What Was the Edmund Fitzgerald?
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was a Great Lakes Freighter that tragically sank into Lake Superior, near Whitefish Point, on November 10, 1975, carrying 29 crew men to their death after encountering a freak storm.
TThe Edmund Fitzgerald is the largest ship to have ever sunk in North America’s Great Lakes, and her sinking remains a mystery to this day.
Her sinking sent shockwaves: once the largest ship on the Great Lakes, this massive freighter was known as a workhorse on the lakes, thought to be well-built and quite luxurious on the inside as well. The stunning loss of the hard-working crew was felt around the world, and Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot was compelled to immortalize her in the famous song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
We’re put together a guide to this infamous tragedy, including a timeline of the event and an exploration of theories as to what caused her to sink. We’ve included a complete list of the names of the crewmen lost, and other important information to help you understand the facts and myths around the wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.
Why Was the Edmund Fitzgerald Famous?
Prior to sinking, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was well-recognized in shipping for two main reasons:
- She was built by the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Milwaukee, the first American life insurer to own a freighter, and
- Her size. When she was built in 1958, she was the longest ship on the Great Lakes. In fact, at 729-feet, she was the first laker built to the maximum St. Lawrence Seaway size (730 feet).
The “Mighty Fitz” carried taconite pellets (iron ore) from Duluth Minnesota to Detroit, Michigan, joining many other ships transporting goods across Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
The Great Lakes are no stranger to shipwrecks, but the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the massive waves she encountered on her journey in hurricane-like weather are legendary.
Read on to learn more about the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Artist James Clary and the Edmund Fitzgerald
We’re sharing some fabulous images by Michigan artist James Clary (1939 – 2018), one of the country’s most prolific marine artists in this guide. Captain Jim’s dedication to history, exhaustive research on the Edmund Fitzgerald and more endures in his original paintings, lithographs, pen and ink illustrations and books. You can find them at Cap’n Jim’s Gallery in St. Clair, MI.
The Wreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald
A storm brews over Lake Superior and the waves become wicked, rolling and heaving with crests well over twenty feet high.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald rocks with the churning waters of the Mighty Superior, followed behind by the SS Arthur M. Anderson as they make their way through one of the toughest bodies of water in the states. They’re pushed and pulled across the lake’s surface, fighting against near hurricane-force winds to make it through Whitefish Bay to the safety of the shore.
Both ships manned by well-seasoned captains and capable crews were no strangers to the power and ferocity of Lake Superior and paid the respect she demanded from any mariners that traversed her waters
Still, no amount of experience and respect for the lake could save the Edmund Fitzgerald from her tragic fate in that infamous storm. This is the story of one of northern Michigan’s greatest tragedies, the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: The Titanic of the Great Lakes.
The History of the Edmund Fitzgerald Sinking
The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company commissioned the building of the Edmund Fitzgerald and named her after the president of the company, though she quickly earned the nickname “The Fitz.”
Northwestern Mutual often purchased ships for operation by other companies and the Edmund Fitzgerald became the flagship of the Oglebay Norton Columbia Transportation fleet.
Because of her remarkable size, the Edmund Fitzgerald was nicknamed “The Queen of the Lakes” and was a favorite for port town sightseers and tourists at the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
At the time of her construction in 1958 the Edmund Fitzgerald was the largest ship to sail the Great Lakes with a length of 729’. Today, she is the largest ship to have ever sunk in the Great Lakes.
Timeline of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald: The SS Edmund Fitzgerald Final Voyage
November 9 – 2:15 PM
At 2:15 PM on the afternoon of November 9th, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald embarked for the last time from Superior Wisconsin en route to a steel mill on Zug Island near Detroit. For this voyage “The Fitz” was under the capable command of Captain Earnest M. McSorley, who led a crew of 28 other experienced mariners.
