GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Friday marked 48 years since one of the most famous and deadly Great Lakes shipwrecks: the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
Edmund Fitzgerald was the name of the president of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company. Northwestern had invested in the ship.
In 1958, it cost $8 million to build the freighter, which was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes until 1971. Great Lakes ships are designed to last half a century.
It was carrying a full load — 26,116 tons of taconite pellets from Superior, Wisconsin, to the Detroit area when it went down Nov. 10, 1975, in Lake Superior, 17 miles from Whitefish Point. All 29 crewmen aboard were lost.
You might remember the song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot.
Above is the weather map showing the deep low pressure system centered near Marquette when the wreck happened. It was moving northeast and intensifying. Detroit had a thunderstorm and they were 64 degrees. Muskegon had a 25 knot (29 mph) west wind. Milwaukee and Chicago had west winds at 30 knots (35 mph)
Wind gusts on Lake Superior reached hurricane force (74 mph) and waves were recorded up to 35 feet (11 meters).
The ship sank suddenly about in Canadian waters 530 feet (160 meters) deep, about 17 miles from Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario — a distance the Edmund Fitzgerald could have covered in a little over an hour at her top speed.
The Edmund Fitzgerald had reported being in significant difficulty to the vessel Avafors: “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.”
However, no distress signals were sent before she sank; Captain McSorley’s last (7:10 p.m.) message to the Arthur M. Anderson (another freighter hauling taconite pellets nearby) was, “We are holding our own.”
The Edmund Fitzgerald’s crew perished and no bodies were recovered.
The above image shows the position of the two halves of the ship on the lake bottom.
Speculation is that a large wave lifted up one end of the ship and another wave lifted the other end at the same time. The now-unsupported weight of the middle of the ship caused it to very quickly break in two. Thus, there was no time for a distress call.
Every year on this grim anniversary, the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point holds a service to honor the lives lost on the Edmund Fitzgerald. A bell tolls 29 times for each life lost during the disaster.
Around 240 ships have sunk in the Whitefish Point area since the first recorded sinking in 1816.