The Edmund Fitzgerald – A Superior Mystery

By | Nov 9, 2008

On November 9, 1975 under Captain Ernest M. McSorley the SS Edmund Fitzgerald left Superior Wisconsin en route to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan. The ship was loaded with a cargo of 26,116 tons of taconite pellets. They were crossing Lake Superior at about 13 knots with the freighter Arthur M. Anderson, following behind when they encountered a winter storm with winds in excess of 50 knots (90 km/h) and waves as high as 35 feet. On the afternoon of November 10 the Fitzgerald reported to the Anderson that a minor list was developing along with some top-side damage. The Anderson discovered rogue waves heading in the direction of the Fitzgerald and notified them. That was the last communications from the Edmund Fitzgerald before it suddenly sank. None of the crew of 29 survived. The sinking of the Fitzgerald was very rapid and it is likely they did not know the seriousness of their condition. After the wreck a severely damaged life boat was found, and only part of the second. It would appear that no attempts were made to leave the ship and no distress signals were ever sent.

The ship SS Edmund Fitzgerald was christened and launched on June 8, 1958. The vessel had a capacity of 26,600 tons. She was built by the Great Lakes Engineering Works (GLEW), for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee and named for their President and Chairman of the Board, Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Edmund Fitzgerald is not alone on the bottom of the Great Lakes. Nearly 6,000 shipwrecks have occurred since 1878. Fewer than half have been discovered with some of the boats and crews simply vanishing in storms.

The Edmund Fitzgerald lies on the bottom of Lake Superior in 530 feet of water, 17 miles from Whitefish Point. The vessel is in two huge sections on the lake’s floor, the metal torn and twisted from the force of the impact.

There are three theories on why she sank although there has never been a definitive report on the cause. One, a Coast Guard report suggesting that the hatches had not been closed properly, has been rejected by most. Another speculation is that the hull scraped bottom over shoals whose depth was misreported on navigational charts at the time. Others believe that towering rolling waves caused it to break in two.

At the request of the family members surviving the Fitzgerald’s crew, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society recovered the ship’s 200 lb. bronze bell on July 4, 1995. A memorial bell was sent to the wreck to take its place. The bell is now on display in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum as a memorial to her lost crew.


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