The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

by John Delach

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee

The lake it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy

Gordon Lightfoot: “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”. 

At 7:20 on the evening of November 10, 1975, The Laker, Arthur M. Anderson lost the radar profile of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Big Fitz had disappeared beneath those waves generated by the hurricane like storm that enraged Lake Superior. Nineteen-minutes later, Captain Bernie Cooper, the Anderson’s skipper contacted the Coast Guard on Channel 16, the emergency distress frequency. The operator treated his call as non-essential and asked him to call back on Channel 12 to keep Channel 16 free for distress calls.

Cooper couldn’t contact the Coast Guard again on Channel 12 until fifteen minutes later at 7:54 pm. In the meantime, Cooper was able to contact an ocean-going ship, Nanfri, whose captain confirmed that Big Fritz had also disappeared from their radar.

True, the Coast Guard was slow to respond, but the storm had crippled the USCG Station, taking out masts, communications and radar at the same time that they were inundated with distress calls. It wasn’t until 10:30 that the USCG accepted the ugly truth that the largest boat in history of sinkings on the Great Lakes had been lost.

The Coast Guard requested that all commercial vessels in or near Whitefish Bay commence a search for the Big Fitz or any survivors. They also dispatched a helicopter and a fixed wing aircraft. Once daylight returned, all the searchers found were lifeboats, rafts and other debris that belonged to the Big Fitz.

It wasn’t until November 14th, that a US Navy aircraft equipped with a scanner designed to detect magnetic anomalies located the wreck about seventeen miles from the entrance to Whitefish Bay. The wreck was resting in 530 feet of water.

The following spring, the Navy surveyed the wreck of the Big Fitz using an unmanned submersible. Between May 20 and May28, The CURV III found the ship’s remains lying in two pieces. The ship had split almost in half. The forward section starting at the bow measured 276 feet in length and rested upright, while the 253-foot stern section bottomed at a 50-degree angle.

The evidence suggests strongly that the Big Fitz split in half. But why? All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t give a definite cause of loss. All we have is hypotheses as to why The Big Fitz was lost with all hands.

They might of split up or they might have capsized

They might 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.

Mariners Church in Detroit

 In a musty old hall in Detroit, they prayed in the maritime sailors’ cathedral. The church bells chimed twenty-nine times for each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The original wooden church was built in 1841 on land bequeathed to the Anglican Church of North America  to serve the spiritual needs of Great Lakes mariners. The completion of the Erie Canal transformed how goods and passengers could travel between the mid-west and New York City and the entire Northeast. The current edifice, a Gothic Revival stone church, replaced the original structure in 1849.

The church was a stop on the Underground Railroad assisting fugitive slaves to cross the border into Canada and freedom.

In 1955, the church was saved from being demolished by George Stark, a reporter with the Detroit News who led a crusade to raise enough funds to move the church 880 feet away from its site condemned for an urban renewal project.

The story of these men and their ship may have slipped into history had not Gordon Lightfoot memorialized them in his haunting ballad. The Mariners’ Church has an annual service to recall the 30,000 men and women lost across the Great Lakes. It is not a coincidence that this service is held on the Sunday in November closest to the 10th.

In 2020, the 45th Anniversary of the sinking, Reverend Jeffrey M Hubbard, the church rector noted: “It’s stuck in the memories of folks in Michigan, and the Great Lakes. (They) are so integrally connected to our area. Hearing the story of the brave men who lost their lives resonates with the people.”

Near the end of the service, a performer sang a rendition of The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

The Last Watch ceremony followed and the Steeple’s bell chimed thirty times, twenty-nine for each of the crew who lost their lives to Superior’s gales of November and one for the Edmund Fitzgerald.

My interpretation.