Meanwhile, a storm front formed over the Great Lakes region, heading northeast, but was expected to pass below the upper peninsula. This meant the forecast called for clear skies over Superior for the Edmund Fitzgerald.
November 9 – 5:00 PM
A few hours into the voyage, the Edmund Fitzgerald was joined by another ship traversing Lake Superior with sights set for Gary, Indiana. This ship was the SS Arthur M. Anderson, commanded by Captain Jesse B. “Bernie” Cooper. Together, The Anderson and Fitzgerald would brave the icy waters of Lake Superior, partnering against her unpredictable and ruthless waves.
The Edmund Fitzgerald: November 10, Tragic Day
November 10 – 2:00 AM
As midnight passed, resetting the clock, the National Weather Service warned about updates to the storm system flourishing over the Great Lakes. Wind speeds were now being forecasted at 35-50 knots (40-58 mph), prompting the ships to switch positions. In the next hour, the Fitzgerald pulled ahead of the Anderson and courageously took the lead in the face of inclimate weather warnings.
November 10 – 1:50 PM
As the afternoon approached, the storm’s course diverted, foregoing its path below the UP and instead careening up into Lake Superior. The Arthur M. Anderson logged wind speeds of 50 knots (58 mph) at 1:50 PM, and within an hour, a flurry of snowfall reduced visibility drastically, causing the Anderson to lose sight of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was about 16 miles ahead.
November 10 – 3:30 PM
Following the blinding snowfall, Captain McSorley radioed Captain Cooper aboard the Arthur M. Anderson and reported that the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was taking heavy damage in the severe weather. Captain McSorley reported that the ship was taking on water in the cargo hold and had developed a starboard list, or a tilt to the ship’s right side.
Additionally, she had lost two vent covers and a fence railing. McSorley intended to slow down to allow the Anderson to close the gap between them. Shortly after, the United States Coast Guard warned all Great Lakes shipping that the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie had been closed and that all vessels should seek safety and drop anchor.
November 10 – 4:10 PM
The Anderson received further contact from the Fitzgerald. This time, McSorley had reported that radar aboard his vessel had failed. He requested that Captain Cooper use the Anderson’s radar to keep track of their position. In order to receive this radar guidance, the Edmund Fitzgerald would need to be slowed to let the Anderson get within a 10-mile range, all while effectively blind due to weather.
This worked for a time, until about 4:39, when it was revealed to the captains that the Whitefish Point Lighthouse and navigation beacon were not operational, meaning they lost both radars, leaving the pair of ships with a severe lack of guidance in an already dire situation.
November 10 – 7:10 PM
As the winds peaked, sustaining speeds of over 58 knots (67 mph), as recorded by the SS Arthur M. Anderson, the waves on superior churned, swelled, and spat, with crests surpassing 25 feet, and rogue waves as high as 35 feet.
As the storm peaked over Lake Superior, rocking these massive freighters with intense, rolling waves, the Arthur M. Anderson radioed the Edmund Fitzgerald to ask how she was doing. In response, Captain McSorley reported, “We are holding our own.”
Last Communication of the Edmund Fitzgerald
That was the last anyone heard from the Edmund Fitzgerald. No one received any distress signal nor any update on damages. In ten minutes, the Anderson lost them in the storm.
Not long after, the Anderson returned to the heavy seas in search of the Mighty Fitz to no avail, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. Today, the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck rests in Canadian waters at the bottom of Lake Superior.
What Caused the Edmund Fitzgerald to Sink?
There are a few theories by the National Transportation Safety Board, the US Coast Guard, and others that seek to answer the question of how exactly the Fitzgerald sank.
Although the NTSB investigated why the Edmund FItzgerald sand and broke apart, with so many contributing factors leading to difficulties that night, we may never know exactly what occurred. However, with no distress call and the speed at which the Anderson lost touch with the Fitzgerald, the cause of the wreck would have to be something sudden with little time given to react.
