coast Guard finally took Captain of the Anderson, Jesse "Bernie" Cooper, seriously shortly after 8:30 PM. The Coast Guard then asked the Anderson to turn around and look for survivors.


Once Anderson noted the loss of Fitzgerald, a search was launched for survivors. The initial search consisted of the Arthur M. Anderson, and a second freighter, SS William Clay Ford. The efforts of a third freighter, the Canadian vessel Hilda Marjanne, were foiled by the weather. The U.S. Coast Guard launched three aircraft, but could not mobilize any ships. A Coast Guard buoy tender, Woodrush, was able to launch within two and a half hours, but took a day to arrive. The search recovered debris, including lifeboats and rafts, but no survivors.

Discovery and underwater surveys

File:Edmond Fitzgerald relative position of wreck.jpg
NTSB drawing of the relative positions of the wreck parts.

The wreck was first located by a U.S. Navy aircraft with on-board magnetic anomaly detector equipment, normally used to detect submarines. The wreck was further surveyed using side scan sonar on November 14 to November 16 by the Coast Guard. The sonar revealed two large objects lying close together on the lake floor. A second survey took place from November 22 through November 25 by a private contractor, Seaward, Inc.

In 1976, from May 20 to May 28, an unmanned U.S. Navy submersible photographed the wreck. This submersible, CURV III, consisted of an underwater vehicle connected via umbilical control to a surface support ship. On-board imaging equipment included one 35 mm still and two black-and-white video cameras. It found Edmund Fitzgerald lying in two large pieces in 530 feet (160 m) of water. The bow section, approximately 276 feet (84 m) long, lay upright in the mud. The approximately 253 feet (77 m) stern section lay 170 feet (52 m) away, inverted (face down), at a 50-degree angle from the bow. Metal and taconite heaps between the bow and stern comprised the remnants of the mid-section.

Accident report and controversy

When Fitzgerald first vanished, it was widely believed the boat had snapped in half on the lake surface owing to storm action. Similar surface breakups in the past suggested bow and stern sections would be found miles apart on the lake floor. When underwater surveys revealed these sections were just yards from each other, it was concluded that Fitzgerald had instead broken upon hitting the lake floor.

A Coast Guard investigation postulated that the accident was caused by ineffective hatch closures. These devices were unable to prevent waves from inundating the cargo hold. The flooding occurred gradually and probably imperceptibly throughout the final day, and finally resulted in a fatal loss of buoyancy and stability. As a result, the boat plummeted to the bottom without warning.

The Coast Guard report proved controversial. Their conclusions failed to address critical pieces of evidence, and the report placed blame on the crew, which prevented a costly lawsuit against Oglebay-Norton. The most common alternative theory contends that inoperative radar forced the crew to rely on inaccurate charts. The Canadian and American versions of the same chart placed shoals and shallow water in different places, and failed to mark some shoals at all. As a result, Fitzgerald briefly ran aground or scraped a shoal near Caribou Island (Lake Superior) without the crew being aware of it. Consequently, she received bottom damage, which caused her to gradually take on water until she sank so suddenly in the deep water that none of her crew had time to react. The ship, pile-driving into the lake bottom, snapped in half, and its stern landed upside-down on the bottom. (If so, given the ship's length vs. the depth of the water, the stern could still have been above water when the bow hit bottom, similar to the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.) This theory is supported by final radio communications between Anderson and Fitzgerald; Anderson had been struck by two large waves that were heading toward Fitzgerald. If the hull had indeed been breached, it would be difficult to prove. Fitzgerald has settled in mud up to her load marks, making it impossible to inspect for damage.

