40th Anniversary: ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’

A famous song and some personal thoughts on a Great Lakes tragedy that occurred 40 years ago this week amidst Lake Superior's colossal “Gales of November.”

SS Edmund Fitzgerald, 1971. (Via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, 2015 – Nov. 10 marked the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. We wonder how many younger Americans today even know about this sad chapter in working-class American history, in which 29 crew members perished as their Great Lakes ore-carrier, regarded as one of the industry’s finest vessels, sank beneath the colossal 30+ foot, winter gale-driven waves of Lake Superior.

Map showing approximate location of the Fitzgerald near Whitefish Bay off Michigan's Upper Peninsula but in Canadian waters. (Via Wikipedia)
Map showing approximate location of the Fitzgerald near Whitefish Bay off Michigan’s Upper Peninsula but in Canadian waters (Via Wikipedia)

Loaded with heavy taconite pellets, a partially-refined iron ore, the great ship—or “boat” as they call these vessels on the Lakes—went down as it fought to enter Whitefish Bay, less than 20 miles away from the safer conditions in the bay.

The Great Lakes remain largely navigable through around Thanksgiving or thereabouts, when ice begins to close in, making navigation increasingly difficult to the point where shipping channels are closed for the season. The last voyage of the Fitzgerald took place during this period, but like most ore carriers, was built with some hull flexibility meant to counter bad weather and America’s sometimes surprisingly treacherous inland seas.

But this particular “storm of November” by all accounts approached the violent, cyclonic force of a major hurricane, according to most sources. As titanic winds and waves battered the Fitzgerald, the vessel eventually lost its radar and most of its modern navigation aids. In the last radio transmission ever received from the vessel, its captain simply said, “We are holding our own.”

Shortly thereafter, the Fitz either hit a shallow reef, blew a hatch cover allowing the heavy seas to enter the cargo hold or suffered some unknown related catastrophe. The controversy continues to this day.

Read also: Michigan Museums remember the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

The story of the Fitzgerald has always seemed oddly personal to me. While I never sailed on the Fitz, I worked on Great Lakes ore boats every summer to earn enough tuition to attend Georgetown University here in Washington, D.C., which was something you could actually do back in the day.

Good pay, free uniforms, a free (shared) room, three square meals a day and overtime if you were willing — it was a great way to save for college since your overhead was close to zero unless you happened to be the intemperate sort. Once they got done hassling you (they routinely called me “Perfessor” because of my career aims at the time), they were fun to hang around, and all of us enjoyed swapping stories and lies together when we were off-shift.

Aerial view, the American Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Vessel in lower right is headed upbound into Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior, the location where the Fitzgerald rests. At top of photo is St. Mary's River, which drains into Lake Huron. (Via Wikipedia)
Aerial view, the American Soo Locks, Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. Vessel in lower right is headed upbound into Whitefish Bay, Lake Superior, where the Fitzgerald rests. At top of photo is St. Mary’s River, which drains into Lake Huron. (Via Wikipedia)

When making passage from one great lake to another, the ore boats (as well as oceangoing vessels that entered and exited via the St. Lawrence Seaway) frequently passed each other in the Detroit or St. Mary’s rivers. Plenty of guys knew the guys on other ships and would wave and yell colorful obscenities over to their pals as the boats went by each other, often quite close.

I recall passing the Fitz on numerous occasions like this, after which my guys would mutter, with some earnestness, “Those lucky bastards. That’s the best boat and the best job on the Lakes.” The last time I sailed on the Lakes was the year 1972. On those occasions when my crewmates waved at and quietly cussed out their fortunate friends, little could any of us have known what would befall those “lucky bastards” just three years hence.

Like West Virginia mines disasters and the like, after an initial mention of an event like the Fitzgerald’s sinking, the media has traditionally cared little to follow such stories to their conclusion. After all, those who perish in these tragedies are just anonymous working stiffs who don’t matter much to the much more important people in New York, Washington or Tinseltown.

