WHEN SINGER-SONGWRITER Gordon Lightfoot released his ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in 1976 about the ore freighter that sank with all hands during a November storm on Lake Superior, a chapter of Great Lakes shipping history was catapulted into the national spotlight.
Forty years later, the legend of that 1975 tragedy still fuels the imaginations of people all around the Great Lakes. Thousands travel each year to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point on Lake Superior to learn more about the story.
Come November, many are expected to return to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking.
“The Fitzgerald display is the No. 1 reason most people visit,” notes Bruce Lynn, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum executive director. “You see people hovering over it, reading every word, where they might gloss through others. It’s the enormity of what happened that night. It went down with all hands — and why is still a mystery.”
The museum centerpiece is the ore freighter’s 200-pound bronze bell, raised from a depth of 535 feet in 1995. The museum also shares the stories of other sunken ships and lifesaving efforts along Lake Superior’s “Shipwreck Coast.”
“(The Fitzgerald) was one of the finer vessels on the Great Lakes in its day. And arguably it’s the last shipwreck on the Great Lakes,” Lynn notes. “There have been accidents, and a Coast Guard cutter sank off the Keweenaw Peninsula in 1989, but the Fitzgerald is the last ship to sink.”
Launched at River Rouge, Michigan, in 1958, the 729-foot Fitzgerald was the longest ship on the Great Lakes. It was named after Edmund Fitzgerald, president and chairman of the board for Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co. of Milwaukee, the company that commissioned it.
The Fitzgerald was luxurious, according to historical records, and set numerous shipping records, carrying loads of taconite iron ore pellets from Minnesota to steel mills in Detroit and Toledo. On Nov. 10, 1975, the day it foundered in near-hurricane-force winds and 35-foot waves, it was taking a load from Superior, Wisconsin, to Zug Island in Detroit.
“A big part of why it has become such a large part of our culture is because Gordon Lightfoot put this particular shipwreck in the North American consciousness,” offers Bob Sadler, director of marketing and sales for the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit. The museum displays the original Fitzgerald anchor, which was lost in the Detroit River in 1974.
“That’s not something that’s been attained by other shipwrecks. There was a lot of hoopla around ‘The Fitz’ when it launched — the biggest ship of its kind. The mystery of it all, the federal investigation — it all contributes to its mythology.”
The Dossin museum will commemorate the freighter’s loss with a “Lost Mariner’s Remembrance” lantern vigil from 6-8 p.m. Nov. 10. The 40th anniversary event is likely to be a sellout. Information about the remembrance can be found at detroithistorical.org.
Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock will entertain the crowd with songs that night. The event includes a presentation about the history of sea services and an honor guard escort for a memorial wreath that will be delivered to a flotilla of boats on the Detroit River.
“Every year that passes makes it less likely that we will ever know what happened. It lies twisted and broken on the bottom and degrades more and more,” Lynn says.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum’s two-day memorial event will begin Nov. 9 with a concert by Whispers of the North – Gordon Lightfoot Tribute Band. Lightfoot, now 76 years old, is not expected to attend. The concert is scheduled to take place at the Performing Arts Center at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie. Details and prices can be found at shipwreckmuseum.com.
A 40th anniversary memorial ceremony is planned for the following day, 7 p.m. Nov. 10, at the museum. The ship’s bell will toll 30 times during a “Call to the Last Watch” ceremony, once for each crew member and once for all lost Great Lakes mariners.
“We get hundreds of people attending,” Lynn says of previous memorial events. “It’s very much a solemn occasion. Surviving family members attend and we have speakers. Sometimes people get up and talk about their connection to it. Typically, it is standing-room only. It still captures people’s imaginations.”
Award-winning writer Howard Meyerson lives in Grand Rapids.