by Donald F. Jones
But exactly 39 years ago this weekend
....it was a very different story...
15,000 people had attended her launch in that summer of 1958, but the superstitious among the attendees were troubled. The tradition of christening a ship by breaking a champagne bottle on her bow took three swings, and the launch was further delayed when the shipyard workers couldn't remove the keel blocks. When she finally slid into the waters of the Detroit River, she crashed into a dock on the opposite shore.
On November 8th, 1975, a winter storm was brewing in the Great Plains and moving NE toward the Great Lakes. The next afternoon the National Weather Service issued a gale warning for Lake Superior and that evening upgraded it to a winter storm warning.
The Edmund Fitzgerald had left Superior, Wisconsin on the 9th, loaded with 26,00 tons of taconite. Late that night, with conditions deteriorating rapidly, the captains of the Fitz and the Arthur M Anderson several miles behind her decided to change course to seek the shelter of the Canadian coastline and eventually the protection of Whitefish Bay.
As conditions worsened, screaming winds of hurricane force topped 72 mph / 115 kph and monstrous waves reached as high as the top of the ship...35 ft / 10 m. Captain McSorley radioed that the Fitz "had a bad list, had lost both radars, and was taking heavy seas over the deck" in one of the worst seas he had ever been in. McSorely was a seasoned sailor of the Great Lakes with 44 years of experience. At 7pm, the Anderson had the Fitz on her radar and radioed the Fitz to ask how they were doing, and McSorley responded "We are holding our own." Minutes later the Fitzgerald suddenly and completely disappeared from Anderson's radar.
"According to a legend of the Chippewa tribe, the lake they once called Gitche Gumee 'never gives up her dead.'"
(Great Lakes: The Cruelest Month, James R. Gaines with Jon Lowell in Detroit, ©1975 Newsweek Magazine)
.....Thus began the Newsweek article in the issue of November 24, 1975.
That lead and the news magazine's dry story inspired Gordon Lightfoot to write one of the greatest "story songs" ever.
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they called "Gitche Gumee." The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead when the skies of November turn gloomy. With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty, that good ship and true was a bone to be chewed when the "Gales of November" came early. The ship was the pride of the American side coming back from some mill in Wisconsin. As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most with a crew and good captain well seasoned, concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms when they left fully loaded for Cleveland. And later that night when the ship's bell rang, could it be the north wind they'd been feelin'? The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound and a wave broke over the railing. And ev'ry man knew, as the captain did too 'twas the witch of November come stealin'. The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait when the Gales of November came slashin'. When afternoon came it was freezin' rain in the face of a hurricane west wind. When suppertime came the old cook came on deck sayin'. "Fellas, it's too rough t'feed ya." At seven P.M. a main hatchway caved in; he said, "Fellas, it's bin good t'know ya!" The captain wired in he had water comin' in and the good ship and crew was in peril. And later that night when 'is lights went outta sight came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Does any one know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours? The searchers all say they'd have made Whitefish Bay if they'd put fifteen more miles behind 'er. They might have split up or they might have capsized; they may have broke deep and took water. And all that remains is the faces and the names of the wives and the sons and the daughters. Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings in the rooms of her ice-water mansion. Old Michigan steams like a young man's dreams; the islands and bays are for sportsmen. And farther below Lake Ontario takes in what Lake Erie can send her, And the iron boats go as the mariners all know with the Gales of November remembered. In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed, in the "Maritime Sailors' Cathedral." The church bell chimed 'til it rang twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald. The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down of the big lake they call "Gitche Gumee." "Superior," they said, "never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early." ©1976 by Gordon Lightfoot
Captain McSorley and half of the crew were residents of Ohio, 4 of them from here in the county I live in.
The ship was to be docked for the winter in Cleveland.
They were headed home.