A documentary created and aired by the Discovery Channel investigated a large "fold" found in the hull plating. Previous defects with cargo hold covers and clamps as well as cracking issues were also addressed. Through the use of wave tanks and computer simulation, the Discovery Channel team speculated the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was due to a rogue wave. Reports show three large waves were detected, two of which were reported by the Anderson. Such a grouping of waves is often called "three sisters". As per the investigation, it was theorized that the Fitzgerald was badly battered by the first two waves, further damaging the hatch covers. It was surmised ultimately that the Fitzgerald took on water through the damaged cargo hold covers, which flooded the ore cargo and severely stressed the ship's hull, and was then overwhelmed by the third wave that snapped the weakened ship in half. Another published theory is that the waves or rogue waves of the storm directly caused a major structural failure. [11]


File:Edmund Fitzgerald Lifeboat.jpg
One of the Edmund Fitzgerald's lifeboats, on display at the Valley Camp Museum ship.

The day after the wreck, Mariners' Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times; once for each life lost.[12][13] The church continues to hold an annual memorial, reading the names of the crewmen and ringing the church bell. On November 12, 2006, two days after the 31st anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, the church broadened its memorial ceremony to include the more than 6,000 lives lost on the Great Lakes. In 2006, the bell at Mariners' Church tolled eight times, not the usual 29: five times for the five Great Lakes, a sixth time for the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, a seventh for the St. Lawrence Seaway and an eighth time for military personnel whose lives were lost.[14]

The ship's bell was recovered from the wreck on July 4, 1995. There was an uproar of controversy when Jeff Stevens, a maintenance worker of St. Ignace, refurbished the bell by stripping the protective coating applied by Michigan State University experts. [15] The bell is on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point near Paradise, Michigan. An anchor from Fitzgerald lost on an earlier trip was recovered from the Detroit River and is on display at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit, Michigan. Artifacts in the Steamship Valley Camp museum in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan include two lifeboats, photos, a movie of the Fitzgerald and commemorative models and paintings.

On every November 10 the Split Rock Lighthouse in Silver Bay, Minnesota emits a light in honor of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Coast Guard Cutter Woodrush was replaced by a brand new buoy tender in 2001, USCGC Maple. On her maiden voyage, the Maple visited the final resting place of the Fitzgerald and dropped the last Woodrush life ring down to the wreck.

On August 8, 2007, a Michigan family discovered a lone life saving ring in a provincial park along the shores of Lake Superior that seemed to be from the Fitzgerald. It was thought to be a hoax because there are considerable differences in the markings of proven rings found at the wreck site. A recent Associated Press article published August 20, 2007 confirms that the life ring was indeed a memorial, not an artifact.[16]

Musical tributes

In 1976, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote, composed, and recorded (for his album Summertime Dream) the song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", commemorating the events surrounding the sinking of the ship. The original lyrics take artistic license with the events of the actual sinking and in light of new evidence about the sinking Lightfoot has modified one line for live performances[17]. Canadian rock band, the Rheostatics, covered the song on their second album Melville as well as including it on their live album Double Live. Later, The Dandy Warhols would also cover the song on their second album, The Black Album. The band's lead singer, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, is the cousin of the ship's Third Mate Michael Armagost.

In 1986, writer Steven Dietz and songwriter/lyricist Eric Peltoniemi wrote the musical Ten November in memory of the Fitzgerald's sinking. In 2005, the musical was re-edited into a new musical called The Gales of November,[18] which opened on the 30th anniversary of the sinking at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Also in 2005, Michigan based Northern-Rock band Great Lakes Myth Society included audio samples of transmissions from the Anderson relaying the suspected loss of the Fitzgerald to the Coast Guard in their song "Lake Effect."

Another 30th anniversary commemoration was a piano concerto entitled "The Edmund Fitzgerald" by American composer Geoffrey Peterson in 2002, which was premiered by the Sault Symphony Orchestra in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada in November 2005.[19]


"Mountie on the Bounty," a two-part episode of the Canadian police comedy-drama television series Due South, aired on 15 March 1998 (part 1) and 22 March 1998 (part 2). The story featured the Robert Mackenzie, a fictional Canadian lake freighter slightly larger than the Edmund Fitzgerald (850 feet long by 80 feet wide), which suffered a nearly identical fate, right down to loss of radar and breaking in two.