Did Waves and Weather Lead to the Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
As recorded by the Anderson, the wind and waves on November 10, 1975 were extreme. In 2005, NOAA and the NWS ran a simulation to replicate the conditions of the Fitzgerald’s wreck. They found that in the southeastern part of Lake Superior where “The Fitz” sunk, the wind was at its strongest measuring at 70mph with 86 mph gusts – equating to nearly hurricane forces. These high winds produced massive waves of up to 36 feet, causing the Fitzgerald to roll significantly.
This hypothesis is the Occam’s Razor of Fitzgerald wreck theories, suggesting that the simplest answer is the correct one: the Fitzgerald simply couldn’t handle the extreme conditions and succumbed to the tumultuous and stormy Lake Superior.
Did Shoaling Cause the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?
The shoaling hypothesis suggests that the most probable cause of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s wreckage was her shoaling or grounding in the Six Fathom Shoal northwest of Caribou Island when the crew was unable to use the Whitefish Point Light as a navigational aid. Alternatively, she may have collided with Superior Shoal, a hazard like a mountain beneath the lake causing great danger for ships on Lake Superior.
This hypothesis is often met with skepticism and evidence to the contrary, however, proponents of this theory believe strongly that a shoaling event would have been able to damage the Fitzgerald’s hull significantly until it bottomed out from the middle, tearing the boat into two.
Was a Rogue Wave the Reason that the Edmund Fitzgerald Sank?
The rogue wave hypothesis suggests that rogue waves specifically were what caused the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
Because of the already racing wind speeds generating gargantuan waves, rogue waves had massive potential to be devastating to a ship. Wave heights were measured with an average height at around 20 feet, meaning a rogue wave could nearly double that, easily exceeding 30 feet.
In this theory, the belief is that a rogue wave, or perhaps multiple rogue waves, pushed the Fitzgerald’s bow below the surface. Because the ship’s length exceeded the depth of the waters she was found in, the belief is that the force of the rogue wave slammed the bow of the ship into the lakebottom, leaving the stern above the surface to be torn apart by raging waves.
This hypothesis is widely considered to be the best explanation since it seemingly explains how conditions played a role as well as how the ship split into two pieces. Additionally, this version of the wreck would have happened so suddenly that the lack of distress call makes sense, given how little time the crew would have had to react.
Memorials for the SS Edmund Fitzgerald
Since the SS Edmund Fitzgerald isn’t the most accessible shipwreck, you may wonder where or how you can connect with this vital piece of Great Lakes maritime history.
Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial at Whitefish Point
At Whitefish Point on Lake Superior, a memorial honoring the SS Edmund Fitzgerald stands against the shore; a pillar with a single maple leaf on top. “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” inscribed on the stone column, with a depiction of the ship braving the storm over a church surrounded by 29 bells – one for every man who lost his life that fateful night.
Where to Find Pieces of he Edmund Fitzgerald Ashore
Bits and pieces of the Edmund Fitzgerald have been salvaged and displayed as memorials to the wreckage after research and retrieval excursions.
One of these pieces can be found at the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum in Paradise, MI on Whitefish Point. This museum is home to the bell found aboard the Fitzgerald, inscribed with her name. The bell recovery occurred on July 4, 1995 and a replica engraved with the names of the sailors replaced the original on the ship.
Another piece of the Edmund Fitzgerald can be found on Belle Isle in Detroit. An anchor from an earlier voyage was lifted from the Detroit River and placed in the care of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum. This museum also hosts a Lost Mariners Remembrance each year on November 10.
The Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial Ceremony
The day after the wreck, the Mariners Church in Detroit rang its bell 29 times for each life aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald; the tradition has been carried in northern Michigan.
The Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society (GLSHS) holds a memorial ceremony at its Whitefish Point museum each year on the anniversary of the wreckage. The bell from the ship is at this location and on November 10th it is rung 29 times to honor each man who died in the wreck.
