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Long-lost Great Lakes freighter remembered

July 2018

The Great Lakes have been a major shipping route across the northern United States and southern Canada since the first fir traders came to North America.  The biggest of the lakes is Lake Superior, a lake that can turn violent when the weather turns bad.

On 10 November 1975, the American Great Lakes freighter SS Edmund Fitzgerald vanished in a violent storm while on its final run of the season from Superior, Wisconsin, near Duluth, enroute to the steel mill on Zug Island, near Detroit, Michigan, carrying a full cargo of iron ore pellets.  Her last known position was about 15 nautical miles west of Whitefish Bay, near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.

The Edmund Fitzgerald, launched on 7 June 1958, was named after the President and Chairman of the Board of her owner, the Northwest Mutual Life Insurance Company.  She was a record-setting workhorse, often beating her own shipping records, with very luxurious cabins for a lake freighter that featured deep pile carpeting, tiled bathrooms, air conditioning throughout and two staterooms for guest passengers.

The storm on that November day was one of the worst seen in years on Lake Superior, with near hurricane-force winds and waves reported up to 35 feet high.

A search was immediately launched by the U.S Coast Guard, along with several other ships including the SS William Clay Ford and the SS Arthur M. Anderson, a freighter that had been sailing in tandem with the Fitzgerald.  The two ships maintained constant radio contact due to the Fitzgerald losing their radars, with the Anderson attempted to guide the Fitzgerald from 10 miles to her stern.

It was the Anderson’s Captain, Jesse B. “Bernie” Cooper, who received the Fitzgerald’s last radio transmission from Captain Ernest M. McSorley shortly after 7pm:  “We’re holding our own.”

Ten Minutes later, the Edmund Fitzgerald disappeared from the Anderson’s radar.  No distress signal was received by any ships or shore stations and efforts to raise the Fitzgerald on radio failed.

Aircraft from the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards and the U.S. Navy searched the area for the next three days, finding only found scattered debris, including lifeboats, flotation rings and rafts.  No survivors were found.

A U.S. Navy Lockheed P-3 Orion aircraft, equipped with sonar equipment, located an underwater wreck three days later on 14 November, approximately 15 nautical miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay.

A dive by the U.S. Navy in May 1976 found that the Edmund Fitzgerald, broken into two pieces in 530 feet of water.

To honour the Fitzgerald’s crew, the Mariners’ Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times (once for each man lost), a practice the church continued to do during an annual memorial ceremony, along with a reading of the names, until 2006, when the church expanded the ceremony to commemorate the loss of all mariners lost on the Great Lakes.

Most of the crew were from Ohio and Wisconsin and ranged in age from 20 year old watch-keeper Karl Peckol to 63 year old Canadian-born, American resident Captain McSorley, who was preparing to retire at the end of the shipping season.

The exact cause of the sinking remains unknown to this day, though many theories have emerged from various investigations.

The Fitzgerald may have been swamped by a rogue wave, given that Captain Cooper of Anderson reported that his ship was hit by two 30 to 35 foot waves, going over the aft cabins and the bridge deck, possibly followed by a third, all of which continued eastbound and would have struck the Fitzgerald around the time she sank.

She may have been weighed down by improperly fastened hatch covers that allowed water to flood the cargo holds, further aggravated by a lack of watertight bulkheads.

She may have run aground on an uncharted shoal near Six Fathom Shoal (shoaling), causing structural damage that allowed the strong waves to buckle the ship or that she may have suffered structural damage previous to the final voyage.  However, divers searching the Six Fathom Shoal found no evidence of a collision and a 1994 diving expedition led by sport diver Fred Shannon similarly revealed no evidence of damage to the stern, propeller or the rudder consistent with a collision with a shoal.

Shannon’s group also found the remains of a crew member remains on the sea bed near the ship wearing a life jacket, which could indicate he was concerned about the ship sinking.