Executive producer and star Paul Gross obtained permission to use "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" from Lightfoot for the episode--but on the condition the families of the sailors agree. Reluctant to cause the families additional grief, Gross and series composer Jay Semko instead wrote and composed "Thirty-Two Down On The Robert Mackenzie."

One of many wrecks

Although she is among the most well known and the largest vessel lost, the Fitzgerald is not alone on the bottom of the Great Lakes. In the time period between 1816 when the Invincible was lost to the sinking of the Fitzgerald in 1975, the Whitefish Point area has claimed at least 240 ships. The Great Lakes have had a long history of nautical disaster with nearly 6,000 shipwrecks occurring between 1878 and 1897. Nearly one quarter of these shipwrecks were listed as total losses and a total of 1,166 lives were lost in this 20 year time period. The total number of casualties over more than 300 years of Great Lakes shipping is likely more than 25,000.[20] Some ships and crews simply vanished in storms as the SS Carl D. Bradley did in November 1958. The Bradley, nicknamed the "Queen of the Lakes", was at one time the largest freighter on the lakes until the Wilfred Sykes was launched. Thirty-three crew members perished in the sinking of the Bradley with two crewmembers surviving.[21] A loss of even greater magnitude, measured by the number of ships involved and lives lost, occurred during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913 which has been referred to as a 'freshwater snow-filled hurricane'.

A number of diveable marine preserves, including 11 in the Michigan Underwater Preserves, have been established that contain multiple sunken ships. In 2005, efforts were underway to establish in Washington, D.C. a memorial remembering all lost Great Lakes mariners. A campaign to establish the November 10th as "Great Lakes Mariners Day" fell short when in 1994, the House of Representatives ended the practice of annual Congressional recognition days.

Crew members

Edmund Fitzgerald's crew of 29 on her final voyage included:[22]

Last Name First Position Age Hometown
Armagost Michael E. Third Mate 37 Iron River, Wisconsin
Beetcher Fred J. Porter 56 Superior, Wisconsin
Bentsen Thomas D. Oiler 23 St. Joseph, Michigan
Bindon Edward F. First Assistant Engineer 47 Fairport Harbor, Ohio
Borgeson Thomas D. Maintenance Man 41 Duluth, Minnesota
Champeau Oliver J. Third Assistant Engineer 41 Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Church Nolan S. Porter 55 Silver Bay, Minnesota
Cundy Ransom E. Watchman 53 Superior, Wisconsin
Edwards Thomas E. Second Assistant Engineer 50 Oregon, Ohio
Haskell Russell G. Second Assistant Engineer 40 Millbury, Ohio
Holl George J. Chief Engineer 60 Cabot, Pennsylvania
Hudson Bruce L. Deck Hand 22 North Olmsted, Ohio
Kalmon Allen G. Second Cook 43 Washburn, Wisconsin
MacLellan Gordon F. Wiper 30 Clearwater, Florida
Mazes Joseph W. Special Maintenance Man 59 Ashland, Wisconsin
McCarthy John H. First Mate 62 Bay Village, Ohio
McSorley Ernest M. Captain 63 Toledo, Ohio
O'Brien Eugene W. Wheelsman 50 Toledo, Ohio
Peckol Karl A. Watchman 20 Ashtabula, Ohio
Poviach John J. Wheelsman 59 Bradenton, Florida
Pratt James A. Second Mate 44 Lakewood, Ohio
Rafferty Robert C. Steward 62 Toledo, Ohio
Riippa Paul M. Deck Hand 22 Ashtabula, Ohio
Simmons John D. Wheelsman 62 Ashland, Wisconsin
Spengler William J. Watchman 59 Toledo, Ohio
Thomas Mark A. Deck Hand 21 Richmond Heights, Ohio
Walton Ralph G. Oiler 58 Fremont, Ohio
Weiss David E. Cadet 22 Agoura, California
Wilhelm Blaine H. Oiler 52 Moquah, Wisconsin

