In Memory of the Edmund Fitzgerald – 40 Years Later
Edmund Fitzgerald

image courtesy of Sam Perkins-Harbin @ www.3dfitz.com

I was a mere 10yrs old when the Edmond Fitzgerald met its fate and sunk on November 10, 1975 at approximately 7:10 p.m. about 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, at position 47 0’N by 85 7’W in Canadian waters.

I can’t say I remember the tragedy that occurred during my childhood, but today the fate of the 29 crewmen who lost their lives hold a place in my heart. Growing up I recall the popular ballad, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot, as many of us do. Today, in honor of the 29 men, and in memory of this once mighty ship, I say a prayer and share some information about the ship and its crew.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, owned by the Northwestern Mutual Life Co., was at one time the largest ore carrier sailing the Great Lakes, at 729 feet, earning the nicknames “The Mighty Fitz” and “the Titanic of the Great Lakes.”

She set freight records and then broke her own marks, said Bruce Lynn, executive director of the Great Lake Shipwreck Museum. She went down carrying 26,116 tons of taconite pellets, about 17 miles from Whitefish Point, Mich.

There are several theories of how the ship sank, but none of them have been unequivocally confirmed…

The Crew and the Demise of the Ship

The Crew:

  1. Captain Ernest M. McSorley, 63
  2. First Mate John H. McCarthy, 62
  3. Second Mate James A. Pratt, 44
  4. Third Mate Michael E. Armagost, 37
  5. Wheelsman John D. Simmons, 60
  6. Wheelsman Eugene O’Brien, 50
  7. Wheelsman John J. Poviach, 59
  8. Watchman Ransom E. Cundy, 53
  9. Watchman William J. Spengler, 59
  10. Watchman Karl A. Peckol, 55
  11. Chief Engineer George J. Holl, 60
  12. First Assistant Edward E. Bindon, 47
  13. Second Assistant Thomas E. Edwards, 50
  14. Second Assistant Russell G. Haskell, 40
  15. Third Assistant Oliver “Buck” J. Champeau, 41
  16. Oiler Blaine H. Wilhelm, 52
  17. Oiler Ralph G. Walton, 58
  18. Oiler Thomas Bentsen, 23
  19. Wiper Gordon MacLellan, 30
  20. Special Maintenance Man Joseph W. Mazes, 59
  21. AB Maintenance Thomas D. Borgeson, 41
  22. Deck Maintenance Mark A. Thomas, 21
  23. Deck Maintenance Paul M. Riipa, 22
  24. Deck Maintenance Bruce L. Hudson, 22
  25. Steward Robert C. Rafferty, 62
  26. Second Cook Allen G. Kalmon, 43
  27. Porter Frederick J. Beetcher, 56
  28. Porter Nolan F. Church, 55
  29. Cadet David E. Weiss, 22
Edmund Fitzgerald Disaster - Pic

TIMELINE:

1957

February 1

A contract is signed between the Great Lakes Engineering Works (GLEW) and the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. GLEW is to design and build the largest ship on the Great Lakes.

August 7

The keel of the then unnamed Edmund Fitzgerald is laid, hull number 301. This takes place in River Rouge, Michigan.

 

1958

The Northwestern Life Insurance Company releases a statement that they will name the ship for the just-elected board chairman, Edmund Fitzgerald.

June 8

The S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald is christened/launched as the largest freighter on the Great Lakes.

September 13

Testing of the seaworthiness of the Edmund Fitzgerald begins.

September 22

Operation of the ship is left up to Oglebay-Norton.

September 24

The Fitzgerald takes her first voyage under Capt. Bert Lambert through the Soo Locks. As she returns, the ship breaks the record for the largest load carried through the locks.

 

1959

Capt. Larsen is given command of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

 

1966

Command is now assigned to Captain Peter P. Pulcer.

 

1969

September 6

Internal and external damage occurs when the Edmund Fitzgerald hits the ground near the Soo Locks.

 

1970

April 30

The Edmund Fitzgerald and the S.S. Hochelaga collide.

 

September 4

The Edmund Fitzgerald is damaged when it hits a lock wall.

 

1971-1972

During winter maintenance in Duluth, Minnesota, the Fitzgerald is converted from running on coal to running on oil.

 

1972

Command is handed over to Capt. Ernest McSorley.

 

1973

May

Damage is once again caused by hitting a Soo Lock wall.

 

1974

January 7

The ship loses its bow anchor at about one mile to the west of Belle Isle, on the Detroit River.

 

June 17

Damage occurs when the ship hits the Soo Lock wall.

 

1975

9 November

8:30 AM

The Edmund Fitzgerald is loaded with taconite. This occurs at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock Number 1. The ship is supposed to take the cargo to Zug Island on the Detroit River.

 

2:20 PM

The Fitzgerald leaves Lake Superior with 26,116 tons of taconite pellets.

 

2:39 PM

The NWS posts gale warnings. Captain Cooper on the Anderson radios a freighter which he sees behind him.

 

4:15 PM

The Fitzgerald spots the Arthur M. Anderson, some 15 miles behind it.

 

10 November

1:00 AM

Weather report from the Fitzgerald.