Yet another theory was that damage may have occurred topside, possibly by a heavy object floating in the lake that may have struck the fence rail and vents causing flooding of ballast tanks or a walking tunnel.  This may have been the cause of the list reported by Captain McSorley to Captain Cooper on the Anderson shortly after 3:30 pm, when he advised that the Fitzgerald was taking had lost two vent covers and a fence railing, causing it to take on water and develop a list.

The original 1977 U.S. Coast Guard Marine Casualty Report blamed complacency and ineffective hatch closures that allowed water to flood the cargo holds, a finding that was widely disputed by veteran Great Lakes mariners.

In the wake of the disaster, Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot wrote his 1976 hit song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” in honour of the ship and her lost crew.  Lightfoot took certain artistic liberties, including replacing the final destination from Detroit to Cleveland and making a reference to the “main hatchways gave in,” a lyric that Lightfoot has since changed when performing the song in consideration to the surviving families after it became evident that it may not have been the cause of the sinking.

Twenty years after she sank, Canadian explorer Joseph B. MacInnis and his team undertook a dive to the wreck to salvage the Fitzgerald’s bell, replacing it on the deck with a replica bell containing the names of her lost crew.  The divers also left a beer can in the wheelhouse.

A special ceremony was held on 7 July 1995 at Whitefish Point in Paradise, Michigan, in the presence of surviving family members of the crew to acknowledge the resurrection of the bell, which was rung 29 times for the first time since the sinking in honour of the lost crew.

The bell was rung a thirtieth time to honour all sailors lost on the Great Lakes.

The Fitzgerald’s bell was restored and now resides in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society Museum at Whitefish Point, along with a flotation ring and assorted items from one of the life-rafts.

A granite monument adorned with a bronze maple leaf on the top and a plaque with a picture of the Fitzgerald and the names of the crew sit near the museum building, just off the beach at Whitefish Point.

The ship’s original bow anchor, which was lost in the Detroit River in 1974, was recovered in July 1992 and is now on display outside the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Ile in Detroit, Michigan.

The shattered remains of Edmund Fitzgerald’s lifeboat No. 2 is on display at the S.S. Valley Camp museum ship in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

“As we remember the men; as we hear the bell toll, we should grieve; but we should also not forget to celebrate their lives as well.  As the bell is in their hearts, so they are in the bell; and in the bell’s tone are the voices of the men and we should listen.”

— Donald J. Donarski, Jr., Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, 7 July 1995

Let the bell toll 29 times for each member of the Edmund Fitzgerald lost that terrible November day:

Ernest M. McSorley, Master

John H. McCarthy, First Mate

James A. Pratt, Second Mate

Michael E. Armagost, Third Mate

George J. Holl, Chief Engineer

Edward F. Bindon, First Assistant Engineer

Thomas E. Edwards, Second Assistant Engineer

Russell G. Haskell, Second Assistant Engineer

Oliver J. “Buck” Champeau, Third Assistant Engineer

Frederick J. Beetcher, Porter

Thomas Bentsen, Oiler

Thomas D. Borgeson, Able-Bodied Maintenance Man

Nolan F. Church, Porter

Ransom E. Cundy, Watchman

Bruce L. Hudson Deckhand

Allan G. Kalmon, Second Cook

Gordon F. MacLellan, Wiper

Joseph W. Mazes, Special Maintenance Man

Eugene W. O’Brien, Wheelsman

Karl A. Peckol, Watchman

John J. Poviach, Wheelsman

Robert C. Rafferty, Temporary Steward (First Class)

Paul M. Riippa, Deckhand

John D. Simmons, Wheelsman

William J. Spengler, Watchman

Mark A. Thomas, Deckhand

Ralph G. Walton, Oiler

David E. Weiss, Cadet Deckhand

Blaine H. Wilhelm, Oiler

An excellent documentary, which also chronicles the recovery of the ship’s bell.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/long-lost-great-lakes-freighter-remembered/

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