But, like those West Virginia miners that President Obama is currently putting out of work to keep his radical environmentalist supporters happy, the Fitzgerald’s crew was composed of hard-working men with families to support and, in many cases, steep mortgages to feed as well.

These were the kind of everyday guys who have made and still try to make this country the great place that it is or was, even though so many Americans today have no clue what really goes into products, like automobiles, that they routinely purchase and enjoy. Few, if any, of these nameless Americans are Rhodes Scholars. But they haul commodities, make useful things out of raw materials and generally get stuff done − often stuff nobody else wants to do because it’s too hard. Who these days does anything like this in Washington, D.C.?

Gordon Lightfoot performing at Interlochen, 2009. (Via Wikipedia)
Gordon Lightfoot performing at Interlochen, 2009 (Via Wikipedia)

The Fitzgerald’s flyover country crew would have vanished into the memory hole as quickly as their vessel had entombed them at the bottom of Lake Superior had it not been for Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who was suddenly and profoundly moved by the tragedy that occurred in the waters of a lake both countries and their sailors have long shared.

In a PJ Media column by Rich Moran, dated Nov. 10 − the  anniversary of the Fitzgerald tragedy − Rick Moran, his brother, a folk musician himself, vividly remembers the song’s debut and salutes Lightfoot, the Canadian songster who unexpectedly immortalized the Fitzgerald’s crew by penning his signature mournful ballad that emerged out of nowhere to become an enduring folk music hit:

Gordon Lightfoot had already scored four ‘Billboard Magazine’ top ten single records including a #1, ‘Sundown’ in 1974, and no Canadian singer prior to GL had ever had such a run. Lightfoot had been disturbed by both the relative indifference of the U.S. press to the disaster and by the inaccuracies in some of the reporting (most famously, ‘Newsweek’ misspelling the vessel’s name), and though he hesitated to record this song for fear that he would be accused of commercializing the deaths of more than two dozen people for personal profit (accusations which did in fact surface aggressively and nearly immediately, scarcely allayed by his very public contribution of all the proceeds from the composition in perpetuity to the widows and children of the crew), he included the song on his ‘Summertime Dream’ album on Reprise Records. The single record reached the #2 spot on Billboard, no mean feat for a folk-rock-ish number in a market about to be awash in BeeGee’s-styled disco tunes.

And thanks to that haunting, ethereal, and superbly-crafted track, today four decades later…everyone remembers the ‘Edmund Fitzgerald’ and her crew.

Indeed they do. Here’s a YouTube video of that haunting song backed by those mournful, wailing, signature guitars. The image of the Fitz in the video is static. But Lightfoot’s haunting lyrics roll up the screen, simple but powerfully evocative, as his mournful ballad rolls on like Superior’s waves.

Musically, I’ve always been a classical and opera guy. But musical genius tends to ignore arbitrary boundaries −  boundaries Lightfoot artfully transcends. The constant, mournful droning of Lightfoot’s musical setting and his song’s simple, factual, Hemingway-like lyrics, with their allusions to Longfellow poetry and American and Canadian Indian legends, tell you all you need to know as they draw you right in to this American tragedy.

What the "gales of November" on Lake Superior can look like. (Via Pinterest)
What the “gales of November” on Lake Superior can look like (Via Pinterest, courtesy (c) Layne Kennedy)

To this day, I still choke up a bit when I hear this tune on the radio or somewhere in background. Maybe it’s one of those things where you had to be there, where you had to be a Great Lakes sailor yourself.

When I’m up in Cleveland, where I was born and happen to show the occasional visitor the shores of Lake Erie for the first time, they are stunned as they stare into the vast distance and see no sign of land on the horizon. These huge bodies of fresh water are collectively known as “Great Lakes” for a reason: They are America’s inland seas, and each of them can be as treacherous and daunting as the stormy Atlantic for the intrepid captains and crews who sail them to make a living.

Gordon Lightfoot knows their story.

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