See also


  1. Largest from 1958 until 1971.
  2. Gauper, Beth. "Lake Superior's Circle Tour provides everything a tourist's heart could desire -". Retrieved 2008-04-21. "The most famous wreck is the Edmund Fitzgerald, whose bell occupies an exalted spot in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum." 
  3. Graeme Zielinski, "Shipwreck overshadowed Fitzgerald's legacy," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2005-11-10.
  4. 4.0 4.1 McCall, Timothy. "Timeline of Events for the Edmund Fitzgerald". S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online. n.d. Retrieved 2006-10-07.
  6. Andra-Warner, Elle (2006). The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: The Legendary Great Lakes Disaster. Altitude Publishing Canada Limited. ISBN 1554390079. 
  7. The Story of the Edmund Fitzgerald (on the website of the National Weather Service Forecasting Office for Marquette, MI).
  8. National Transportation Safety Board, "Marine Accident Report SS EDMUND FITZGERALD Sinking in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975", 1978-05-04.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 "NWS Marquette, MI". Retrieved 2008-04-02. 
  10. Nolan, Jenny. "". Retrieved 2008-04-21. 
  11. Globe and Mail article on rogue wave theory
  12. McInnis, Joseph (1998). "Fitzgerald's Storm: The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", p. 62, Thunder Bay Press. ISBN 1-882376-53-6.
  13. Schumacher, Michael (2005). "Mighty Fitz", p. 94, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York & London. ISBN 1-58234-547-x.
  14. CNN. Bell tolls for Edmund Fitzgerald. 2006-11-13.
  15. Poulson, David. "Restored bell gets controversial shine", Kalamazoo Gazette, 1996-3-17. Whitefish Point Watch Retrieved 2010-06-12.
  16. "ABC News: Life Ring Not From Edmund Fitzgerald". Retrieved 2008-04-02 (No longer available as of 9/09). 
  17. "Lightfoot changes 'Edmund' lyrics". Retrieved 2010-3-28. 
  18. "Minnesota Public Radio Presents". Minnesota Public Radio. November 26, 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-14. 
  19. "Edmund Fitzgerald" Piano Concerto to Commemorate 30th Anniversary of Famous Shipwreck". Sault Symphony Orchestra via eMediaWire. September 15, 2005. Retrieved 2008-11-14. 
  20. Thompson, Mark L. (2000). Graveyard of the Lakes. Google Books; Original Wayne State University Press, Detroit..,M1. Retrieved 2009-04-16. , 17, 18, 22.
  21. Carl D. Bradley home page.
  22. Jenny Nolan. The Detroit News. The fateful voyage of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Retrieved 2007-04-13.

Further reading

  • Ratigan, Bill. Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals. Grand Rapids: WB Eerdmans, 1977. ISBN 0-8028-7010-4.
  • Shumacher, Michael. Might Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Bloomsbury, 2005. ISBN 1-59691-167-0.
  • Bishop, Hugh E. The Night the Fitz Went Down. Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc., 2000. ISBN 0-942235-37-1
  • Hemming, Robert. "Gales of November, The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald" 1981 & 2000
  • National Geographic Magazine, January 1996 - Underwater pictures of the Fitz.
  • Stonehouse, Frederick. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" Avery Color Studios 1977, updated 1982 ISBN 0-932212-05-0

External links

da:SS Edmund Fitzgerald de:Edmund Fitzgerald (Schiff) es:SS Edmund Fitzgerald id:SS Edmund Fitzgerald it:SS Edmund Fitzgerald ja:エドモンド・フィッツジェラルド (貨物船) simple:SS Edmund Fitzgerald fi:SS Edmund Fitzgerald