The Story of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald
Speak to anyone with even a passing involvement or interest in the maritime industry, and the words ‘SS Edmund Fitzgerald’ will immediately conjure up memories of an incident which has gone down in maritime history. If you’re not familiar with this tale, then keep reading. This is the story of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald…
What was the SS Edmund Fitzgerald?
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a lake freighter which was first ordered in 1957, with the Great Lakes Engineering Works (GLEW) being contracted to design and construct the vessel, which was to be propelled by a coal-fired, steam turbine (following a refit in 1971/72 it was converted to oil fuel).
It was the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee that had decided to invest in the construction of the vessel. This was due to the company’s decision to invest heavily in the region’s iron and minerals industries.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was designed with one significant factor in mind; that it be constructed “within a foot of the maximum length allowed for passage through the soon-to-be completed Saint Lawrence Seaway”.
As such, the completed vessel had a 729-foot hull, and a deadweight capacity of 26,000 long tons - making it the longest ship on the Great Lakes at the time. Due to this, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald gained the moniker ‘Queen of the Lakes’.
(It was only in September 1959 that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald would lose this moniker to the 730-foot SS Murray Bay).
On 7th June 1958, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was launched, beginning what was hoped to be a long and productive service life, ferrying taconite iron ore across the Great Lakes.
The Great Lakes
Before we continue the story, some context is needed; the Great Lakes.
The home of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald throughout its service life, the Great Lakes (which are also known as the Laurentian Great Lakes), are a series of interconnected freshwater lakes.
The Great Lakes straddle the border between Canada and the United States, encompassing states including Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, New York, and Minnesota.
The lakes include Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, and Ontario. Together, these lakes form the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth (by total area). Even more amazingly, these lakes contain 21% of the world’s surface fresh water by volume.
Given the sheer scale of the Great Lakes, they exhibit sea-like characteristics and have some notable hazards. For example, weather conditions can change very quickly - in some cases without warning - with swells being deep and close together.
The Great Lakes are prone to ‘seiches’, which are standing waves oscillating within a body of water. Such seiches can affect drafts in shallow areas, posing threats to vessels that are alongside a dock.
That’s not taking into account the icing which occurs during the winter months. In certain locations, complete icing over can occur, with consolidated pack ice also being a danger.
In short, navigating the Great Lakes can be very challenging.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald’s final voyage
From its launch in 1958 through to 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald admirably fulfilled its function of shipping bulk cargoes, being operated by Oglebay Norton Corporation on behalf of the ship’s owners.
This wasn’t a run-of-the-mill period of operation, either. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald consistently beat its own milestones, with the vessel’s record load for a single trip being 27,402 long tons.
The ship was also an exemplar of safety too, having received, in 1969, a safety award for eight years of operation without a time-off worker injury.
The ship’s operation continued without major incident until a fateful day in 1975.
9th November 1975
The 9th November 1975 was to prove to be the SS Edmund Fitzgerald’s final voyage.
Having departed Superior at 2:15pm under the command of Captain Ernest M. McSorley, the ship was heading to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit. It was carrying a cargo of 26,116 long tons of taconite ore pellets.
As the Great Lakes’ weather was always an unpredictable factor, Captain McSorley consulted the National Weather Service (NWS), which predicted that a storm would pass just south of Lake Superior by 7am on 10th November.
And so onward the SS Edmund Fitzgerald steamed…
By 7pm of the 9th, the NWS changed its weather prediction, issuing gale warnings for the entirety of Lake Superior.
In response, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald altered course to seek shelter along the north Ontario shore.
10th November 1975
Despite taking this precaution, the ship found itself embroiled in a severe winter storm at 1am, experiencing winds of 52 knots, and waves 10 feet high.
By 7am, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was still experiencing severe weather conditions, reporting winds of 35 knots and waves 10 feet high. This would be the last weather report the SS Edmund Fitzgerald would ever make.
Fast-forward to 3:15pm, and Captain Jesse Cooper of the SS Arthur M Anderson, which had been following the Fitzgerald at a distance of about 15 miles, noted that the Fitzgerald was far closer to Six Fathom Shoal than he would want to be. Six Fathom Shoal is a relatively shallow area just off Caribou Island, being only 36 feet deep - enough to ‘bottom out’ the Fitzgerald should it pass too close to it.
It was at 3:30pm that a radio transmission was received by the SS Arthur M Anderson.
“Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have sustained some topside damage. I have a fence rail laid down, two vents lost or damaged, and a list. I’m checking down. Will you stay by me till I get to Whitefish?”
The Anderson responded, “Charlie on that Fitzgerald”.
But the Fitzgerald would never reach Whitefish.
The final hours
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald struggled on, attempting to pick up the Whitefish Point radio beacon, but without success.
The SS Arthur M Anderson was still attempting to provide radar assistance to help the Fitzgerald. However, the Anderson itself was suffering at the hands of the tempest that had gripped the Great Lakes.
At around 7pm, two huge waves struck the Anderson. So big were these waves, that they put water on the ship - a staggering 35 feet above the water line.
By 7:10pm, the Anderson and Fitzgerald were once again in radio contact:
Anderson - “Fitzgerald, this is the Anderson. Have you checked down?”
Fitzgerald - “Yes, we have”.
Anderson - “Fitzgerald, we are about 10 miles behind you, and gaining about 1 ½ miles per hour. Fitzgerald, there is a target 19 miles ahead of us. So the target would be 9 miles on ahead of you”.