A 30th chime rings out dedicated to the 30,000 who have lost their lives on the Great Lakes. At this ceremony surviving family members may participate to pay respect to their deceased loved ones.
Gordon Lightfoot: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” immortalized the wreckage in such a way that it became a folk legend of the Great Lakes region. Anyone who’s heard the haunting lyrics understands just how daunting a trip across the Great Lakes can be, especially Lake Superior.
In his song, Lightfoot tells the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck, from her strength and size to her experienced crew, and how Lake Superior swallowed her up, taking the crew with her. Solidifying the wreckage’s place in Michigan lore and passing down the legend of the big lake the Chippewa called Gitche Gumee.
Gordon Lightfoots song is a tribute to those who lost their lives aboard the Edmund Fitzgerald and the Great Lakes vessels that brave the seas daily.
Remembering Edmund Fitzgerald Crew
- Ernest McSorley — Captain born in 1912.
- John McCarthy — First mate born in 1913.
- James Pratt — Second mate born in 1931.
- Michael Armagost — Third mate born in 1938.
- David Weiss — Cadet born in 1953.
- Ransom Cundy — Watchman born in 1922.
- Karl Peckol — Watchman born in 1955.
- William Spengler — Watchman born in 1916.
- John Simmons — Senior wheelman born in 1913.
- Eugene O’Brien — Wheelman born in 1925.
- John Poviach — Wheelman born in 1916.
- Paul Riippa — Deckhand born in 1953.
- Mark Thomas — Deckhand born in 1954.
- Bruce Hudson — Deckhand born in 1953.
- George Holl — Chief engineer born in 1915.
- Edward Bindon — First assistant engineer born in 1928.
- Thomas Edwards — Second assistant engineer born in 1925.
- Russell Haskell — Second assistant engineer born in 1935.
- Oliver Champeau — Third assistant engineer born in 1934.
- Ralph Walton — Oiler born in 1917.
- Blaine Wilhelm — Oiler born in 1923.
- Thomas Bentsen — Oiler born in 1952.
- Gordon MacLellan — Wiper born in 1945.
- Robert Rafferty — Steward born in 1913.
- Allen Kalmon — Second steward born in 1932.
- Joseph Mazes — Special maintenance man born in 1916.
- Thomas Borgeson — Maintenance man born in 1934.
- Frederick Beetcher — Porter born in 1919.
- Nolan Church — Porter born in 1920.
More about the Edmund Fitzgerald Shipwreck
You can learn more about the SS Edmund Fitzgerald online here:
Frequently Asked Questions About the SS Edmund Fitzgerald
The sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, a tragic marine accident that claimed 29 lives took place on November 10, 1975.
The Edmund Fitzgerald was lost with her entire crew of 29 men on Lake Superior November 10, 1975, 17 miles north-northwest of Whitefish Point, Michigan, according to the Shipwreck Museum.
Underwater surveys indicate that Edmund Fitzgerald rests at 560 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. With depths of up to 1,332 feet, Lake Superior is the deepest of the five Great Lakes.
No, you cannot dive to the Edmund Fitzgerald. A regulation under the Ontario Heritage Act limits access to the shipwreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior, and it is very difficult to obtain a license or permit to dive the Edmund Fitzgerald. There is a very large fine for diving it without a license.
According to reports from the SS Arthur M Anderson, weather conditions on November 9, when the Fitzgerald sank, included gusts reported by the Anderson of 70 to 75 mph, and waves of 18 to 25 feet. They were some of the worst seas ever recorded.
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About the Author –
Bella DiMascio is a Content Editor with mymichiganbeach.com. She grew up in the Detroit suburb of Westland and later attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where she majored in Communication Studies and minored in English: Writing. Creative writing has been a hobby and interest of Bella’s since she was in elementary school and she is thrilled to be using her talents to highlight the Great Lakes State. Outside of writing, Bella enjoys getting outside with her two Australian Shepherds, playing video games, and binging shows on Netflix.