The report from the Fitzgerald shows her to be 20 miles south of Isle Royale. Winds at 52 knots, with ten foot waves.

 

7:00 AM

Weather report from the Fitzgerald.

The report gives her position as 45º N of Copper Harbor, with winds at 35 knots, waves of 10 feet. This is the last weather report that the Edmund Fitzgerald will ever make.

 

3:15 PM

Captain Jesse Cooper, (J.C.) of the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson watches the Fitzgerald round Caribou Island as he says to Morgan E. Clark, (M.C.) his first mate:

J.C.: “Look at this, Morgan. That’s the Fitzgerald; he’s in close to that six fathom spot.”

M.C.: “He sure looks like he’s in the shoal area.

J.C.: “He sure does. He’s in too close. He’s closer than I’d want this ship to be.”

 

3:20 PM

Anderson reports winds coming from the Northwest at 43 knots.

 

3:30 PM

Captain McSorley (C.M.) to Captain Cooper (C.C.):

C.M.: “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 til I get to Whitefish?”

C.C.: “Charlie on that Fitzgerald. Do you have your pumps going?”

C.M.: “Yes, both of them

 

4:10 PM

The Fitzgerald radios the Arthur M. Anderson:

 

Fitzgerald: “Anderson, this is the Fitzgerald. I have lost both radars. Can you provide me with radar plots till we reach Whitefish Bay?”

Anderson: “Charlie on that, Fitzgerald. We’ll keep you advised of position.”

 

About 4:39 PM

The Fitzgerald cannot pick up the Whitefish Point radio beacon. The Fitzgerald radios the Coast Guard station at Grand Marais on Channel 16, the emergency channel. The Fitzgerald reestablishes contact on 22.

 

Between 4:30 and 5:00 PM

The Edmund Fitzgerald calls for any vessel in the Whitefish Point area regarding information about the beacon and light at Whitefish Point. They receive an answer by Woodard of the saltwater vessel Avafors. McSorley is informed that the beacon and the light are not operating.

 

Estimated between 5:30 and 6:00 PM

The Avafors radios the Edmund Fitzgerald:

 

Avafors: “Fitzgerald, this is the Avafors. I have the Whitefish light now but still am receiving no beacon. Over.”

Fitzgerald: “I’m very glad to hear it.”

Avafors: “The wind is really howling down here. What are the conditions where you are?”

Fitzgerald: (Unintelligible shouts heard by the Avafors.) “DON’T LET NOBODY ON DECK!”

Avafors: “What’s that, Fitzgerald? Unclear. Over.”

Fitzgerald: “I have a bad list, lost both radars. And am taking heavy seas over the deck. One of the worst seas I’ve ever been in.”

Avafors: “If I’m correct, you have two radars.”

Fitzgerald: “They’re both gone.”

 

Sometime before 7:00 PM

The Anderson is struck by two huge waves that put water on the ship, 35 feet above the water line. The waves hit with enough force to push the starboard lifeboat down, damaging the bottom.

 

7:10 PM

The Fitzgerald is still being followed by the Arthur M. Anderson. They are about 10 miles behind the Fitzgerald. The conversation between McSorley and the first mate of the Anderson:

 

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 1/2 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.”

They never did speak later…The 29 men onboard the Fitzgerald will never again speak with anyone outside of the ship.

 

Sometime between 7:10 and 7:30 PM

It is estimated that this was the time period when the ship vanished and sank.

 

7:15 PM

The Fitzgerald enters a squall while still on Lake Superior; the squall obscures the vessel from radar observation by the Anderson, this is normal when in a squall.

 

7:25 PM

Edmund Fitzgerald disappears from the radar of the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson

 

7:55 PM

The Anderson calls again and informs the Coast Guard that they have lost the Fitzgerald both visually and on radar.

 

9:00 PM

The Coast Guard, with no available search ships, radios the Arthur M. Anderson.

C.G.: “Anderson, this is Group Soo. What is your present position?”

Anderson: “We’re down here, about two miles off Parisienne Island right now… the wind is northwest forty to forty-five miles here in the bay.”

C.G.: “Is it calming down at all, do you think?”

Anderson: “In the bay it is, but I heard a couple of the salties talking up there, and they wish they hadn’t gone out.”

After much more conversation, reluctant to go out, the S.S. Arthur M. Anderson agrees to “give it a try” but claims that that is “all we can do.”

 

10:53 PM

The first aircraft arrives on the scene from Traverse City, Michigan.

 

November 11, 1975

2:00 AM

William Clay Ford arrives at the scene of the wreck.

 

November 11, 1975, morning

A Reverend by the name of Richard Ingalls prays in his church and holds a memorial service for the twenty nine men lost. This service becomes an annual service and is mentioned in the song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.

 

1976

The song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is released by Gordon Lightfoot to the public commemorating the song. This song is still performed to this day at his concerts.

 

May

The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is OFFICIALLY identified.

 

1980

Calypso expedition takes place.

 

1995

The bell of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald is raised, restored, and replaced on the ship by a new bell with the names of the twenty nine men lost. This is the last time the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald will ever again be legally dived upon.

 

Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 Ballad:

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