Fitzgerald - “Well, am I going to clear”.
Anderson - “Yes. He is going to pass to the west of you”.
Fitzgerald - “Well, fine”.
Anderson - “By the way, Fitzgerald, how are you making out with your problem”.
Fitzgerald - “We are holding our own”.
Anderson - “Okay, fine. I’ll be talking to you later”.
But they never exchanged words again.
At some point between 7:20 and 7:30pm, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald vanished.
The severity of the storm hindered search and rescue efforts, with an aircraft not arriving overhead at the scene until 10:53pm that day.
Despite strenuous efforts, only minor amounts of debris were recovered, including lifeboats and rafts.
None of the crew were found. Tragically, 29 crew members lost their lives that day.
It was only a few days later - on the 14th November - that the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was located.
Lt. George Conner was piloting a U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft when he discovered the wreck some 15 miles west of Deadman’s Cove, Ontario, at a depth of around 530 feet.
This initial discovery was followed by further investigations, with the period of 20th to 28th May 1976 seeing the U.S. Navy using submersibles to closely examine the wreck. The team discovered that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald had split in two.
Further investigations were carried out in 1980, 1989, 1994, and 1995.
Why did the SS Edmund Fitzgerald sink?
Ever since that fateful day in November 1975, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald has been the subject of intense speculation.
Why did it sink? No exact reason has been determined, but extreme weather and sea conditions are a major factor in all the published hypotheses regarding the Fitzgerald’s sinking.
Some speculative causes for the sinking of the Fitzgerald, include:
- The waves and weather hypothesis - whereby a combination of very high winds and very tall waves caused the ship to sink.
- Rogue wave hypothesis - a group of three ‘rogue waves’ known as the three sisters were reported in the vicinity of the Fitzgerald at the time she sank. The three sisters are one-third larger than normal waves, and the combination of the three waves hitting the Fitzgerald concurrently may have overwhelmed the vessel.
- Cargo-hold flooding hypothesis - the initial Marine Casualty Report, carried out by the US Coast Guard, suggested that the ship sank due to the flooding of the cargo hold as a result of improperly closed hatches on the deck.
- Structural failure hypothesis - given that the Fitzgerald was discovered in two pieces, it has been suggested that structural failure may be the primary cause of the vessel’s sinking.
- Shoaling hypothesis - with the SS Arthur M Anderson spotting the Fitzgerald in the area of the Six Fathom Shoal a few hours before it disappeared, it has been suggested that the Fitzgerald may have raked the reef, leading to severe damage that resulted in the vessel’s loss.
- Topside damage hypothesis - under this hypothesis, it is suggested that the damage to the vessel’s fence rail and vents was caused by a heavy object such as a log. The loss of the vents then resulted in flooding of the ballast tanks, resulting in the loss of the ship.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald in popular culture
The enduring mystery surrounding the sinking of the Fitzgerald has resulted in it becoming something of a cultural touchstone.
Most notable amongst the cultural mentions and recollections of the Fitzgerald is singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’, which was released in 1976.
Further cultural depictions of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald include the 1986 musical Ten November, which was created by Steven Dietz and Eric Peltoniemi in memory of the sinking.
The loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald with all hands led to many subsequent changes to Great Lakes shipping practice.
Following various investigations by the US Coast Guard (USCG), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the American Bureau of Shipping, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the following regulations were put in place:
- A requirement that all vessels of 1,600 gross register tons and over use depth finders.
- Survival suits are required aboard every ship in each crew member’s quarters.
- Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRBs) be installed on all vessels on the Great Lakes.
- GPS systems be installed on vessels for navigation.
- Navigational charts for the northeastern section of Lake Superior were improved.
- NOAA revised its method for predicting wave heights.
- The USCG rescinded the 1973 Load Line amendment that permitted reduced freeboard loadings.
- US Coast Guard inspectors now board all U.S. ships during autumn to inspect hatch and vent closures and lifesaving equipment on all vessels in the Great Lakes.
Beyond these regulations and changes, the loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald also inspired changes to the way local cadets are trained.
As per a report in local media outlet MLive, students at The Traverse City Academy - which had a cadet on the Fitzgerald when she sank, David Weiss - learn about the Fitzgerald in courses on damage control and vessel construction.
‘They are taught about the history of the Great Lakes maritime safety regulations, many of which trace directly to the Fitzgerald sinking. Mandatory depth finders, survival suits, positioning systems, emergency beacons, and higher freeboard requirements were rules passed in the Fitzgerald’s wake’.
Although no bodies were ever recovered from the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a plethora of memorials and remembrances were erected and carried out in their memory.
The first of these came the day after the wreck, when the Mariner’s Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times; one for each life lost.
Perhaps the most poignant of the many memorials was the recovery of the ship’s bell in July 1995. The bell was incorporated into a permanent memorial at Whitefish Point, Michigan.
Other remembrances include a Lost Mariners Remembrance event which is held each year at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on the evening of 10th November.
The Royal Canadian Mint also honoured the memory of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald and her crew with the minting of a special silver commemorative coin in 2015.
The loss of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a tragedy. One that has become seared into popular consciousness, especially in North America.
It’s a piercing reminder that even in the modern age, shipping is a hazardous, dangerous and sometimes lethal affair.
So, the next time you see a ship sailing by, give some thought to the courage and bravery of seafarers across the world. By transporting 90% of the world’s traded goods across the world’s seas and oceans, they make modern life possible…
[Image credit: Greenmars]
- Anthony York